Here's Sara and Caitlin at the tasting bar, with Sev taking notes:
My notes were pretty straightforward: the 2002 Downtown Red is a cab-merlot sort of blend that's among the very best of its kind in Washington state: it tastes rich and velvety, smells wonderful, and is a bargain at $9 a bottle [by the case]. If you're ever driving through Yakima, it is a categorical imperative that you turn off at Yakima Avenue and head straight for the tasting room to buy a case for your next party.
The 2002 Red Willow Sangiovese was the first American sangiovese that tasted like sangiovese and not a slightly overripe Zinfandel. Really awesome stuff: dark black cherries, good acidity, nice, long finish. Amazingly it's only $18.
The 2002 Elephant Mountain syrah smelled far more complex than other Washington syrahs I've tried; the only that comes close [for me] is the 2001 Glen Fiona syrah from Walla Walla. There's some kinda floral component to the nose that I couldn't identify; somehow, there's no viognier in there, so it's just syrah you're smelling. Good use of French oak, too: it's there - you can smell and taste it - but it never gets in the way of the wine itself. This is also a steal at $18 or so; Eric/grrrscribbler and I tasted lots and lots of $50 Walla Walla syrah that can't hold a candle to this stuff.
The 2002 Cabernet, on the other hand, was kind of a disappointment. It was fairly tannic and didn't smell like much of anything to me. Oddly enough, my guess is that it's just too young at this point, which is kind of unusual for a Washington cabernet. It was just bottled a few months ago, so there's also a good chance it's suffering from bottle shock and is closed down right now. I intend to go back in six months and see what it's like, but for right now, it's nothing special. Still, at $18, it's cheap by Washington standards.
And here's the tasting room manager:
Yeah, I know, bad quality picture, but what the hey. This guy was a hoot: knowing that Mark [the winemaker] had come over to Ellensburg to lecture us a few times on winemaking, he took every opportunity to make bad jokes about Mark's wines, etc.
The tasting room closed at 5, and we were set to meet Mark at their production facility a few blocks away at 6 pm... which left us some time to kill. I figured we could go to Costco and grab some snacky stuff to eat with Mark, so we headed down there [thanks to Jen, whose quick work on her phone got us there without getting lost] for a quick run through the store. I was bad and picked up some Kirkland brand burgundy and Bordeaux; we also got salami, cheese, crackers, and sandwiches. Oh, yeah, and potato chips. Apparently women really, really like potato chips. Who knew? It's been interesting being around women for so much time lately; Microsoft is about 80% male, and of course I don't have many close women friends [that seems to go hand in hand with being a bear and all of that, after all].
So, swag in hand [Caitlin didn't want to leave the store - she had to buy some goat cheese, socks, and Oregon pinot noir; don't ask, she's Canadian...], we ran back to the car and headed over to the production facility. It wasn't hard to find, but it was a bitch getting into the parking lot next door [it looked like there wasn't much of a curb there, but the Passat made really awful noises going over it and back again]. After figuring out it wasn't quite the right lot, we moved the car again and parked in front of the correct door.
Mark showed up in a few minutes, and we proceeded to do an awful lot of thieving from barrels... which is of course incredibly generous of Mark and a really awesome thing to experience. He started with a cofermented roussanne-marsanne that he'd made last Fall and which was now sitting in a barrel, settling or something. This... was awesome. I mean, incredibly good. These are not easy grapes to work with and most examples I've tasted of them have been anywhere from putrid to bitter. This stuff, though, had it goin' on. Wine made from roussanne is really, really huge for a white wine: there are tannins in there, and it's not shy. Mixed with the marsanne, it had typical honeysuckle beeswax flavors and a really huge mouthfeel that was just delicious. Sadly, I think he's going to blend it all with some viognier to make a more commercially accessible wine, but it was a great opportunity to taste something most folks might not get a chance to taste. We then moved on to the Downtown White, their $10 white wine, which was tasty; it's a party wine, sorta, so there was a bit of residual sugar in there, but it really seemed to help the wine out [dry viognier can be kinda tedious to drink]. There was also a chardonnay-viognier [boring, but totally correct, stylistically, and which seems to sell well for them] as well. Then, sangiovese from a couple of different vineyards [partially blended in one case, single vineyard in the other] which made a nice contrast to each other: one tasted more like California zinfandel, the other like straight up varietal sangiovese. Mixed together, perfect. It's interesting to meet someone who's working with grapes that aren't exactly mass market; it's almost like he has to make the wine so incredibly good that you're compelled to buy it even though you, discerning wine drinker that you are, don't normally waste your time with anything other than the most common grape varieties. We then finished up with the 2004 Downtown Red, which is stylistically very, very different than the 2002. The 2002 is a Bordeaux style blend with real wood aging; the 2004 is mostly Lemberger with top end Hungarian oak chips added in tank. That makes it less expensive to produce and hopefully more profitable, and of course it tastes very different, but the 2004 is almost a more originally Washingtonian wine than the 2002, if that makes any sense: from the very first sniff of the glass you know you could only be drinking something made in Washington. It rocked, and at $100 a case, it's way affordable, which is awesome. With wine like that, I don't feel bad that I can't afford [much less get on the mailing list] stuff like Leonetti and Quilceda Creek.
Anyhow, here's a group picture:
From left to right:
Mark Wysling, winemaker
Paul, student, recently moved from Indiana to Washington
Ashish, student, from Gujarat
Sev, student, planting a vineyard near Zillah this Spring [look out for Samaniego Cellars in 2008-2009 or so]
Caitlin, student, from Ontario
Sara, student, from Seattle
We then took a walk around the corner to Kana, another of Mark's projects. They're newer than Yakima Cellars, and they seem perhaps a bit higher end. We tasted a syrah from barrel, but my palate was shot at this point; I couldn't really taste it, which was a bummer. Mark also drew some riesling from tank which he's working on: it had strong green apple flavors, and a little bit of residual sugar - kind of like an Alsatian late harvest riesling. Finally, he gave us a sample of a rosé of barbera that's also in tank right now: it smelled fantastic, but had more sugar than I like in my rosé. Still, it's very well made and I expect it'll be popular with a lot of wine drinkers.
This is Kana:
This is the leaky wine tank in the corner [which isn't Mark's; it belongs to someone else renting that corner for storage:]
And here's a small bottling station:
And I'm done writing for a bit. We then piled into the Passat to head back to Ellensburg; I don't know what the hell happened to it, but when we got back to the car, the dome light was doing kind of a disco ball-strobe effect which was kinda frightening. Later on, I found I couldn't lock it at all: pressing the Lock key set off the alarm and disco lighting, which was pretty upsetting. This morning, though, it's all apparently normal. I wonder what the hell happened?