I have a saying about the difference between red wine and white wine. Red wine is like standing in front of a mirror in a thousand dollar suit. White wine is like standing in front of a mirror naked.
Whereas red wine can be dressed up in fancy – and expensive – new oak that can add accents and hide imperfections, doing the same with white wine tends to be unforgiving. Use too much oak and the fruit gets clobbered. Don’t use any oak and imperfections get exposed. With white wine, if the grapes aren’t just right and the winemaking isn’t completely sound, it shows. Many a winemaker excels at red wines but falls short on whites. It takes a skilled hand to make extremely high quality white wines. It takes an even more skilled winemaker to excel at both.
Perhaps no winemaker has impressed me as much recently with his deft touch with whites as well as reds as Jon Martinez from Maison Bleue Family Winery. Martinez brings to his winery a strong background in science (there were even Kim Wipes in his winery). He graduated from the University of Kansas with a B.S. in Chemistry and Biology and subsequently completed a Doctorate of Dental Surgery at the University of Iowa.
Martinez became interested in wine after visiting family in Provence and spending time with friend Doug Frost, MS, MW. Although Martinez’ dental practice in Overland Park, Kansas was doing well, Martinez decided he needed a change. He says he was, “Tired of the insurance game. Tired of chasing money.”
Martinez started out in the wine industry helping a friend start Amigoni Vineyards near Kansas City. He realized he didn’t want to start a winery in Missouri. Washington, however, had proven its potential. Additionally, Martinez says, “It seemed like a place I could make a name for myself.”
To learn about winemaking, Martinez started out taking viticulture and enology classes at Missouri State University, Virginia Tech, and University of California Davis. Upon arriving in Washington, he also completed the Washington State University enology certificate program.
Using money from selling his dental practice, Martinez started making wine from Washington fruit in 2005 and moved to the state in early 2008, his first full vintage. Martinez has focused Maison Bleue on Rhone varietals – his license plate is ‘Rhone’ – including Grenache, Syrah, Roussanne and Viognier.
The oddball in Martinez’ Rhone-centric lineup is Chardonnay. The fruit for this wine comes from French Creek Vineyard outside of Prosser. Martinez purchased the vineyard, which includes nine acres of thirty-year-old Chardonnay vines, two years ago. While the age of the vines was immediately appealing, the vineyard was in disrepair when Martinez purchased the site. He worked on restoring the site, putting in a new filtration system, fixing the line posts, redoing the trellis system, and cutting out dead cordons. The results made an immediate impression, with some of the Northwest’s top Chardonnay producers, such as Abeja, using the fruit. Ironically, Martinez says, “I told myself eight years ago I never wanted to make Chardonnay.” However, the Maison Bleue Chardonnay is a wine that cannot be ignored. In a sea of somewhat mediocre Washington State Chardonnay, this is a wine that rises to the top.
The rest of the Maison Bleue lineup, however, does not disappoint either. At present, a full fifty percent of Maison Bleue’s production is white wine. These wines are equal parts bold, nuanced, and detailed. They are all among the best white wines being produced in Washington State today. The Roussanne in particular is nothing short of stunning. Martinez, who considers himself more vigneron than winemaker, says of the grape, “Roussanne is twice as much work in the vineyard as any other white variety.”
While Maison Bleue’s red wines are sold out at the winery, some are still in distribution (Note: the winery is undergoing a label change with the 2008 wines labeled with what some referred to as the ‘starry night’ label). The 2009 red wines in the barrel, including a breathtaking Grenache from Upland Vineyard and Syrah from Boushey Vineyards, show Martinez’ equally skilled touch with reds.
Perhaps there is no greater tribute to how successful Maison Bleue has been with its wines than the extensive placement the winery has in restaurants and retail stores in the Seattle area – over eighty-five in total. Quite an accomplishment for a young winery. In many cases, it has been the Chardonnay leading the way. “I never thought Chardonnay would be the grape where I would build my name,” Martinez says, chuckling. Perhaps Martinez next license plate should say ‘Burgundy?’
Maison Bleue makes slightly less than 2,000 cases annually. The winery is located in Prosser in The Winemaker’s Loft.
