Get to Know Walter Scott Willamette Pinot

walter-scott-ken-and-erica.pngA good friend and customer introduced us to Walter Scott wines last year, long before they became available on the East Coast. She proclaimed them her very favorite wines in the Willamette Valley – high praise from a discerning taster. That led us to see what others were saying.

Here’s what Wine Advocate said after tasting Walter Scott’s 2012 releases:

“When I am asked if there were any “great discoveries” in Oregon, I would mention “Walter Scott Wines” without hesitation. This is a small bijou operation run by Ken Pahlow and Erica Landon and their story is one of essentially risking everything to pursue their dream. If their wines are of this quality, then their sacrifices have been worthwhile.” Neal Martin, Wine Advocate, March 2015

Two years later, after visiting with Ken and Erica again and trying their 2014s, Martin was even more impressed:

“And bloody good they are as well. I just like how Ken and Erica roll – nothing fancy, no blockbuster or pretentiousness – just killer Pinot Noir with purity, intensity and personality…That leaves me to say if you have not tried these wines yet, do yourself a favor.” Neal Martin, Wine Advocate, June 2016

A Labor of Love
Walter Scott is a labor of love from the husband/wife team of Ken Pahlow and Erica Landon. Ken caught the Oregon wine bug in the early 1990s and soon began just showing up at Mark Vlossak’s St Innocent winery in the Eola Hills offering to do anything that needed doing. Eventually, in 1995, he wore Mark down and started helping out at harvest and in the winery on a regular basis, ultimately taking on sales responsibilities there too.

During his 14 years working at St. Innocent, Ken took a second job handling sales for a leading Oregon-based importer. In 2002, he first met Sommelier Erica Landon. Erica had started in the wine business in Portland and at a Mount Hood resort before becoming the sommelier and GM for the Ponzi family’s Dundee Bistro (that’s where Ken first met her in 2002). She went on to earn a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence at Ten 01 back in Portland (while beginning to date Ken in 2007) before becoming Wine Director for a Portland restaurant group and becoming a wine instructor for the trade.

Ken and Erica married and decided to give winemaking a try, emptying their retirement accounts to make 165 cases of wine in the great 2008 harvest. In 2009, Ken traded labor for enough space at Patricia Green Cellars to make 650 cases. In 2010, Ken took a new job heading up sales at Evening Land Vineyards in the Eola Hills that allowed him to make his next two vintages there.

Evening Land was a great place for Ken and Erica to take the next step. The Evening Land story is complex, but the key points are that an investor group acquired one of Oregon’s greatest vineyards, Seven Springs, in 2007 and brought in Burgundy’s Dominique Lafon to consult. Ken was able to soak up Lafon’s expertise and also get to know current owner/managers Rajat Parr and Sashi Moorman.

A Converted Cider House
In 2012, Ken and Erica signed up long-time fans Andy and Sue Steinman as partners and, with their help, leased and converted a cider house on the edge of Justice Vineyard in the Eola Hills. Then, in 2014, the biggest step yet – they welcomed a new partner (daughter Lucy) to the venture and left their day jobs to focus on Walter Scott full time.

As Neal Martin reported in The Wine Advocate, “their story is one of essentially risking everything to pursue their dream. If their wines are of this quality, then their sacrifices have been worthwhile.” With influences ranging from Mark Vlossak, Dominique Lafon, the Ponzi family, Sashi Moorman and more, it’s hardly surprising that their Walter Scott wines are good. It’s the way they’re good that’s so delightful.

First, there’s a strong focus on great vineyards here, mainly in the southerly Willamette Valley appellation of the Eola Amity Hills and including one of America’s greatest Pinot Noir sites, Seven Springs. Their vineyards are all dry-farmed and feature predominantly marine sedimentary soils. This kind of dirt brings out the minerality and elegance of Pinot Noir paired with ripe cherry/raspberry/strawberry fruit – what I’d argue is the essence of great Oregon Pinot Noir.

Ken and Erica work with their farming partners to ensure that yields are appropriate to the vintage – lower in cool harvests like 2010 and 2011, higher as needed in warmer years like 2014 and 2015 – and that the fruit is allowed to ripen slowly, without excess sugar and with vibrant acids.

A Great 2016
And in a more “classic” and balanced year like 2016? Once again, Ken and Erica’s wines are fully ripe and bursting with fresh (not cooked or dried) fruit flavors, deliver vibrant acids, and went into bottle at remarkably moderate alcohols ranging from 12.5 to 13.9% (vs 14% and higher at many fine estates).

