$20 Below

$20 Below: Tamarack Cellars Firehouse Red 2011

Tamarack Cellars Firehouse Red 2011

By Shawn Luke

Tamarack Cellars was founded in 1998 by Ron and Jamie Coleman, with Ron serving as the winemaker.  According to their website, Tamarack produces approximately 20,000 cases of wine each year with a focus on reds made from Bordeaux grapes.  There are other releases, including Syrah and Sangiovese as well as some special club-only wines.  When I visited in September 2012, there was an impressive tasting lineup that was anchored by their 2009 Ciel du Cheval Syrah and the 2007 Dubrul single-vineyard blend, both of which displayed immense complexity along with site and varietal characteristics.  Another favorite was the 2010 Cabernet Franc.  Since that was my first time to try Tamarack’s wines, I came away thoroughly impressed with the quality of their entire lineup and the unbelievable price points.  Others have clearly taken notice, especially in regards to the single-vineyard wines (which retail for $50, well below other bottles from the same sites), with Paul Gregutt of Wine Enthusiast delivering high praise for the 2008 collection.  Even the score “stingy” David Schildknecht dropped some seriously good scores on the 2008 and 2009 single-vineyard wines he tasted.  Clearly, Ron took advantage of the contacts from his prior job as a wine wholesaler to procure grapes from several of the most prestigious sites in Washington and he knows what to do with them.

Tamarack’s tasting room and winery are located out by the Walla Walla Airport (on the former WWII air base) and show a “no-frills” presentation.  Evidently they are too busy focusing on making high-quality wines with those high-quality grapes.  The winery is actually located in the former firehouse, which probably provided the inspiration for the name of Tamarack’s entry-level wine, the Firehouse Red.  Prior vintages have been consistently received well and the current 2011 release lives up to those standards.  The 2011 is a blend of 26% Merlot, 24% Syrah, 22% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc, 6% Sangiovese, 5% Malbec, 3% Zinfandel, 1% Petit Verdot, 1% Carmenere, 1% Grenache, and 1% Counoise.  With that kind of make-up you would could assume that this is a “sweep the floor” mishmash of extras.  While I’m not sure whether that is actually the case or not, there is one very telling piece of evidence that I uncovered in looking at the wine’s technical data.  There were 11,500 cases of the 2011 Firehouse made.  Considering that 2011 was a decidedly cooler vintage throughout Washington, it’s likely that they fell short of the 20,000 case mark in 2011.  So, it’s clear that well over half of the winery’s production is dedicated to this bottling.  There must be a very sharp razor in discerning what goes into the (much) more limited production varietal and single-vineyard bottles, leaving a lot of really good juice for the Firehouse Red.

The 2011 is darkly colored with a bright fuschia-purple color and some deep ruby at the margin.  The nose is very bright with vibrant, slightly rich blue and purple fruits and a subtle white pepper aspect.  The displayed a medium-light body with a floating presence on the palate.  Actually there was an almost dancing quality and a really juicy presence from the ample acidity.  However, there was enough mass to keep it in balance with the purple and deep blue fruits singing.  The finish showed a continuation of the bright purple and blue fruits with more of the pleasing acidic aspect providing lift.  The tannins were easy and smooth with acidity continuing to show more than tannin over the moderately lengthy finish.  This wine is well-made, presenting some really good juice at a tremendous value.  In fact, this was such a “happy” wine that the bottle disappeared long before there was an opportunity to see the evolution over time.  So my recommendation is to drink up and enjoy.  89 – 13.8% alcohol.  Suggested retail is $16.  Tasted on May 25, 2012.

Posted on by Shawn Luke in $20 Below, Red Blends, Washington 2 Comments

2011 Washington Rieslings

2011 Washington Rieslings

Milbrandt Vineyards 2011 The Estates Ancient Lakes Riesling

Charles Smith 2011 Kung Fu Girl Riesling

Sleight of Hand 2011 The Magician

By Shawn Luke

When the first warm days of Spring arrive, providing hints of the Summer to come, I like to try the remaining crisp annual whites from the prior vintage as we wait for the new generation to arrive in stores.  Since we’ve had a few days of mid-80’s here in Memphis over the last couple of weeks, I’ve sought out several of the great casual drinkers that I had last summer in an effort to gain a little refreshment from the heat, to “clear the shelves” for the next vintage and also see how these wines have fared over the last 6+ months.  I’ll be posting a few times on these in the coming days.  My first post results from a search of the shelves at a favorite local retailer, where I found the opportunity for an interesting comparative tasting.

