A recap of the year in wine — and a look at 2008
Special to the Seattle Times
Pick of the weekThree Thieves Bandit 2006 Chardonnay; $9/liter. The most important trend in the wine industry in 2007 was the movement, by more and more wineries, to environmentally friendly practices. From organic farming to recyclable packaging, wineries are trying to minimize their use of chemicals, balance their carbon footprint and explore new eco-friendly solutions to winemaking. You may know Three Thieves for its fun wines sold in one-liter glass jugs. For 2008, they are stepping up with wines in one-liter cartons. Less weight, less waste. California chardonnay (the best), pinot grigio, merlot and cabernet sauvignon are all being offered in the colorful packages, which are resealable and easy to store. (Distributed by Young's-Columbia)
Wrapping up the year, some highlights, changes and memories ...
I set out in January to focus this column's attention more regionally on wine, emphasizing place over grape or producer because place, often referred to as terroir, is the defining element in all great — and most good — wine. With that in mind, there have been columns devoted to Greek wines, wines from emerging regions in Spain and France's southwest, from Italy's northeast, New Zealand and western Australia. Emerging grapes have had their time in the spotlight also, with columns on malbec, grüner veltliner and the new dynamic duo, riesling and pinot noir.
My most memorable discoveries have been made right here in the Pacific Northwest. Washington vintners are entering a brilliant period of innovation and exploration, while Oregon is finding life beyond pinot noir as southern and eastern Oregon vineyards define themselves with grapes such as tempranillo, syrah and the Bordeaux reds.
Second-generation winemakers — Paul Golitzin (Quilceda Creek), Chris Figgins (Leonetti Cellar), John Bookwalter (J. Bookwalter), Kristina Mielke van Loben Sels (Arbor Crest), Adam Campbell (Elk Cove), Luisa Ponzi (Ponzi Vineyards) and others — are making wines that surpass the legacies they were handed.
In September I visited British Columbia, enjoying a whirlwind exploration of wines whose flavors perfectly bookend those from Oregon and Washington. Is B.C. the world's best least-known wine region? I believe it may well be.
Dark and smoky syrahs, earthy Bordeaux blends, silky pinot noirs, racy rieslings and crystalline pinot blancs are among the highlights. Though few of these wines cross the border, they are well worth a trip north, whether to tour the Okanagan wine country or to sip in the chic restaurants of Vancouver and Whistler.
In past years this column has covered trends such as alternative packaging for wines (boxes, cartons and cans), alternative closures for wines (screwcaps, bottle caps and glass) and unoaked or unwooded wines. What's on the radar for 2008?
The federal government's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) is moving ever-closer to requiring more stringent warning labels — specifically ingredient labeling — on wine bottles. The proposed regulations would require that wineries "declare the presence of milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, wheat, peanuts and soybeans, as well as ingredients that contain protein derived from these foods, on a product label."
Fish, you wonder? Yes, derivatives of fish and other so-called "ingredients" on the TTB list are occasionally used to fine (clarify) wines. Fish gelatin and isinglass (another fish-based fining agent) pose a particularly thorny problem for the TTB, which has devoted a considerable amount of time to deciding whether the particular species of fish needs to be called out on the wine label!
The TTB has also proposed adding nutritional value information and serving-size facts to label requirements. Here again, wineries and ultimately consumers would bear the costs of chemical analysis for each wine in each vintage, as well as designing and having approved custom labels for each.
If all this becomes required (it's currently optional), stopping by the grocery store to pick a wine for dinner will turn into a chemistry class, with laundry lists of ingredients on every bottle. If you want to review all of the details for yourself, check out www.ttb.gov/faqs/allergen.shtml.
In other news, the wine industry is taking the lead and making great progress in reducing or eliminating the use of chemicals in the vineyard, and reducing or negating the carbon footprint of wine production, packaging and transportation.
Parducci winery in Mendocino — the first in the country to be certified carbon neutral — uses tree-free paper and soy-based inks for printed materials, chlorine-free cardboard boxes for shipping and storage and biodiesel fuel for its tractors. The Opici Import company has introduced wine in B-Paks, one-liter cartons that are recyclable, lightweight and use 50 percent less energy than glass.
Oregon's Willamette Valley Vineyards has switched to biofuel in all of its tractors and delivery vehicles; offers refunds on wine-bottle and wine-shipper returns; and recycles its packing material, foils, paper and cardboard. And in the Walla Walla Valley, an organization called Vinea, the Winegrowers Sustainable Trust, is guiding and certifying growers who are committed to investing in sustainable viticulture.
I hear from many readers turning away from super-jammy, oaky, high-alcohol wines. Though 16- and even 17-percent alcohol monsters continue to be made, the trend is toward wines, both white and red, that are more expressive of place, with layered, elegant flavors of fruit, mineral and acid.
Unoaked, cool-climate varietals such as pinot grigio, grüner veltliner and riesling are in; out are the thick, buttery, oaky chardonnays. Pinot noir, a naturally light and elegant red-wine grape, is in, while merlot, a thin and miserable shadow wine (except in Washington), is way out.
In 2008 the sinking dollar will make imported wines more expensive. Look for the last bargains to come from southern France, Spain, Greece, Chile, Argentina and, of course, Australia.
This was the year that the Washington wine industry turned 40. Both Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia made their first varietal wines in 1967. Ste. Michelle celebrated with the opening of a spiffy new Col Solare winery atop Red Mountain and gave itself a birthday present, purchasing Napa's famed Stag's Leap Wine Cellars for a reported $185 million. Columbia, now part of the mammoth Constellation Brands, played Scrooge, telling employees just before Christmas that it was closing its Woodinville winery and moving to Sunnyside.
Washington state recorded its 500th winery this year, an obscure little Walla Walla venture called Sweet Valley Wines. "It certainly wasn't intentional," said a startled David McDaniels, who owns the winery with six others. The publicity helped Sweet Valley power through its first release, 300 cases of a merlot/cabernet/syrah blend called Double Barrel Red.
In a year filled with outstanding tastings, I would have to say that Rick and Darcey Small's extraordinary lineup of Woodward Canyon Dedication Series wines — all poured from magnum — topped them all. Beautifully staged by Chris Sparkman and the staff at Seattle's Waterfront restaurant, the tasting featured every vintage from 1981 through 2005. It was, by any standard, world-class.
And let us raise a glass and say a prayer to honor the memories of some who died this year: Chas Nagel, a WSU food scientist who did pioneering wine-grape research; Lance Baer, whose Woodinville winery produced the acclaimed Ursa and Arctos wines; and viticulturalist/winemaker/educator Stan Clarke, who made wines for and consulted to more than a dozen wineries throughout his career.
Paul Gregutt is the author of "Washington Wines and Wineries The Essential Guide."
His column appears weekly in the Wine
section. He can be reached by e-mail
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