Below is Part I of a report from the Walla Walla Valley including wines from Rasa Vineyards, Mackey Vineyards, Fjellene Cellars, Sleight of Hand Cellars, and àMaurice Cellars. Read a .pdf version of this report here.
Rasa Vineyards continues to cut a path as one of the most impressive new wineries to emerge in Washington in the last several years. There is no let up with the wineries latest wines. In fact, the current releases are as good or better than any that the winery has produced.
Brothers Billo and Pinto Naravane have made several additions to the lineup in the last year. The first is adding a label called PB (for their first initials). These are not declassified Rasa wines but rather high quality juice that didn’t fit into the Rasa program. These wines offer extraordinary value for their price point.
For the 2010 vintage, which featured cooler temperatures and higher acidity, the Naravanes made a Riesling in more of an Auslese style than their thrilling 2009 The Composer Riesling. The resulting wine, named The Lyricist, has considerably more sugar but is beautifully balanced with acidity. The result is, once again, as good of a Riesling as is being produced in Washington State.
The Naravanes have also added a stunning new Bordeaux-style blend from DuBrul Vineyard (see barrel sample notes on this wine here). Billo Naravane first met Cote Bonneville winemaker Kerry Shiels at UC Davis. Naravane later met with Kerry’s father, DuBrul Vineyard owner Hugh Shiels. “An hour meeting turned into a seven hour thing,” Naravane says. At the time, Naravane did not yet know just how coveted DuBrul fruit was. “Hugh just laughed when I asked him about fruit,” Naravane says. He later received a call offering a small parcel and accepted without even asking the price.
The resulting wine, Creative Impulse, is named after the brothers’ creative urges, urges that were always contained by their parents growing up. The Naravane’s creative skills are on full display on this wine, which rivals the best Bordeaux-style blends coming out of Washington.
Note that Rasa Vineyards is now located in the southern section of the Walla Walla Valley in the facility formerly occupied by Hence Cellars.
PB Syrah Yakima Valley 2008 $29
Rating: * (Excellent) Extremely dark in color. Aromas of earth, black pepper, game, dark berries, and licorice. Deep, rich, tart, flavorful fruit with a hyper-extended finish. An extremely high QPR wine. 100% Syrah. Aged 21 months in French oak (25% new). 14.8% alcohol. 224 cases produced.
PB Syrah/Cabernet Kiona Vineyards Red Mountain 2008 $29
Rating: */** (Excellent/Exceptional) Abundant aromas of licorice, soil, light herbal notes, and dark fruit. Big and bold on the palate with a firm backbone of tannins and rich fruit flavors. 67% Syrah, 33% Cabernet Sauvignon. Aged 21 months in French oak (33% new). 14.8% alcohol. 187 cases produced.
Rasa Vineyards Vox Populi Mourvedre Columbia Valley 2009 $45
Rating: */** (Excellent/Exceptional) Dark and brilliant in color with a purple tinge at the rim. Aromas of chalk, white pepper, light game, and earth. A rich, textured palate with winding fruit flavors and a persistent intensity on the finish. 100% Mourvedre. 52% Minick, 48% 48% Alder Ridge. Aged in French oak (22% new). 14.4% alcohol. 89 cases produced.
Rasa Vineyards QED Red Wine Columbia Valley 2008 $50
Rating: ** (Exceptional) Almost completely opaque. Intoxicating aromas of black olive juice, penetrating dark berries, game, floral notes, and whiffs of dark chocolate. The palate is textured and seamlessly put together with pure berry flavors and silky tannins. Capped off by a seemingly endless finish. 83% Syrah, 10% Grenache, 5% Mourvedre, and 2% Viognier. Les Collines, Double River, and Minick vineyards. Aged in French oak (22% new). 14.4% alcohol. 675 cases produced.