Evergreen vineyard is the largest vineyard in the newly christened Ancient Lakes AVA within Washington State.  It is owned and farmed by the Milbrandt family, who in addition to Evergreen, have immense vineyard holdings throughout the Wahluke Slope AVA.  As a cooler site with amazing caliche soils, Evergreen has come to be the standard bearer for crisp, minerally white wines from Washington.  So I couldn’t resist the opportunity for a return engagement with three dry/off-dry Evergreen Vineyard Rieslings from the 2011 vintage, a cool vintage in Washington.  Being a cool site in a cool vintage, you know that the acids were a big part of the story.

First up was the Milbrandt Vineyards 2011 The Estates Ancient Lakes, which was crafted in an almost completely dry style, with only .4% residual sugar and a ph of 3.02 from 8.5 grams/liter of acids.  That’s a pretty low ph, definitely indicative of the site and the vintage.  This showed a pale pastel yellow color with aromas of bright pear and apple and a clean white mineral with some gray stone mixed in as well.  The acidity came through with a refreshing near-vibrancy on the palate.  Along with apricot, the fruits turned a little more to the citrus side showing a darker lemon aspect.  There was a nice light-medium body that allowed the entire palate to enjoy the bounce.  More noticeable acidity presented in the finish, giving the wine a citrus fruit character as the white stone worked in as well.  Not surprisingly, this turned just a touch toward tartness as the finish extended.  88 – Suggested retail is $17 – 12% alcohol.

Next I tried one of the standard bearers for affordable Washington Riesling, Charles Smith’s 2011 Kung Fu Girl.  Charles Smith doesn’t publish a lot of the technical details on his wines, so I was only able to determine that this contained 1.8% residual sugar.   The color was a clear soft yellow with a slightly pastel aspect.  The nose presented bright fruits of Meyer lemon, near tangerine, apricot, bright pear and white stone.  Initially, this hit the palate with a zingy acidic bounce but then it rounded off as it warmed, allowing the interplay of the citrus fruits shifting to stone fruits.  There was an easy transition to finish with the stone fruits and slight citrus.  I detected a more noticeable residual sugar element, which lingered along with subtle crisp apricot and peach in the extended finish.  This wine is very well done and represents a tremendous value.  For me, this displayed more noticeable residual sugar than prior vintages, which was likely an effort to counteract the level of acidity.  Whatever the reason, it worked.  91 – Retails for around $12 – 11% alcohol.

I finished with Sleight of Hand’s 2011 The Magician.  While not always 100% Riesling (the 2010 was 85% Gewurztraminer), this was crafted with 2.4% residual sugar and a ph of 2.98 from 1.04 g/100ml of acid.  The residual sugar was definitely higher than prior vintages and the ph ranks among the lowest I’ve seen on a domestic wine.  The wine presented with an extremely pale yellow, almost white-yellow color.  Aromas of fresh apricots, with some clean light citrus fruits and a clean stone working in.  Light bodied with a vibrant, bouncy quality on the palate as lots of acidity delivered lemon, lemon zest and more citrus notes.  The finish had a bracing tart kick full of lemon.  This really zinged with the acidity.  I could not really tell there was any residual sugar because the acidity just cleared everything out.  For me, this should be consumed with food which would tone down the presentation of the acidity and allow it to clear the palate.  Actually, this would be a great palate cleanser for any occasion.  88 – Retails for $18 – 12.5% alcohol

So with my little experiment complete, I reflected on how each wine dealt with the acids.  The Kung Fu Girl, was my favorite by score because it struck the most pleasing balance between bright fruits, residual sugar and cleansing acidity.  The Milbrandt and Sleight of Hand wines both allowed the acidity to tell the story.  The Milbrandt showed the acids with more subtlety despite being almost completely dry.  It had less acid by volume, which was fortunate since there was almost no residual sugar.  The Magician had an extra dose of bright fruits and acidity that delivered a stronger, bracing kick even though quite a bit of residual sugar remained.  This tasting served as a personal reminder that it’s always a challenge for winemakers to dip into their toolbox and figure out how to respond to the variances of individual vintages.  Each of these wines continues to drink well and I recommend them all for immediate consumption to help make way for the new guys, which I hope to taste in the coming months.

