90+ wines reviewed below, including the latest from Airfield, Alluvium, Amos Rome, Avennia, Björnson, Block Wines, Browne Family, Cadence, City Limits, Covington, Dance, Dowsett Family, Gramercy, Julia’s Dazzle, Long Shadows, Mount Si, Oregon Territory, Pamplin, Passing Time, Paul O’Brien, Portlandia, Sage Rat, Sightglass, Starside, Township 7, Two Vintners, and Waterbrook.
Since Passing Time’s first releases with their 2012 vintage wines, it’s been clear that this winery from former NFL quarterbacks Dan Marino and (local boy) Damon Huard is far from a sports star vanity project. (Read my interview with Marino and Huard from 2014). The fruit sources were meticulously chosen, including Champoux, Discovery, Wallula, Klipsun, Red Mountain Vineyard, Seven Hills, and Pepper Bridge. The hyper-talented Chris Peterson (Avennia, Liminal) was selected to make the wines, at a time when Avennia was still getting started. A short conversation with Huard will tell you this is someone who is very serious and knowledgeable about wine in general and Washington wine in particular.
From that first vintage, the Passing Time Cabernets have been attention-getters. The latest releases, however, are something else altogether.
The 2020 vintage wines clearly establish Passing Time as one of the top five Cabernet Sauvignon producers in Washington. These are some of the very best Cabernets I’ve ever had from the state, an ideal confluence of vintage conditions, site selection, house style, and winemaker skill.
Much has already been accomplished, but the future could not be any brighter for Passing Time. I can guarantee you this, however. With wines like this, access will surely become much more limited as collectors snap these wines up.
It’s been 25 years since Ben Smith and Gaye McNutt established Cadence. The couple was at the very front of wineries making vineyard-designated, Bordeaux-style blends from Washington in general and from Red Mountain specifically. Now, there are literally hundreds of producers in the state making such wines. For that alone, the state owes Cadence a great debt. In recognition of their contributions, Smith and McNutt were recently selected by their peers as honorary vintners at this year’s Auction of Washington Wines. (Full disclosure, my wife works for the Auction.)
As Washington’s wine style swung riper in the mid to late aughts and more recently began swinging back, Cadence’s style has remained unchanged. Consistent with Smith and McNutt’s vision, the grapes are picked earlier to retain acidity. The use of new oak is quite judicious, allowing the fruit and Red Mountain’s signature structure to shine.
Since 1998, the Cadence wines have consistently been among the very best wines in Washington. Better still, the last quarter century has proven that the wines have profound ageability. They say slow and steady wins the race. Perhaps. All I know is, whatever race it is, Cadence keeps on winning.
Pamplin is an anomaly. The winery is located in Willamette Valley but exclusively uses Washington fruit. (Read a profile of Pamplin from 2011.) Since the very first vintage, the Pamplin wines have offered exceptionally high quality along with a recognizable style, with the fruit at the fore and the oak pulled back. Moreover, Pamplin’s JRG Bordeaux-style blend consistently offers terrific value.
If Pamplin were located in, say, Woodinville or Walla Walla Valley, the winery would be the talk of the town. Due to its location in Willamette Valley, it flies below the radar with many Washington wine lovers. But make no mistake, these are special wines that stand out vintage after vintage.
Each year when I taste the wines from Two Vintners, I am impressed by winemaker Morgan Lee’s facility with Rhône varieties. Yes, Two Vintners makes a standout Grenache Blanc, orange Gewürztraminer, and Bordeaux varieties and blends. But it is the Rhône varieties where Lee truly outshines the pack in Washington. Whether it’s the “how could a wine this good be $28?” Cinsault, Grenache, Zinfandel, and Columbia Valley Syrah or the winery’s vineyard-designated offerings, these are always truly captivating wines.
Of note, Two Vintners recently did an extensive remodel of its Woodinville tasting room. “It’s the coolest spot I’ve ever been in,” Lee said to me recently. West-siders, time to plan a visit to see the new digs.
The wines below also include a number of Cabernet Sauvignon’s either designated May’s Discovery Vineyard (Pamplin, Block Wines, Covington, Two Vintners) or primarily using fruit from Discovery (Passing Time, Starside). Located in the Horse Heaven Hills, the site was planted in 2005 and is owned by Kay and Milo May. It is part of a string of vineyards in the Horse Heavens that includes Phinny Hill, Champoux, and Andrews that are the backbone of some of the very best Cabernet Sauvignons made in Washington.
Tasting these wines, it was fascinating to see the site shine through despite the differences in winemaking, style, and goals. As with other sites in the Horse Heavens, there’s ripeness of fruit, yes, but it’s that aspect combined with the area’s hyper-polished, fulsome tannic structure that creates wines of such depth and distinction.
Washington has been blessed – and cursed – by its ability to grow such a wide assortment of varieties so well. However, it makes more sense, to identify each of the state’s appellations by what they grow best. For Horse Heaven Hills, the answer is quite clear. It’s not just Horse Heaven, it’s Cabernet nirvana.
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