Rasa Vineyards Principia Reserve Syrah Walla Walla Valley 2008 $85
Rating: ** (Exceptional) Dark in color. Quite closed up at present but shows aromas of earth, game, and berries. The palate is lithe, seamless and elegant, filled with textured fruit flavors. An incredibly impressive wine with a long life ahead of it. Give 3-plus years. 100% Syrah. Les Collines, Seven Hills, Lewis, and Portteus vineyards. Aged 30 months in French oak (25% new). 14.2% alcohol. 115 cases produced.
Rasa Vineyards Creative Impulse Red Wine Yakima Valley 2008 $95
Rating: ** (Exceptional) A compelling wine with earth, dark, dark cherry, chocolate, and herbal notes. On the palate a beautiful display of richness and power, structure and delicacy. An extremely long finish. Only continues to pick up steam after days of being open. 69% Cabernet Sauvignon, 31% Merlot. Aged 30 months in French oak (60% new). 15.1% alcohol. 140 cases produced.
Rasa Vineyards The Lyricist Riesling Columbia Valley 2010 $32
Rating: ** (Exceptional) An extremely aromatic wine with a fresh twist of lemon with honey, lime, green apple, and floral notes. On the sweet side of off-dry but with laser-like focus and beautifully balanced acidity. An extremely long, crisp, lingering finish. An exclamation point on Washington Riesling. 100% Riesling. Bacchus, Kilian, and Dionysus vineyards. 13.3% full botrytis, 16.9% partial botrytis. 4.89% Residual Sugar. 12.3% alcohol. 217 cases produced.
Mackey Vineyards is a new Walla Walla winery founded by brothers Roger and Phillip Mackey. Like many who have been captivated by the Washington wine scene, the Mackey brothers, “traded their dress suits for a tractor and a plow.”
Roger Mackey writes, “I think there is nothing more special than saying here, try my wine. It’s produced from my land.” Mackey Vineyard is located in a canyon in the southeast section of the Walla Walla Valley by a fork in the Walla Walla River. The winery also owns Frenchtown Vineyard in Lowden, Washington. In addition to these two sites, Mackey also sources fruit from Les Collines, Yellowbird, Sagemoor, and DuBrul vineyards.
Mackey Vineyards has a tasting room located in downtown Walla Walla. The wines are made by Billo Naravane of Rasa Vineyards.
Mackey Vineyards Syrah Estate Walla Walla Valley 2008 $32
Rating: * (Excellent) Dark in color. An appealing wine with char, blackberry, light game notes, mineral, and black tea leaves. The palate is soft and lighter bodied in style with black olive and umami notes and chalky tannins. 100% Syrah. Mackey Vineyard. Aged 18 months in French oak (40% new). 13.9% alcohol. 125 cases produced.
Mackey Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley 2008 $32
Rating: * (Excellent) Aromas of cherry, herbal notes, pencil shavings, and dry chocolate. Dry and light bodied on the palate with elegant cherry flavors, soft tannins, and a chalky feel. Aged in French oak (70% new). 80.4% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14.7% Merlot, 4.9% Petit Verdot. Mackey Vineyard, Heather Hill, and Gamache vineyards. Aged 21 months in French oak (70% new). 14.5% alcohol. 148 cases produced.
Mackey Vineyards Concordia Red Wine Columbia Valley 2009 $38
Rating: * (Excellent) Like running through a field of wild flowers and berries eating a bar of dark chocolate. A perfumed palate that is deft on its feet with a silky structure, full of berry flavors, game, and mineral notes. Lingers on the finish. 77.4% Syrah, 12.9% Grenache, and 9.7% Mourvedre. Les Collines, Bacchus, and Minick vineyards. Aged 18 months in French oak (35% new). 14.9% alcohol. 370 cases produced.
Mackey Vineyards Off-Dry Riesling Columbia Valley 2010 $15
Rating: * (Excellent) An aromatic wine with red apples, tropical fruit, honey, and floral notes. Off-dry in style with a fair amount of sugar but well balanced by mouthwatering acidity. A very well-priced bottle of wine for this level of quality. 100% Riesling. Bacchus and Kilian Vineyards. Fermented and aged in stainless steel. 12.1% alcohol. 167 cases produced.