If minerality, freshness and precision are themes that cut across all of the Walter Scott wines, those attributes are always presented in terms of each vineyard’s unique character. Freedom Hill is dark, smoky and powerful. And Seven Springs is at once velvety and weightless, generous and full of tension.

The 2016 Walter Scott releases have yet to be presented to the critics. If big scores matter to you, then buy these now and then brag how you scored some of the top wines of a great vintage while you still could. Because in 2016, I think most critics will echo Neal Martin’s summation of Walter Scott’s 2012s:

“Here were wines with great precision and poise, wines that embraced the opulence of the 2012 vintage but hammered any excesses down with a prudent approach in the winery. The modest acidification ensured that these wines feel natural and refined, the kind of wines that I would take home to drink following a hard day’s tasting. With two partners coming on board, and presumably steadying what can be a financially precarious venture when starting out, things look bright for Walter Scott Wines. Pick up the phone and try them yourself.”

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Chianti Tradition and Modern Innovation at Il Molino di Grace

Il Molino di GraceIl Molino di Grace’s 2015 Chianti Classico is just about the perfect marriage of Chianti tradition and modern innovation, much like the estate itself.

I visited the estate just a few weeks ago. Located right outside the village of Panzano, these vineyards in the heart of Chianti have given wine for more than 350 years. The name of the estate, “Il Molino,” gives tribute to the 19th Century windmill that remains perched on a hill (you can see the windmill in the background in this photograph).

The “modern” comes from Frank Grace and his family who purchased the site and began planting/replanting the vineyards in 1996. Grace was initially attracted to the site as a vacation home and place to indulge his passion for modern sculpture (there’s some amazing art dotted around the estate). Wine was not on the agenda – until son Tim and good friend Gerhard Hirmer pointed out that the vineyards were in one of Chianti’s great sites and that it was a shame to continue selling them to inferior winemakers.

For Frank, it was in for a penny, in for a pound. So he invested in building a modern, squeaky clean winery and hired one of the world’s foremost Sangiovese gurus, Franco Bernabei, to guide the operation. Vineyards were planted/replanted to modern trellising, yields lowered, and farming converted to organic status (with certification achieved in 2014). Bernabei’s winemaking style is simple – cool fermentations to retain fruit, gentle extraction to avoid harsh tannins, and skillful use of large Slavonian oak casks to smooth the wine without covering it in wood flavors.

In the truly outstanding 2015 Tuscan growing season, this blend of modernity and tradition brought forth a simply lovely Chianti Classico, one with enough fruit and silkiness that anyone can enjoy it but enough classic Chianti cured tobacco, leather and earth that it couldn’t possibly be from anywhere else.

We had a nice run with Il Molino di Grace Chiantis a few years ago before availability and pricing got spotty. Now our good friend John Grimsley of Le Storie Wines has partnered with the Grace family to bring Il Molino di Grace back to the market – and partnered with us to get it to you at very special prices.

Chablis Quality Like the “Big Boys”…

Lyne Marchive, Dom des MalandesI’ve always wondered how Chablis as fine as Dom des Malandes could always remain so…well, to be blunt: cheap! It’s not like the estate is new or unknown. Lyne and husband Jean-Bernard Marchive formed Malandes in 1986 with vines farmed by her father and grandfather making up the core of the estate.

The wines have earned critical praise from the outset, with Master of Wine and Burgundy expert Clive Coates awarding Malandes a two-star rating in his landmark book The Wines of Burgundy. To put that in context, that’s the very top rating for any Chablis estate, the same awarded to William Fevre, Vincent Dauvissat, and Domaine Raveneau. And yet wines from those three estates sell for at least three-times the prices of Malandes.

What’s more, the wines have gotten even better over the past decade under oenologist/winemaker Guenolé Breteaudeau. As the leading Burgundy critic working today, Allan Meadows (“Burghound”), said last year, the team at Chablis-based Domaine des Malandes “continue to drive the quality of the Malandes wines to new heights. Readers who are not familiar with the wines owe it to themselves to try a few bottles; moreover the prices are reasonable and thus the wines offer excellent price/quality ratios.”

But why are the prices so reasonable – even before we slash them further with our direct import savings?

… Priced With Modesty and Practicality
Malandes Chablis VineyardSpending an afternoon and evening with Lyne in Chablis last February helped me understand. Lyne’s family – the Tremblays well known in Chablis – have been living, farming and making wine here for a long time. They have always been practical business people – Lyne said her grandfather was one of the first growers in Chablis to stop selling to the co-op and bottle and sell all his own production starting in the early 1900s. Bottled wine was more of a risk, but turned a much better profit.

