By Shannon Borg
If it’s true, as some say, that every glass of wine tells a story, then the WAC is nothing less than a library of great reads. As you sip your way through a spring evening in Torchy’s, take time to consider the narrative inside your goblet.
First, there’s the story of how the grapes became wine. What was the weather like in the vineyard that summer? When was the last frost? How productive was the crush?
Then there’s the human story, the people behind the wines. When did they start growing and making wine? What’s their vision? Where did they learn and to what ideals do they hold?
At the WAC, the answers to these questions often reveal themselves at the Winemaker Dinner Series, where members and growers talk about fruit and weather and age. In an effort to elucidate some of these stories, we chose three vintages to explore further. We hope they inspire you to uncork the world of wine and to delve deeper into our state’s increasingly impressive viticultural vitality.
There’s no better place to start than the WAC.
Lullaby: Rosé de Virginie, 2010
No matter how you pour it, Lullaby Winery stands as one of the younger in the state at five years old. Much like the vines from which it comes, the wine stems from well-bred stock. Owner and winemaker Virginie Bourgue has degrees in viticulture and viniculture from the University of Avignon, where she lived and studied before coming to the states. Prior to realizing her dream of owning her own operation, she made wine for Bergevin Lane and Cadaretta.
“Virginie has brought an Old World style to Northwest fruit,” says Robert “Bo” Bonina, WAC Vice President Food & Beverage and a sommelier.
Her newest offering, Rosé de Virginie, comes from 100 percent Syrah grapes. It’s a refreshing and light salmon-colored wine full of bright red-fruit aromas and minerality.
Rosé de Virginie began its journey in the River Rock Vineyard, situated in an ancient riverbed running north-south at about 900 feet of elevation in the Walla Walla Valley. The valley itself formed in the wake of the Missoula Floods, when a now long-extinct river wound over basalt bedrock and left behind a layer of mineral-rich soil and pale cobblestone. To some, those stones remind of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape area of southern France.
Virginie, a WAC member, loves the Walla Walla appellation’s characteristics and contracted to plant an acre of Syrah and 80 Viognier plants in the area. At the time, she was thinking of red wine, but she also knew she wanted to make a rosé that recalled the dry crisp refreshments of her home country.
“The 2010 vintage was very cool,” says Bourgue, who splits time between Walla Walla and Port Townsend, switching among roles as Lullaby winemaker, saleswoman and owner.
I met Virginie a few years ago outside one of her favorite taco trucks east of the Cascades. Tanned and smiling in jeans, a T-shirt and baseball cap, she drove us into the dry open hills above the Walla Walla Valley. As we sat on a rocky outcrop eating chicken tacos, we looked over vineyards new and old, all thriving along the ancient river bed.
Virginie cropped the 2010 vintage at 2.5 tons per acre, what she calls “very low.”
“Even though September was beautiful and warm,” she recalls, “I wanted to make sure the grapes for my red wine would ripen well. So we harvested one ton in September.”
With that, she made the first wine to carry the Rosé de Virginie name. If its any indication of the quality red wine yet to come, she shouldn’t worry. Full of spice, a classic trait of good Syrah, and wet-stone minerality, Rosé de Virginie offers surprising complexity.
“She’s one of the better-known women of Washington wine, and this vintage proves why,” Bo says. “She’s not the only one making wines in this style, but she’s doing a remarkable job.”
L’Ecole No 41: Apogee, 2006
In contrast to Lullaby, L’Ecole No 41 carries one of the longer stories in Washington state wine lore. A second-generation family operation, the winery is owned by Marty Clubb and his wife, Megan, whose parents, Jean and Baker Ferguson, founded it nearly 30 years ago. The Fergusons set up shop in the historic Frenchtown School, originally built in 1870 on the banks of the Walla Walla River and rebuilt in 1915 at its present location in the tiny town of Lowden. The word l’ecole means the school in French, and the winery name is a nod to school district No. 41.
The 2006 Apogee—from the Pepper Bridge Vineyard south of Walla Walla—reflects everything L’Ecole No 41 is trying to accomplish, according to Marty Clubb.
“He’s the consummate professional viticulturist,” Bo says.
Marty is also a meticulous taster who often sips the fruit of his labor quietly while making notes. He can quickly recall the details of each vintage and harvest.
A few years ago, I listened to Marty speak at a seminar on Walla Walla wines. He and several other winemakers blind-tasted some of their older wines and offered insights into their future potential.