Fjellene Cellars, pronounced fyel-LAY-nuh, is a new Walla Walla winery. The winery is named after a word for mountains in Norwegian. Owner and winemaker Matthew Erlandson says that the winery is, “Dedicated to those who find solace in a place which most will never experience.”
Erlandson was an outdoor educator and guide for thirteen years at NOLS and Outward Bound in the western United States, British Columbia, and Central and South America before deciding to turn his attention to winemaking. He was working a job at Northern Arizona University when he took a three-month absence to make wine in Washington. Hooked, he gave his notice, sold his house, and moved to Walla Walla. Erlandson made his first wines in 2007 and had his first release this spring. The 2007 through 2009 wines were made while he was an assistant at Balboa and Beresan, and Erlandson credits winemaker Tom Glase with mentoring him. Erlandson moved into the space previously occupied by Trust Cellars, which moved to the airport region, at the beginning of the year.
Erlandson puts a particular emphasis on vineyard sources, saying, “I want my Cabernet Franc to taste like Cabernet Franc from Waliser Vineyard.” Erlandson uses a variety of excellent sources, including Les Collines, Yellow Jacket, Waliser, Two Blondes, and Candy Mountain. With the exception of two blends, the Fjellene Cellars wines are otherwise single vineyard and single varietal, including a rare Walla Walla Valley-designated Sauvignon Blanc.
Stylistically Erlandson says, “I love low alcohol, high acid wines. I want to be simple with the wines and not over complicate things.” Indeed, Erlandson’s wines are unusual from most of what can be found in the valley, with less emphasis on oak and overly ripe fruit flavors. Rather these wines are more acid driven and best enjoyed with food. Fjellene Cellars, which Erlandson owns with his wife Sarah, puts a particular emphasis on sustainability. Pumice and stems are composted; lees are recycled; old barrels are turned into artwork. Erlandson writes, “Although we are not claiming to be sustainable at this time, we are making every effort to minimize our waste while renewing our resources to lessen our impact on the planet. We believe that sustainability is not something you achieve, but rather a mindset that requires time and long-term goals.”
In a nod to his love of the mountains, the Fjellene label is an image of a mountain in the Cordillera Blanca in Peru. With his new winery Matt Erlandson provides further evidence to my hypothesis that climbers make good winemakers – and provides one of the year’s more intriguing new wineries. This will be one to keep an eye on.
Fjellene Cellars produced 600 cases in 2008 and 2009 and 1,000 cases in 2010.
Fjellene Cellars Sauvignon Blanc Walla Walla Valley 2010 $22
Rating: + (Good) Aromas of pear, melon, and touches of tropical fruit. Fresh and fruit-filled on the palate with abundant grapefruit flavors. 100% Les Collines Vineyard Block 2. Fermented and aged in stainless steel. 13.0% alcohol. 125 cases produced.
Fjellene Cellars Rosé Columbia Valley 2010 $20
Rating: + (Good) Light cherry red color. Abundant strawberry, cherry, and light bubble gum notes. Crisp and tart with bright acidity with just the suggestion of sugar (0.89 g/L). 100% Syrah. 12.5% alcohol. 100 cases produced. NB: The only reason I don’t list this wine as ‘Recommended’ is the price point is a bit high compared to its peers. However, this remains one of my favorite rosés of the year.
Fjellene Cellars Cabernet Franc Columbia Valley 2008 $28
Rating: +/* (Good/Excellent) An aromatically appealing wine with baker’s chocolate, herbal notes, and whiffs of roasted nuts. The palate is restrained on the oak and alcohol with tart, winding fruit flavors. Aged 21 months in French oak (25% new). 100% Cabernet Franc. Waliser Vineyard. Aged 20 months in French oak (25% new). 14.1% alcohol. 48 cases produced.
