Gard Vintners 2009 Reserve syrah

The fine folks at have thoughtfully asked some compelling questions about Washington wines, likely as part of educating their fanbase and, at first, I rambled on but felt equally compelled that these are the type of questions I get from wine connoisseurs when on my travels so I had enough to acutally type a post and so, voila!, here you go…

Q1: First off, what do you want to correct from our Washington blog?

A1: Washington State is a tale of two climates, distinctly separated by the Cascade Range. I don’t know where the author got the “gold” thing from but both sides were explored by French-Canadian trappers (and those damn Brits in their flotillas) and the first large-scale settlement was located in Vancouver, WA in the early 1800s. The first documented plantings of wine grapes was in 1825 at Fort Vancouver. Yes, I have been there. How many wine bloggers can say that? The seeds that were grown there? Best guess is Black Hamburg or Black Prince. Washington, specifically the Yakima Valley in central WA, grows everything. Apples. Hops. Cherries. Asparagus. Corn. Wheat. The irrigation laws, with advisement from William Bridgman, were written in the early 1900s, and transformed the arid desert terroir into productive farmland supported by the nourishing waters from the mighty Columbia River.

While there was documentation of wine production pre-Prohibition, the Washington wine industry did not formally begin until the enactment of the 21st Amendment on December 5, 1933. St. Charles Winery, the first bonded winery in the United States, began operations shortly thereafter on Stretch Island.

99% of Washington’s wine production does NOT occur east of the Cascades. Chateau Ste. Michelle’s white wines are produced in Woodinville, a short 20-minute drive from a clam chowder bowl at Ivar’s on the Seattle waterfront. Woodinville is home to 100+ winery labels out of 750+ in the State.

We have the jingle, “Washington… the perfect climate for wine,” for a very good reason… we have desert-like conditions, supplemented by irrigation, where most of the wine grapes grow. We also have some excellent vineyards that are dry-farmed (see Columbia Gorge, Walla Walla, and Puget Sound).

The year 1967 has nothing to do with irrigation. 1967 was the first vintage released by Associated Vintners (now Columbia Winery). Bottle no.1 of its cabernet sauvignon is sometimes on display at Columbia’s tasting room. The grapes may have come from its estate vineyard then, Harrison Hill.

Chateau Ste. Michelle (CSM) AND Columbia Crest are the two largest wineries in Washington and are both subsidiaries of Altria Group. CSM was the result of a merger in 1954 between Pomerelle Wine Company (pomme is French for apple) and Nawico (National Wine Company). Columbia Crest was originally the River Ridge facility for Chateau Ste. Michelle.

Based on the latest (2010) statistics, Washington is the 2nd largest producer of “real” wines in the U.S. New York State may grow more grapes, but not specifically “wine grapes.” Washington’s 2010 harvest was estimated at 160,000 tons, as opposed to New York’s 60,200 tons. As a percentage, Washington and Oregon, together known as the “Northwest” in U.S. Treasury Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Division stats, accounted for 3.7% of total U.S. production of wines. This, despite the “Northwest” accounting for 16% of U.S. wineries.

The issue of irrigation has NOTHING to do with terroir. Irrigation has far more to do with “investment protection.” Let’s talk about vines with their own rootstock, if that’s the case. Charles Valentine Riley, bee-yatch. And, don’t insult Washington wines by mentioning Israeli wines in the same sentence. (j/k) *facepalm*

Washington’s wine grape harvest in 2010 was divided as follows: (whites) white riesling (41.8%), chardonnay (35.7%), then pinot gris (7.6%) and everyone else; (reds) cabernet sauvignon (39.9%), merlot (35.4%), syrah (13.6%), then the others. “Semillon blanc” accounted for just under 1% of the white wine grape harvest, yet received a mention over even the more harvested gewurztraminer and viognier grapes.

“The greatest wines” is a misnomer.  A more accurate description would be “the generally recognized highest-rated wines donated by wineries to the international wine publications.” We have a large segment of the population that disdains wine with their liquid oak.

That’s nice that the author mentioned Leonetti Cellar, Quilceda Creek Vintners, and Andrew Will Winery amongst the “greatest wineries.” That was 15 years ago, when there were barely a hundred wineries in the State. How about DeLille Cellars? Rasa Vineyards? Charles Smith Wines? Betz Family Winery? Cooper Wine Company? Adams Bench Winery? Buty Winery? Gramercy Cellars? Syncline Wine Cellars? McCrea Cellars? Barrage Cellars? Guardian Cellars? I’m just beginning at random.

