"Baby Leonettis" transcend their moderate pricetags
When considering a wine purchase, it's almost impossible to detach the palate from the pocketbook. Nothing brings this to the forefront...
Special to the Seattle Times
Pick of the weekKamiak 2006 Cellar Select White Wine; $10. This well-crafted blend, produced by Gordon Brothers for their budget label, is made of two-thirds sauvignon blanc, one third chardonnay. There is a splash of gewürztraminer to lift the nose, resulting in a delicious, all-purpose white wine tasting of apples, pears and peaches, with nicely structured skin-and-rind flavors wrapping up the finish. (Distributed by Unique)
When considering a wine purchase, it's almost impossible to detach the palate from the pocketbook. Nothing brings this to the forefront like a charity wine auction. The recent Poncho Wine Auction, for which I provided some color commentary, was a perfect example.
Hundreds of bottles were lined up for the three silent auctions that preceded the main event. It was a dazzling display of vintages dating back to the 19th century, rare wines from around the globe, big bottles and verticals, as well as exceptional offerings of wines from the West Coast. As I perused the bidding tables, drawing attention to some of the hidden "treasures" that were not attracting much interest, it became clear that the disparity between lots that were fought over and those that were ignored often had little to do with the actual quality of the wines. It really came down to name recognition.
In the same way, wineries that get the big scores (hence the name recognition) are subtly coerced (by market pressures) to put high prices on their wines. Yes, there may be egos involved as well. But what business person intentionally avoids making an easy profit? As a result, consumers are equally trained, however subliminally, to assume that a high price always equals better wine.
Which gets me back to hidden treasures, and a case in point: Walla Walla Vintners. This was the eighth or ninth winery to set up shop in Walla Walla, making its first wines in 1995. At the time, they were widely referred to as "Baby Leonetti," a reference to both the style (oaky and rich) and the inexpensive pricing (hence baby) of their wines.
Founders Myles Anderson (recently retired director of the Walla Walla Institute for Enology and Viticulture) and Gordy Venneri make wines they like to drink, which happen to be ripe, fruity and plush with new-barrel flavors of chocolate, butterscotch, mocha and toast.
They began as amateur winemakers learning their craft with hands-on trial and error.
Over time, they have fine-tuned the lineup, and although the winery's basic style remains the same, the grape sources have improved and the winemaking now pulls together more substantial fruit components to go with the luscious wood. In short, these are flat-out delicious wines and also wines of substance.
Baby Leonettis or not (Walla Walla Vintners winery is actually adjacent to Leonetti's Uplands vineyard), these wines are very, very good. Why then do they sell for a third the price of Leonetti? Why, for that matter, does Leonetti sell for a quarter of the price of Harlan or Sloan? Image drives prices, as much or more than talent and quality.
The last of the 2005 releases from Walla Walla Vintners are being premiered this fall. The spring releases (2005 Cabernet Franc, 2005 Sangiovese) have already sold out, so these are not wines to wait on. They are distributed directly from the winery (509-525-4724 or www.wallawallavintners.com).
Were I to pick a favorite, it would be a three-way tie. The Walla Walla Vintners 2005 Sagemoor Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($40) is built upon fruit from 30-plus-year-old vines. It's a classic Bordeaux blend, showing cassis, berry and cherry fruits dotted with dried herb. Delicious already, this wine successfully combines raw power with depth and character.
The Walla Walla Vintners 2005 Bello Rosso Red Wine ($36) is the winery's version of a super-Tuscan. Once again, half is old-vine Sagemoor cabernet sauvignon, half is sangiovese. Washington sangiovese is the most successful of the Italian varietals grown here, and this lovely blend, with its appealing softness, mixes dried herbs and spicy red fruit with hints of mushroom and olive.
Wine No. 3 is the Walla Walla Vintners 2005 Malbec ($30), varietally pure and inky black. Black fruits, black olives, smoke and spice are layered around thick tannins, opening into an extended finish of licorice and mint. This is the winery's first varietal malbec ("We had four barrels left over after blending," modestly explains Venneri). It should, I would hope, become a staple of the lineup.
Other new releases this month include Walla Walla Vintners 2005 Merlot ($28), a dark and smoky wine with tight scents of cassis, raspberry and pomegranate. Suggestions of mushroom, tobacco and lead pencil waft through the finish, and this has enough concentration to spend some extended cellar time, rare indeed for domestic Merlot.
The Walla Walla Vintners 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon ($35) includes modest proportions of merlot, cab franc, carmenère, malbec and petit verdot. Round and flavorful, it's a liquid bowl of chocolate-covered cherries, with a whiff of tobacco and forest adding welcome detail.
Also new this year is the Walla Walla Vintners 2005 Morrison Lane Vineyard Syrah ($32). The Morrison Lane vineyard will be familiar to fans of Walla Walla syrah, as it has long been one of the favored growers in the K Vintners lineup. Here it is unblended and wrapped in a generous amount of oak, adding flavors of cinnamon, baking spice, milk chocolate and hazelnut. Despite all the wood, the acids manage to punch through, underscoring the tart raspberry fruit.
Last but not least is the Walla Walla Vintners 2005 Washington State Cuvée Red Wine ($28), a Columbia Valley blend of eight varietals from as many vineyards. Here, bright red fruits mingle with light spice and sweet tannins. It's an all-purpose bottle of fruit-driven red, ready for near-term enjoyment.
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 at email@example.com.
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
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