Fjellene Cellars The North Col Blend Columbia Valley 2007 $32
Rating: * (Excellent) Aromas of dusty chocolate, herbal notes, and tea leaves. Tart on the palate with dried black cherries and crisp acidity. An enjoyable, stylistic wine meant to be consumed with food. Those looking for big fruit and lots of oak flavors should look elsewhere. 50% Merlot, 50% Cabernet Franc. Waliser Vineyard. Aged 20 months in French oak (50% new). 14.1% alcohol. 96 cases produced.
Fjellene Cellars The South Col Blend Columbia Valley 2008 $32
Rating: +/* (Good/Excellent) Aromas of dry chocolate, herbal notes, and a touch of the Rocks funk. Tart and light bodied on the palate with a big ball of fruit in the middle. 62% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, and 13% Cabernet Franc. Yellow Jacket, Waliser, and Candy Mountain vineyards. Aged 20 months in French oak (25% new). 14.1% alcohol. 192 cases produced.
Fjellene Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Walla Walla Valley 2008 $35
Rating: * (Excellent) Lightly aromatic with medicinal notes, baker’s chocolate, herbal notes, and cherry. The fruit is restrained and the oak far in the background with a real acid blast that stitches this wine together. 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Pepper Bridge. Aged 20 months in French oak (30% new). 14.3% alcohol. 48 cases produced.
Sleight of Hand Cellars
Sleight of Hand Cellars is movin’ on up like George and Wheezy – both literally and figuratively. The winery recently moved into a new location in the southern part of Walla Walla next door to Saviah Cellars and Beresan. The facility, which has a LARGE Sleight of Hand Cellars sign on the outside, is 2,000 square feet with a barrel space big enough to accommodate 4,000 cases annually. The winery is also building a new facility next door where production will take place. There is even a guest house on the property for wine club members.
While the new facility is much larger than the winery’s downtown tasting room, which is now inhabited by Kerloo Cellars, the vibe is still the same. On the day I visited the winery the Beach Boys Pet Sounds was playing, on vinyl of course.
The juice from winemaker Trey Busch continues movin’ on up as well. Current releases include a dazzling Chardonnay from French Creek Vineyard (Maison Bleue also makes a vineyard designated Chardonnay from this vineyard which provides an interesting comparison and contrast) and a new release from the winery – the Funkadelic Syrah. This wine is from third leaf fruit from Richard Funk’s vineyard in the Rocks region of the Walla Walla Valley. This is a compelling example Walla Walla Valley Syrah, showing the stylistic consistency from this southern valley region.
Sleight of Hand Cellars The Magician White Wine Evergreen Vineyard Columbia Valley 2010 $17
Rating: * (Excellent) An aromatic wine with peaches, white flowers, honey, and mineral. A full bodied wine that is tart and crisp with rounded fruit flavors, especially lime. This is your perfect, delicious summer wine. 85% Gewurztraminer, 15% Riesling. 12.5% alcohol. 1.1% Residual Sugar.
Sleight of Hand Cellars The Enchantress Chardonnay Yakima Valley 2009 $28
Rating: * (Excellent) Aromas of spice, butter, and Granny Smith apple. A layered wine with a creamy mid-palate and etched acidity. 100% Chardonnay. French Creek Vineyard. Barrel fermented and aged 11 months in neutral French oak. 14.1% alcohol. 90 cases produced.