Posted on by Shawn Luke in $20 Below, Riesling, Washington 2 Comments

$20 Below: Southard Columbia Valley Red Wine 2010

Southard Columbia Valley Red Wine 2010

Date Tasted: 5-21-13

Price: Suggested Retail is around $15.00

From The Winery: 14.5% alcohol. 55% Syrah (Lawrence Vineyard), 45% Mourvedre (Sugarloaf Vineyard). Columbia Valley AVA

Impressions/Notes: After tasting Southard’s 2009 Lawrence Vineyard Syrah, purchasing the 2010 Columbia Valley Red Wine for the meager price of $15.00 was a no-brainer. This Syrah/Mourvedre blend did not disappoint. It’s rich, with plump black plum, toasted oak, tobacco, and strong smoky notes. A mixture of lightly sweet and tart blue and black fruit coats the palate. Despite it’s big, lush nature, there’s plenty of balance to keep it from falling flat. I would recommend this wine as more of a stand-alone drinker than a pairing wine.

Rating: Recommended (88), 4/5 Value

Posted on by Nick in $20 Below, Red Blends, Washington 2 Comments

$20 Below: C.G. Di Arie Break Away Zinfandel 2009

C.G. Di Arie Break Away Zinfandel 2009

Date Tasted: 3/28/13

Price: Suggested Retail is around $18.00

From The Winery: 14.3% alcohol. Sierra Foothills AVA. 3000 cases produced.

Impressions/Notes: On a recent shopping adventure, I was approached by a woman that was obviously pushing this wine (not sure if she worked for the shop, the distributor, maybe even the winery). I usually steer away from purchases in this type of scenario, but there were a couple of buzzwords that caught my attention. “Zinfandel”, “low production”, and “Sierra Foothills.” Despite being utterly annoyed by her unflinching proclamation that America’s best Zinfandels come from the Sierra Foothills (the Russian River and Dry Creek valleys say hello), I purchased a bottle. C.G. Di Arie Vineyard and Winery is owned by Chaim Gur-Arieh, a former inventor and new food product developer. Some of his most notable products include Cap’n Crunch, Hidden Valley Ranch salad dressing, and Pudding Cups. C.G. Di Arie’s Break Away Zinfandel owes it’s name to symbolize the wine’s departure from jammy, over-oaked Zinfandels. It presents with a light-medium purple color that is remarkably transparent for a Zin. The aroma profile consists of blackberry, black pepper, tilled earth, and molasses. In the mouth, it’s light-medium bodied with soft tannins and tangy blue fruits.There is a very minimal oak presence on the nose and palate. I’m a big proponent of experimentation (and this is a different breed of Zin) but I couldn’t help but think of this wine as Zinfandel Lite as I was drinking it.

Rating: Recommended (86), 3/5 Value

Posted on by Nick in $20 Below, California, Zinfandel 2 Comments

$20 Below: Franciscan Sauvignon Blanc 2011

Franciscan Sauvignon Blanc 2011

Date Tasted: 3/20/13

Price: Suggested Retail is $16.99

From The Winery: 13% alcohol. Napa Valley AVA. 6,970 cases produced.

Impressions/Notes: Franciscan’s 2011 Sauvignon Blanc falls on the fruiter side of the Sauvignon Blanc spectrum. The wine presents with a light straw color. There’s a bit of sliced bell pepper on the nose, but lanolin and orange zest provide the primary aromas. It’s easy-drinking and mellow–domesticated for a Sauvignon Blanc–with moderate acidity. Retailing at $16.99, this is one of my favorite Napa budget wines.

Rating: Recommended (88), 4/5 Value

Posted on by Nick in $20 Below, California, Sauvignon Blanc 3 Comments
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