Maison Bleue ‘Au Contraire’ Chardonnay French Creek Vineyard Yakima Valley 2009 $20
Rating: * (Excellent) Pale in color. The nose is marked by mineral, yellow and green apples, floral notes, cantelope, and hay. Crisp and tart on the palate with a weighted mouthfeel and mouthwatering acidity. Speckled with oak spices. Capped off by a lingering finish. 100% Chardonnay, French Creek Vineyard. Whole cluster pressed and fermented in three-year-old French oak (50%) and stainless steel. Aged sur lies for 7 months. Partial (20%) malolactic fermentation. 13.5% alcohol. 230 cases produced.
Maison Bleue ‘Jaja’ White Wine Yakima Valley 2009 $15
Rating: * (Excellent) A fascinating nose with pear, floral notes, and lees aromas. A rounded weight to the palate with racy acidity and hints of minerality. 67% Roussanne, 28% Chardonnay, and 5% Marsanne. French Creek, Olsen, and Boushey vineyards. Whole cluster pressed and fermented in three-year oak French oak (50%) and stainless steel. Aged sur lies for 7 months. Partial (20%) malolactic fermentation. 14.1% alcohol. 160 cases produced. Note: Price reduced on this wine from $17 to $15.
Maison Bleue ‘Petite Joie’ Marsanne Boushey Vineyard Yakima Valley 2009 $32
Rating: * (Excellent) An appealing aroma profile with marzipan and melon. A textured, creamy mouthfeel that is simultaneously weighty and light on its feet. A gorgeous wine. 100% Marsanne, Boushey Vineyard. Whole cluster pressed and fermented in French oak barrels (20% new). Aged sur lies for 7 months. Partial (20%) malolactic fermentation. 14.5% alcohol. 119 cases produced.
Maison Bleue ‘Soleil’ Roussanne Olsen Vineyard Yakima Valley 2009 $28
Rating: ** (Exceptional) Very pretty floral notes, exotic spices, and intense minerality on an incredibly complex nose. A creamy, richly textured mouthfeel on a palate marked by mineral, apricots, and lemon notes. 100% Roussanne, Olsen Vineyard. Whole cluster pressed and fermented in French oak barrels (20% new). Aged sur lie for approximately 7 months. Partial (20%) malolactic fermentation. 14.1% alcohol. 160 cases produced.
Maison Bleue ‘La Montagnette’ Grenache Alder Ridge Vineyard Horse Heaven Hills 2008 $25
Rating: * (Excellent) Leaps from the glass with red fruit, smoke, pepper, and traces of game. A big wine, layered with raspberries and fruit compote. Alcohol shows through a bit on the finish. 85% Grenache, 15% Syrah. 15.4% alcohol. 303 cases produced.
Nice Review Sean, we can't wait to try Jon's next round of Red wines. We love his white wines too, but it's the reds that made us sign up as disciples.
We had a nice visit this summer. Only tasted a few of Maison Bleue Winery wines, enjoyed all.
2008 La Vie Douce Roussanne*** off-dry, nose of wild flower honey.
2008 La Montagnette Grenache*** light, dark plum
2008 La Rogue Syrah*** pepper,herbes
Chris, the red wines in the barrel are definitely worth waiting for. Thanks for the comment.
Jerry, thanks for the notes on the visit!
The Maison Bleue Chardonnay has been my favorite Chardonnay this year. Jon poured me a glass at the end of Kirkland Uncorked. Security practically had to kick me out of the place because I refused to rush through my glass or to waste a single drop!
a suit vs a nude in a mirror? depends on who you are, and what you've been drinking.
Great post, Sean.
We just opened a bottle of the 08 La Montagnette last night and were totally bowled over. My favorite wine guy recommended it to me, saying he had only a few bottles left. For $19, it was a steal. (I'd tell you where, but then I'd have to kill you. I'm heading there today to see if he has any left.)
What a fun surprise to google them and see that you just posted an article showcasing their wines. Can't wait to drink more.
Thanks Laurie. Glad to hear you enjoyed the La Montagnette. I agree that it's a steal for that price.