“Our traditional cool long harvest with no rainfall resulted in fabulous fruit that year,” he said more recently of the 2006 Apogee. “We got bright clean aromatics and acidity in the whites and vibrant extraction and rich color in the red wines.”
Marty first produced Apogee, a red, in 1993. The 2006 vintage is a classic Bordeaux-style blend, with 46 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 42 percent Merlot, and just a bit of Malbec and Cabernet Franc. The growing season started cool. At Pepper Bridge Vineyard, that meant lower yields. Though it warmed up in July, the berries on the 20-year-old vines grew in lightweight clusters and stayed small, yielding grapes with a higher skin-to-fruit ratio and, hence, a more concentrated intensity. The grapes also ripened slowly, pushing the harvest into October. Accord-ing to Marty, it all meant excellent fruit.
The 2006 Apogee offers complex aromas of earth, spice, leather and tobacco. Robust tannins and a long finish follow dark berries and chocolate, smoke and herbs.
Woodward Canyon: Artist Series, 2009
Woodward Canyon’s long-running Artist Series also enjoys a storied tradition. For starters, each year of this much-lauded wine bears a painting by a different artist on its label (see “Label Notes” sidebar). The 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, the 18th member of the series, is a classic. Its lush fruit, excellent acidity and firm texture achieve the goals set by Woodward Canyon co-owner Rick Small, a WAC member, and winemaker Kevin Mott.
The fruit comes from an A-list of vineyards, with the lion’s share (49 percent) harvested from Champoux Vineyard, planted on an east-southeast slope that puts the grapes in perfect ripening position. It’s one of the state’s best for Cabernet Sauvignon. Other vineyards contributing to this dark red wine include: Woodward Canyon Estate (30 percent), Sagemoor (9 percent), Spring Creek (7 percent), Charbonneau (3 percent), DuBrul (1 percent) and Weinbau (1 percent).
But back to Champoux, which Rick and Kevin wanted for its classic Cabernet characteristics.
“It all starts in the vineyard,” Bo says. “Rick Small knows that as well as anyone.” Rick will be the special guest at this coming April’s Winemaker Dinner, which will feature Woodward Canyon vintages.
The Champoux Vineyard grows at about 600 feet of elevation on sandier soil in the Horse Heaven Hills and was planted years before the appellation was classified in 2005. The vines were 15 years old by the time Rick started working with them.
“It is truly one of the best sites for Cabernet in the country,” he says. “Fruit from these vines has developed character and aromatics, subtlety and complexity that hardly any other Cabernet compares to.”
Rick, a wiry and effusive man, and his wife and Woodward Canyon co-owner, Darcey Fugman-Small, were founding members of Walla Walla’s certified sustainable organization, Vinea, and Rick is the current chairman.
Champoux vines planted in 1972 are some of the oldest in Washington. Rick and Kevin have worked with fruit from this vineyard since the mid-1980s.
“When you get vines that are that old, you get the classic image of a vine—big, gnarly, craggy old trunk like an old tree trunk,” Kevin says. He began as Woodward Canyon winemaker in 2003 after spending time at Ste. Chapelle, Sagelands and Canoe Ridge.
The soil at Champoux Vineyard, Kevin continues, has lots of broken basalt and scattered granite.
“I don’t know what it is, but in 20- to 25-year-old vineyards like Champoux, [we] get more classic Cabernet aromatics such as spruce, pine and cedar aromas,” Kevin says. “Fruit from older vines [also] brings more to the mid-palate.”
The aromas of dark black fruit, cedar and tobacco give way to a firm but rich texture, with flavors of dried herb, blackberry and black pepper, and a long, lingering finish.
Even after you swallow, you can feel the texture of the wine.
Says Kevin: “To me that is what makes great wine great.”
WAC WINE PROGRAM
The WAC’s wine program is unique in its commitment to collecting, storing and serving the best Washington wines. It also strives to educate its members and to connect them with in-state winemakers.
The Winemaker Dinner Series offers a wonderful opportunity for Club members and guests to expand their wine knowledge and appreciation—and to do so while delighting in some of Chef Eric Floyd’s latest creations.
The dinners take place on Saturdays, typically in the Johnson Lobby Lounge. The next three events are set for:
Woodward Canyon Winery with special guest Rick Small
Côte Bonneville and DuBrul Vineyard with special guests Hugh and Kathy Shiels
Freelance writer Shannon Borg lives on Orcas Island.