Sleight of Hand Cellars Magician’s Assistant Rose Columbia Valley 2010 $17
Rating: + (Good) A very pretty light salmon color. Aromas of strawberry, melon, and light spices. Bone dry on the palate with crisp, incredibly fresh fruit flavors. An extremely enjoyable wine with great acidity. 100% Cabernet Franc. Black Rock and Chelle den Millie vineyards. Fermented and aged in stainless steel. 13.2% alcohol. Recommended
Sleight of Hand Cellars The Spellbinder Red Wine Columbia Valley 2009 $19
Rating: * (Excellent) Abundant cherry aromas along with tobacco and herbal notes on a wine with a lot of aromatic complexity for its price point. A rich mouthfeel on an incredibly clean, focused palate with refined tannins. A lingering finish. A screaming deal at this price point. 36% Cabernet Sauvignon, 29% Merlot, 16% Cabernet Franc, 10% Sangiovese, and 9% Syrah. Blue Mountain, Red Mountain, Phinny Hill, Seven Hills, Lewis, Les Collines, Blackrock, Chelle den Mille, and Double Canyon vineyards. Aged 11 months in neutral French oak. 14.4% alcohol.
Sleight of Hand Cellars The Illusionist Red Wine Columbia Valley 2008 $45
Rating: ** (Exceptional) Appealing aromas of black cherry, coffee bean, a jumble of blue fruit, and mineral notes. The palate has incredibly clean, fresh, plump fruit flavors with dense, refined, supple tannins. Beautiful intensity of fruit with a lot of pure cabernet flavors. 92% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Syrah. Va Piano, Double River, Red Mountain, Frenchtown, Chelle den Mille vineyards. Aged 23 months in French oak (50% new). 14.5% alcohol.
Sleight of Hand Cellars Levitation Syrah Columbia Valley 2008 $40
Rating: * (Excellent) Dark in color with purple at the rim. Abundant notes of violets along with smoked meats and a toasty top note. The palate is lithe and loaded with raspberries and red fruit flavors. A cranberry lick on the finish. 100% Syrah. Les Collines and Lewis Vineyards. Aged 18 months in French oak (50% new). 298 cases produced.
Sleight of Hand Cellars Funkadelic Syrah Walla Walla Valley 2009 $60
Rating: */** (Excellent/Exceptional) Aromas jump from the glass of earth, funk, mineral, black olive juice, ash, game, and a whiff of orange peel. A thoroughly delicious, delectable wine that shows the Rocks district of the Walla Walla Valley perfectly. 100% Syrah. The Funk Vineyard. Aged 11 months in French oak (25% new). 13.9% alcohol. 95 cases produced.
Winemaker Anna Schafer of àMaurice Cellars continues to impress with another set of extraordinary releases. It’s clear talking with Schafer that she has a strong attachment to her wines. Schafer says, referring to her new releases – some of which are currently out and the rest of which will be released shortly – “I don’t know about the new people showing up. You have to live with them for a year to get used to them.”
While it may take Schafer time to adjust, the new àMaurice Cellars wines are among the best the winery has produced. The entire lineup is captivating without a weak link in the bunch. Among the standouts is an extremely high quality Chardonnay. While Schafer’s Malbec is always one of the winery’s strengths – and among the best examples of this varietal in Washington – the 2008 vintage offering is bigger and brawnier, or as Schafer says affectionately, “a little monster.”
Schafer calls the Red Blend in the “heart of the winery” and if so the heart beats strongly. The 2008 vintage is named after Northwest artist Mark Tobey, the first American painter to ever have an exhibit at the Louvre. The 2008 vintage contains a healthy dose – 30% – of Cabernet Franc. Schafer says of the blend, “At first Cabernet Franc fights with the other kids at first and then it subsides.” The 2008 ‘The Tobey’ Red Wine is a stunner that punches far above its price point.
àMaurice Cellars Viognier Columbia Valley 2009 $25
Rating: * (Excellent) An aromatic wine with white peaches and light floral notes. The palate is full bodied redolent with peach flavors with a honeyed feel. Capped off by a long finish. 100% Viognier. Gamache Vineyard & Elephant Mountain Vineyards. Barrel fermented and aged in 2-year old French oak. 354 cases produced.