Entrepreneurial ambition has always been tempered by the realities of trying to make a living the cold, stony, soils of Chablis. Lyne explained that it was simply impossible for a small grower to make a living from grapes and wine in Chablis until the mid-1970s. Frost in the spring, vine-killing cold weather in winter, summer hail, and ill-timed rain near harvest conspired to wipe out nearly 100% of Chablis production in two to three years per decade. Lyne remembers the brutal stretch of 1952, ’52 and ’54 when her father had no grapes (and not much grain) for three consecutive years. In 1954 he was forced to leave home and pick grapes in Beaujolais to make enough money to feed the family.

By the mid-1970s growers in Chablis had learned frost and winter cold management techniques from their neighbors in Champagne (Chablis is closer to Champagne than Burgundy’s Beaune), opening the doors to the potential to making a living from wine. So Lyne took over from her father and, with husband Jean-Bernard Marchive, created Domaine des Malandes.

Lyne and Malandes Hail Nets

Lyne with Chablis’ First Ever Hail Nets

Innovation in Wine Growing … and Marketing
Even as she prepares to retire and hand over the estate to her son and youngest daughter, Lyne remains an innovator. Hail has been a problem in Chablis for years and seems to be intensifying with global climate change. Some of Lyne’s vines grow in what is basically a thunderstorm channel – a valley between two hills that captures storms and funnels their maximum impact right on the fragile vines.

After the disastrous 2016 storm season, Lyne decided she’d had enough. Although it took nine months of intensive studies, legal filings and lobbying, two months ago she received a permit to test Chablis first ever hail netting system. No other grower has been brave enough to step up to try it, so she’s rolling it out as a test with a mix of protected and unprotected rows. As she says, it’s very expensive – but then so is losing the entire harvest to hail.

“No one else was willing. So I decided I must go ahead by myself. I believe it’s what we must do to make good, good, good, Chablis.”

As Neal Martin of Wine Advocate said after a blind tasting of Lyne’s 2014 and 2015 Chablis last year, “I was very impressed by the consistency here. Proprietor Lyne Archive, with winemaker Guenolé Breteaudeau, crafted some really quite superb Premier Crus that shone out. It’s great to see this well-known name in Chablis doing so well – long may it continue.” We think it will.

The Extraordinary 2016 Chablis of Domaine des Malandes
Dom des MalandesAs Allan Meadows (“Burghound”), said last year, the team at Chablis-based Domaine des Malandes “continue to drive the quality of the Malandes wines to new heights. Readers who are not familiar with the wines owe it to themselves to try a few bottles; moreover the prices are reasonable and thus the wines offer excellent price/quality ratios.”

Once again, that’s true for Malandes’ 2016 releases, which are coming to us direct at simply unbeatable savings. The steep losses during the challenging growing season means we weren’t able to get any 2016 Grand Cru Les Clos, but we do have a tiny bit of 2015 available. The 2016 Villages cuvee is a fantastic “house white” for now and 3-4 years to come. And both 1er Crus are classic bottlings you won’t want to miss.

Below you’ll find our and critics’ notes on all four wines. Please note that Alan Meadows – aka Burghound – tasted the 2016s at a very awkward moment of their evolution, either right after pre-bottling sulfuring or, worse, right after bottling. The reduction he complains of has resolved and all of the wines are clearly even better than his reviews suggest. Happy hunting!

Why We Love Zeitgeist Cabernet

Zeitgeist WinemakersWe think that one taste of Zeitgeist Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 is all you’ll need to fall in love with this lush, rich, luxurious Napa red. And, how great it tastes has a lot to do with why we love it, too. But it’s only part of the reason we became this small-production Napa Cabernet’s foremost champions in the Mid-Atlantic nearly five years ago.

We introduced the mid-Atlantic region to Zeitgeist Cabernet Sauvignon four years ago with the un-rated 2011 bottling. Why did we pre-buy a substantial quantity of a not terribly inexpensive, utterly unknown, wine in what was easily Napa’s least popular vintage in 25 years – without even tasting the finished wine?

Because as soon as I met co-owner/winemaker Mark Porembski and tasted his 2010 Napa Cabernet, I could tell this was a person and a project we wanted to be a part of. Mark and his wife/partner, Jennifer Williams (formerly of Spottswoode), care about the things we care about. Hard work. Exhaustive selection. Careful craftspersonship. And, most of all: having fun with delicious, authentic, place-centered wine with no snobbery, attitude or fuss.

