Portrait Cellars 2005 Red Mountain merlot

The Red Mountain AVA is globally recognized as Washington’s BEST location for growing the A-list varietals in what is also known as the Bordeaux grapes of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and cabernet franc. The area’s first planted wine grapes pre-dated the formation of federally-designated American Viticultural Areas, or AVAs, when two winophile engineers, John Williams and Jim Holmes, took a chance on their newly purchased land, now known as Kiona Vineyards, in 1975. There were no roads and no access to utilities or even surface water for irrigation. Fast forward to April 10, 2001 when Red Mountain officially became the 146th U.S. American Viticultural Area and 5th Washington AVA. In 2008, the residents of this east Benton City enclave formed the Red Mountain AVA Alliance “to ensure responsible stewardship of the land and successful promotion of the wines.” And, earlier this year, the Kennewick Irrigation District approved the installation of two irrigation reservoirs to guarantee continued vineyard development in the 4,040 acre AVA. With that, as more vineyards go online, attracting more wineries to contract fruit from area growers, the ultimate goal is to make this once desolate scrub land into a thriving wine tourist destination on par with Napa Valley.

While Red Mountain has attracted increased investment and modernization from new faces such as Col Solare, Fidelitas, and Cooper Wine Company, the first wave of “wine immigration” occurred in the 1990s as the local wine industry was beginning its momentum as one of the world’s emerging wine regions. Amongst this first wave was the Shaw family, Edward T. and Eve A., who were looking for a cheap plot of land to grow wine grapes to fancy Ed’s part-time hobby of winemaking. Little did they know or even understand what was to come.

Edward Thomas Shaw was born in Colorado on August 14, 1942 and moved to Washington a couple years later as his father was involved with classified work at Hanford. He graduated from Richland High School, where he met his future wife, Eve Artz, then graduated from the University of Washington with a J.D. They moved to Olympia, where Mr. Shaw worked until his retirement. During that time, instead of golfing or immersing in other high-ticket adventures, Mr. Shaw developed a taste for wine and partnered with several Italian families in south Seattle to annually purchase a trainload of zinfandel grapes from California.

The estate vineyard on Red Mountain, E&E Shaw Vineyards, fronts their comfortable home (with swimming pool) and the 12 acres is planted to cabernet sauvignon (clone 8), merlot, and cabernet franc. The vines were planted in 1997 by Eve’s well-known and much loved brother, Fred Artz, from cuttings provided by neighbors Klipsun Vineyard and Ciel du Cheval. The Shaws harvest at 3 and 1/2 tons per acre to maintain quality. They also have Riesling planted on one of their son’s 3-acre plots in Prosser (harvested at 5-6 tons/acre).

Portrait Cellars is named for Eve’s professional-quality portrait paintings. Her stunning artwork is featured on the winery’s labels and is as collectible as any high-quality art to be found on a wine bottle.

They have two sons, one in Seattle, the other in Prosser.

Currently, Mr. Shaw is president of the Red Mountain AVA Alliance and is overseeing the transformation of Red Mountain into a world-class tourist destination. He is also a principal with his brother-in-law with Artz Vineyards LLC. When asked what distinguishes Red Mountain wines from the competition, Mr. Shaw describes the land: high pH soil, southwest facing slopes, high temperature difference between day and night, high heat units, and strong winds. Translated by this author’s extensive reviews of Red Mountain wines through the years: the cabernets and merlots shine with prominent dark fruits, firm acids, some chalkiness and dusty qualities, and just plain concentrated and intense palate pleasure from the attack to the long finish.

As you can imagine from a winery that has low production (a few hundred cases per year) and no debt, Portrait Cellars’ red wines are aged a minimum of 32 months in predominantly new French oak and are held back until Mr. Shaw believes the wines are fully integrated and ready to drink. He advises his wines as being cellar-stable for decades. Still available for purchase (if you can find it) are wines from 2004 to 2008 for reds and 2009 for riesling (RS 2%). Mr. Shaw is especially proud of his bottled cabernet franc as it likely displays the strongest terroir in addition to its spicy characteristics that pair well with zesty foods.