Chateau Ste. Michelle makes both good value wines and crappy wines. Washington wine prices have edged up lately and really are no different in the plethora of value offerings than California. Laugh at this statement, but find me a Washington wine that is priced and quality-matched (bite your lip) with Trader Joe’s “Two Buck Chuck.” Nope. Can’t find a single bottle out there. And, after all, isn’t Two Buck Chuck the best-selling wine made in the U.S.?

“On warm years,” the wines in ANY worthy region will be “hot and alcoholic.” That was a  filler statement.

Far and away, the Columbia Valley AVA (listed on wine labels) is the most famous wine growing region in Washington. This AVA has nine “nested” AVAs. Trivia question: what AVAs are not part of the Columbia Valley AVA? And, you can bet there will be a tenth and eleventh coming in 2013.

“Food in Washington” was the biggest blunder in the article. No mention of SALMON or GEODUCK or BEEF and LAMB or even OYSTERS. For a tourist visitng Pike Place Market… what the heck does anyone think they are tossing there? Dungeness? Any credibility was lost after that finale. Seriously, I’m kidding. But hey, a tip of the hat to your blog for making the attempt. We would be no different if we attempted to write about New York but we’re, maybe, too ignorant to recognize the rieslings coming out of the Finger Lakes region.

Q2: Washington has an interesting relationship between winemakers and grape farmers – how would you say this impacts the wine?

A2: We don’t have the Stag’s Leap-Stags’ Leap controversy here. Growers grow. Winemakers want to make great wines and they all know it starts in the vineyard. There are two trains of thought– (1) buy low and take what the grower grows; or (2) pay high and the grower will not mind dropping more fruit than will be harvested. The difference can be tasted. Trust me. You know it. I know you do.

Q3: You mentioned this before but what do you think of Oregon wines, and what do you think are the main differences between both states?

A3: Oregon is far more mountainous in its central and eastern regions than Washington, and thus, is not amenable to growing wine grapes. What is left is a Willamette Valley basin that only caters to cool climate grapes like pinot noir. Sure, there are pockets of heat like that in southern Oregon, but it is the exception rather than the norm. With such limited growing areas and relying on such a fickle wine grape, it’s no wonder prices per acre are more than double that found in Washington.

However, make no mistake– Oregon’s pinot wines are outstanding. Pinot noir, pinot gris, and pinot blanc. Chardonnay’s catching up quickly. And, the best pure tempranillo in the Northwest is made at Abacela Winery, its Northwest birthplace.

Q4: Today WA represents 5% of total US wine production, do you see this changing in the future? If so, how?

A4: At some point, California will run out of land for growing wine grapes. Washington’s Columbia Valley AVA amasses some 11 million acres, yet only a small fraction of that is farmed with wine grapes. Washington’s potential is far greater than California’s and that’s not even accounting for “global warming,” which is a topic we Northwesterners laugh at if you have seen the heat units from the last few vintages.

Q5: What is a classic WA food and wine pairing?

A5: A backyard grilled ribeye with Columbia Valley cabernet sauvignon. I do it best and that’s what you can expect when you’re my guest. Same goes for when I entertain guests at downtown steakhouses.

Want something that screams “locavore”? How about a Horse Heaven Hills albarino with Penn Cove mussels? But, the standard restaurant pairing would be Puget Sound king salmon, alder-planked, paired with a premium Columbia Valley merlot. You’ll thank me much for that one, regardless of that idiot movie.

Q6: We’ve heard 2012 is shaping up to be a great year – are you excited?

A6: So far, so good. As for great, not yet. The nights have not been cool enough to develop the typical acid profile for a Washington wine. Don’t be surprised if winemakers resort to tartaric acid-fortification methods. The reds are looking good, but we have another month to go and, as anyone who lives here knows, there are no guarantees in October.

Q7: And finally, what is the one thing you would tell New Yorkers about your state?

A7: Okay, fine, NYC may be the greatest city in the world. Yes, if you can make it in NYC, you can make it anywhere. However, I still have yet to see a Gray’s Papaya stand out here so I don’t know about that. The world may not come to Seattle just yet but the breadth of our homegrown cuisine cannot be matched by any other State in our Union. We have the bounty of the ocean, the breadbasket from our heartland, and the teeming life in our rivers. Take it for what it is and enjoy the heck out of it.

Thank you to Oscar and the gang at! Keep up the great work of bringing the world’s fine wines to the consumer.

To the wine…

Wait. First off, just to let you readers know, in the last 30 days, this blog has been read by eyeballs in 33 countries. You may know some of them. Algeria. Ivory Coast. Pakistan. Syria (yes, that Syria). Sure, France and Australia are the big boys here but when I say this is a Washington wine blog for the world to read, I ain’t kiddin’. Six continents.