The Critics Pay Attention
ZeitgeistWith Mark and Jenn’s 2012 vintage, the Wine Advocate began paying attention and (under) rated it 91 points. The next year, Robert Parker upped the rating for the 2013 to 93 points. In 2014, the 10th bottling of Zeitgeist Cab, Parker’s Wine Advocate delivered Mark and Jen an “Outstanding” 94 points. And while Parker hasn’t tasted the 2015, his former associate, Jeb Dunnuck, popped the rating up to a fine 94+ points in 2015!

After tasting that succulent 2010, it took us a couple of years to persuade Mark to sell us any wine – after all, with only 330-450 cases made per year and “insider” fans up and down the West Coast, there wasn’t much to spare. But – as we said – Mark’s our kind of guy, and even as the praise and ratings roll in, he’s remained generous in giving us all the Zeitgeist Cab we ask for.

So, by all means, feel free to enjoy the 2015 Zeitgeist Cabernet Sauvignon for its bold fruit, velvety texture, and powerful, cellar-worthy, finish. And it won’t bother us if you notice that this wine delivers the quality and intensity that you normally only find in $100+ (even $200+) bottlings.

But if you really want to “get” why this is so special, plan a trip to California and, before you go, give Mark a call at the winery to schedule a visit. An hour with Mark (or Jenn if she’s available) will remind you that there’s more to wine and winemaking than what’s in your glass. And that little bit extra is why wine can be so very, very, exciting and satisfying.

Unique Co-Op, Unique Wines from Northern Italy

Tasting at Kellerei Kaltern

Tasting at Kellerei Kaltern with Judith Unterholzner.

Nestled in the foothills of the Dolomite Mountains, Alto Adige is Italy’s northernmost wine growing region – although you could also call it Austria’s southernmost vineyard! Ceded to Italy after WWI, there’s still plenty of Austrian tradition here and you’ll notice road signs shifting from Italian with German subtitles to German with Italian annotations as your drive northward from the Veneto.

While the names of producers and bottle shapes can look German, the style of the wines combines the ease and food-friendliness of Italian whites and reds with the precision and freshness of Italy’s northern neighbors.

The soaring mountains of the Dolomites and cool temperatures at higher altitudes limit grape growing to a series of valleys of the Adige and Isarco rivers which form a Y-shaped vineyard area that meets at Bolzano. The valley floors are rich, fertile, and quite hot – often Bolzano is one of Italy’s hottest cities in July and August. The combination of reliable warmth, fertile soils, and relatively flat terrain makes the valley floors perfect sites for mass produced wines – like typical grocery store Pinot Grigio.

Working the Slopes
Kellerei Kaltern CaldaroBut for growers willing to plant and work vineyards on the steep, rocky, slopes looking down on Alto Adige’s lakes and rivers, grapes can ripen perfectly, gaining plenty of lush fruit flavor while retaining crackling, pure, acidity for balance.

Working the hillsides has been the philosophy of the growers who built Kellerei Kaltern from the first. Wine growing here has always been a small-scale operation. In the past, most vineyards were owned by locals who also farmed other crops on the flat lands below. Today, vineyards are just as likely to be owned by professionals who commute to Trento or simply summer in the mountains. But average vineyard sizes remain small (less than three acres), too small for growers to profitably make their own wine.

From the 19th century on, the small growers of Alto Adige began banding together to form mutually owned wineries – co-operatives – to turn their grapes into wine. And in 1906, a group of growers around Lake Kaltern, north of Bolzano, came together to create Kelleri Kaltern.

A Source of Pride
Today, about 440 growers jointly own and supply grapes to Kellerei Kaltern, with the winery providing both vineyard management advice and winemaking and marketing for the group. Usually when we think of co-op wine, we think of inexpensive jug wine where the focus is more on quantity than quality. But, because so many of the small growers that sell to this bright, modern cooperative winery grow grapes as a second source of income, it’s a source of pride more than anything for them to sell fruit that will make the best possible wine. More importantly, they are paid on a profit sharing basis rather than by the ton, a key difference between this co-op and more traditional ones that keep the quality shockingly high considering the wines’ reasonable price.

Come see for yourself this Saturday, May 5,  when Judith Unterholzner from the winery is here and pouring five terrific selections. You’ll be glad you did.