The next release party is slated for this summer so if you want to experience Red Mountain wines with one of the “old timers,” I strongly suggest you get on their mailing list and maybe we can share some great stories about Red Mountain and its generously warm inhabitants.

To the wine…

I first tasted this at a private event in a Woodinville chateau awhile back. Like some of you readers, I had never heard of this winery. Once I took a sip of this… you know the feeling… time stopped and the sirens began blaring! This wasn’t your average, run-of-the-mill merlot. Extraordinarily smooth. Exquisite. An eternal blend of flavor expression and transitions. A showstopper. I hung around that table the rest of the evening, trying to get as many pours in as I could. You know the habit…

Food pairing was simple homemade beef stew. Fab. U. Lous!

Tasted at 62-66 degrees on the IR temp gun. Glorious, regal dark magenta in the Riedel with aromas of black cherry crème, boysenberry, midsummer plum, and dried tobacco leaf pile with a seamless, frictionless path over the palate leading to a sensuously long farewell kiss of black cherry, plum, dark chocolate, sage, chili spices, red licorice and slick, velvety tannins. One of Washington’s BEST EVER merlots (the other being Januik’s 2005 Klipsun Vineyard merlot).

Alcohol: 14.9%. Estate vineyard. Contains a small amount of cabernet franc. Red Mountain AVA. 125 cases. Grown, produced, and bottled by Portrait Cellars. Power: 3/5. Balance: 4/5. Depth: 4/5. Finesse: 4/5. Rated: 95. Value: $50. Paid: $32. Music pairing: “Mountain of Love” by Harold Kenneth Dorman. This is WAwineman… uncorked, uneducated but not uncouth.

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4 Responses to Portrait Cellars 2005 Red Mountain merlot

  1. csabernethy says:

    Great write-up on Portrait Cellars! I’ve seen the sign a thousand times and have never made an appointment or tasted their wines. This will have to change! I didn’t realize that Shaws were so intimately woven into the fabric of Red Mountain wine history – now I know.

    Cheers!

  2. wawineman says:

    And that’s just one of the pleasant surprises to be uncovered on Red Mountain!
    Risk-takers who want to try something new are wonderfully rewarded. Portrait Cellars. Goedhart Family Winery. Coming soon– JBK Family Estates and RMV Cellars. Great wines without the hype. Sunset Road is a red wine lover’s utopia, from Cooper Wine Company to Hightower Cellars.

  3. Don says:

    Excellent post, I’ll have to keep an eye out for this one. I had their 2005 Cab blend about a year ago and found it a bit oaky, but surprisingly still young and it sounds as if this is a little bit more approachable.

    Also, how do you compare this wine to the Long Shadows Pedestal Merlots?

    -Don

  4. wawineman says:

    Don,

    Excellent question. You can’t go wrong with either of them.

    I reviewed the 2005 Pedestal merlot about three years ago. It was stronger and darker due to the 13% cabernet sauvignon and 7% cabernet franc, and sourced from multiple vineyards. I call it a “designer” merlot because the wine was shaped with top-of-the-line accessories and made to impress. And, by international standards, this is a “red blend,” not a “merlot.” A bit muscular and would comfortably pair with a grilled ribeye and portabellas.

    This one was smooth like Luther Vandross or Sam Cooke. I call this merlot “made from the heart” because, well… you read it so you know. This one’s more a pork tenderloin or planked king salmon. Fully integrated and has entered its “peak” drinking phase.

    Both gave equal enjoyment. Portrait’s cost $32. Pedestal’s cost something like $50-55.

    Portrait’s cabernet blend looks curiously fascinating as a steal. Under $30! This is Red Mountain estate fruit, specifically from 8 year-old vines (for the 2005) that, without GPS, could be labeled “Klipsun Vineyard” or “Ciel du Cheval.” Really, really difficult to debate a better AVA source.

    As you and everybody else knows, cabernets tend to have longer cellar times with tannins being the big issue. Merlots, in general, tend to “come together” sooner so maybe a couple more years for that delectable cab-blend?

    Thanks for the comment!

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