àMaurice Cellars Chardonnay Columbia Valley 2008 $28
Rating: * (Excellent) A light green tinge to the color. Appealing aromas of spice and light toast along with yellow apple. Palate is crisp, tart, and textured with a weighted feel and a long finish. Add àMaurice Cellars to the list of great Washington Chardonnay producers. 100% Chardonnay. Conner Lee and Lewis vineyards. Fermented and aged in French oak (30% new). 314 cases produced.
àMaurice Cellars Grenache/Syrah Columbia Valley 2008 $34
Rating: * (Excellent) An aromatic wine with a jumble of red and blue fruit along with light game, raspberries, floral notes, and a distinctive mineral note. Deliciously ripe, fleshy red fruit flavors on the palate lead to a lingering finish. Has a grainy, chewy feel. 88% Syrah, 12% Grenache. Boushey, Lewis, Minick, and aMaurice vineyards. Aged in 2-year-old French oak. 231 cases produced.
àMaurice Cellars Malbec Columbia Valley 2008 $35
Rating: */** (Excellent/Exceptional) Dark and inky with a purple rim. Abundant pepper and plum aromas along with spice. Rich and flavorful on the palate with great depth on a deliciously varietal wine. A big, brawny beast with a long finish. 100% Malbec. Gamache Vineyard. Aged in French oak (40% new). 14.5% alcohol. 320 cases produced.
àMaurice Cellars ‘The Tobey’ Red Wine Blend Columbia Valley 2008 $35
Rating: ** (Exceptional) Cabernet Franc pops at present with herbal notes, rich cherries, and high toned floral notes. A rich, layered wine with graceful, structured tannins. Huge and rich with focused fruit flavors. 44% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Cabernet Franc, 26% Merlot. Sagemoor, Bacchus, Dionysus, Gamache, Weinbau, and Tokar vineyards. Aged in French oak. 14.6% alcohol. 492 cases produced.
Quick heads up in regards to the Sleight of Hand wines, you reviewed the Illusionist not the Archimage like you have typed. The Illusionist is 92% Cab and 8% Syrah and the Archimage is 50% Merlot with 33% Cab Franc and 17% Cab finishing it out. Would love to know your thoughts on that wine as well Sean. Thanks for always keeping us informed on the great wines coming out of Washington State!
Todd B, thanks for the catch! I've corrected the wine name. I'm going to have to have a talk with my editor. ;)
Haven't tried the 2008 The Archimage I'm afraid. Will get notes up when I do.
Anyone that doubts the terroir component in Cayuse wines sourced from "the rocks" near Milton-Freewater should try Trey's rocks-sourced funkadelic syrah – it's either the terroir, or they are similarly "flawed" wines…
Hoping to find the '08 Rasa wines way over here on the other coast; surprisingly, lots of the '07 vintage (esp. the QED) found its way here to NJ.
While I wish Sleight of Hand well, despite never having had a chance to taste their wines, they exemplify one of my pet peeves in the wine business. I don't know what possesses an otherwise rational wine producer to decide, "You know what, rather than have our label tell the potential buyer what grape(s) the wine was made from or which particular vineyard or region it came from, let's give it a cute name that sounds like it might be the name of a tourist trap British or Irish pub but bears no relation whatsoever to what might be found inside the bottle. See, I'm a marketing genius too!"
I had hoped this trend was confined to Australian sugar/oak/alcohol bomb producers, but it seems to be worming its way into the US wine world like those damned Asian stink bugs that invade my house every winter.
I tried the Archimage, and was just about to buy it when the rest of my group were ponying up the cash for the Funkadelic. My husband said: Just get it or I'll never hear the end of it!! Next time, I'll go for the Archimage, which was outstanding.
Just a quick note to Anon above…if he comes back to read this. Anyone who knows me and my labels knows that there is a novel written on the back label about not only the varietal make up of the wines, but vineyard sources, and often, winemaking techniques used that year. The fact that we have proprietary names simply helps set us apart from the other wineries making the same wines…The Enchantress Chardonnay, just to use an example, is a brand now, and is as important as the name of my winery. If you ever come in to visit my tasting room, it will all click.