On the heels of winning the 2008 2011 Tri-Cities Wine Festival overall award, Robert O. Smasne continues to punch out some terrific syrahs for the Gard Vintners label despite his vinification of some twenty wine grapes, which explains why he has passed off winemaking duties to another formidable vintner.

This 2009 version of his “Reserve” lineup serves to backup his statement-making 2008 ‘Block 3’ syrah. Was it worthy? Keep reading as I am worn out from all this typing…

Paired with that staple of convenience… supermarket fried chicken. Still quite good.

Tasted at 55-68 degrees on the IR temp gun. Garnet-edged, deep magenta in the Riedel with aromas of plum jam and blueberries dominating. Full-bodied on the palate with a slightly tart back-end, leading to a moderately long residence emanating flavors of coy cherry, cola, red plum, and black licorice with a subtle kiss of sweetness. A timebomb of fruit.

Alcohol: 14.9% (spec sheet 15.5%). 104 cases (spec sheet 106 cases). Lawrence Vineyards, located on the future Frenchman Hills AVA but currently a Columbia Valley AVA designation. Elevation: 1365-1675 feet. Harvested October, 2009 from Block 3 Joseph Phelps and Block 4 Tablas Creek. Aged in 100% new French oak. Bottled June 2, 2011. Released May, 2012. pH 3.85. TA 0.66. Winemaker: Aryn Morell.

Power: 3/5. Balance: 2/5. Depth: 2/5. Finesse: 3/5. Rated: 90. Value: $25. Paid: $45. Music pairing: “Timebomb” by Kylie Minogue. This is WAwineman… uncorked, uneducated but not uncouth.

Trivia answer: Puget Sound and Columbia Gorge. The rest of them are: Horse Heaven Hills, Lake Chelan, Naches Heights, Rattlesnake Hills, Red Mountain, Snipes Mountain, Wahluke Slope, Walla Walla Valley, and the Yakima Valley.

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4 Responses to Gard Vintners 2009 Reserve syrah

  1. csabernethy says:

    Wow – so much information to digest, I had to take a short nap and fix myself a quick breakfast and come back to the blog! 99% of WA wines is NOT made in Eastern Washington? That’s a hard fact to swallow. I would have thought that all the reds produced by Columbia Crest in Paterson would have offset that number a little.

    I’m looking forward to the 2012 vintage. My only hope is that the grapes don’t hang too long and get over-ripe. We are in an Indian summer for the next week or two, but then things should cool down quickly.

    One minor correction/clarification: It was the 2011 Tri-Cities Wine Festival where Robert’s 2008 vintage Block 3 Syrah took Best of Show (Yeah, I CAN be that anal). And my go-to food with Syrah is baby-back ribs on the pellet grill. My wife won’t let me buy the greasy fried chicken at the supermarket, although I LOVE it!

    Good blog – keep ’em coming.

  2. wawineman says:

    That’s a first when my post makes you take a short nap (instead of a long one).
    Okay, so if 99% of WA wines are made in eastern WA, then let’s look at the estimated 2010 production of 12 million cases. So the 1% would equal 120,000 cases of wine. As you know, CSM makes several different versions of riesling, the most popular being the Columbia Valley “off dry” version. Funny how CSM does not readily reveal the case production in the wine notes but I did find the 2011 Harvest Select riesling (the sweet version) amounted to 75,000 cases. One wine. Other estimates have total annual riesling production at nearly a million cases. One varietal for one winery. FTW.
    I, too, am looking forward to the 2012 vintage, but not any more so than previous vintages. This is not Oregon’s 2008.
    Thanks for the clarification. Fixed. Just wanted to see if you were awake…
    Thanks Ab. I have to stay sharp for readers like you. If someone with your experience can learn something from these posts, then I’ve done my job. The highest compliment I could receive. Thank you. Maybe I will challenge you someday to who can gnaw off the Stelvin cap first off a Syncline wine. Just for old times’ sake! Stay healthy, caveman. We will salute one o’ these days when you least expect it.

  3. Alright wawineman, the article is up! Take a look at it here, and tell me if there’s anything you’d want to change. Thanks again for all of this, maybe we’ll see you on the east coast someday.

  4. wawineman says:

    Terrific! Your website is fun to explore and the blog has good stuff. With the classes and selection, you provide a great service to the community. No wonder New Yawkers know everything! You also possess a good sense of humor (or am I just too ‘east coast’ for this joint?). Think about opening an outpost here someday. After all, Adam Eckert of Chautauqua did…

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