Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Tasting Notes: the Washington State Reds of Gramercy Cellars

In order to attend a wedding this summer, my very good friend Lauren and I were going to be driving through Washington State. For me, it was imperative we factor une petite wine tour into our travels...

...even though Wall Walla was two hours out of our way in both directions.

The first surprise, for me, was the topography of the interior of Washington State. I had always assumed it was lush, dark green forest from about Seattle to the border of Idaho. Not so. Central Washington is much like Central Otago (in New Zealand)-- very very yellow. Lots of valleys and, in the middle of August, extraordinarily hot.

With only one wine-tasting day in Walla Walla, I was keen to hit up Woodward Canyon first. It's easy to find (part of a string of wineries along the main highway) and it's all charming and authentic, situated in a tiny heritage house amid rows of vines and gardens. 

After loving the Woodward Canyon Artist Series Cab Sauv (and buying a couple bottles) we headed across the street to L'Ecole 41, where we tried the only Washington State Chenin Blanc (delice!) and a whole bunch of easy drinking reds.

It was at L'Ecole 41 where the very hip young gentlemen behind the counter tipped us off that we absolutely had to check out Gramercy Cellars. "But the wine tour map takes you to the wrong place," they informed us, "here's a card with the updated location." 

So, after walking in the hot hot heat for 45 minutes from downtown Walla Walla to an industrial park, we discovered an unmarked building with a corrugated iron roof and a porch facade that matched the design on Gramercy's business card. Sweaty and ready for a sip of something--anything!--liquid, we entered.

It was cool inside. Dim and high-ceilinged. Lauren and I, as was our M.O. for most of the trip, immediately headed for the bathroom. As I waited for her, I read some of the newspaper- and wine magazine-articles posted in the hallway. In each and every one of them, "Youngest-Ever American Master Sommelier Greg Harrington Has Success in Wine World" was the general gist. Pictures of the fresh-faced Master Sommelier sipping wine and looking completely at home in front of the camera accompanied each article. As I pondered this profusion, I turned the corner back into the tasting room and met the gaze of... the man himself, the indomitable Mr. Greg Harrington.

Gramercy was begun in 2005 when Harrington left his New York wine industry job in favour of something less frenetic but in many ways more demanding. Gramercy is a boutique winery that partners with vineyards from the Walla Walla region and Columbia Valley. Harrington's wine equation seems to go something like this:

Quality grapes from local vineyards + limited new oak influence = location-specific wines

For Harrington, wines should taste of their upbringing and lineage; essentially, of the place they were raised.

Lauren and I tasted the latest releases from 2008, I believe (was I drinking at the time?) including the Walla Walla Valley Syrah, the Lagniappe Columbia Valley Syrah, Tempranillo and Columbia Valley Cab Sauv. All were delicious, more accessible than Woodward Canyon but less easy than L'Ecole 41. I especially appreciated the non-standard notes of blueberry/fresh raspberry on the Syrah, which had less smokeable or meaty tones than I'm used to tasting in, say, something from Northern Oregon. 

Greg was generous enough not only to chat with us about his vast and precocious wine experiences (and get me really interested in pursuing this Master Sommelier Programme) but to let us barrel taste. What an experience. Wild: it describes both the wines and the fun of discerning in a young young young juicy sip something like the seed of Grenache-y distinction, or the tannic bullishness of a baby Cab Sauv. It's drinking liquid potential.

That evening, with a bottle of Syrah and a bottle of Cab to add to my collection, Lauren and I took the Harrington's recommendation and had a very lovely meal at Saffron (lamb tartar with za'atar. I will only say it twice. lamb tartar with za'atar.)

Fast forward to Calgary, Alberta, Canada... and table 19 at La Chaumiere Restaurant. I've assembled a coterie of experienced winos (my Dad and Sean; Brittany and I; with Lauren and Kristin for back-up) for this momentous dinner and hand-delivered Washington wine experience. 

Head Chef Bob Matthews took control, creating an utterly astounding meal. I mean, I have worked at La Chaumiere since I was sixteen, and even though I am often in the kitchen, right in the action as it were, it is still a totally magical experience to have Bob cook for you. Absolutely incredible.

With the amuse bouche, which was foie gras mousse with a little olive oil crostini, we drank champagne cocktails.

First course was a tower of cold smoked salmon, deep fried tempura fava beans, endive, creme fraiche and basil oil. It was, according to my dad, just created on the spot, out of the genius recesses of Bob's deep knowledge and experience and it was, delicious. With it, we had a little Sancerre.

Second course was a small piece of arctic char, on jerusalum artichoke puree. Perfectly prepared, it went well with the last drops of Sancerre.

For main course we had lamb, with a beautiful porcini jus and mixed vegetables. Here was the perfect food for the wine we'd brought from Gramercy. 

That afternoon, when I'd given Dad the choice of whether he wanted to try the Syrah or the Cab, he'd hemmed and hawed and said "They both look very interesting" in that voice he has... and so we were drinking both bottles. (I'm a pushover when it comes to vino). Sean had decanted them at the beginning of the evening, and they were perched, ruby and crystal, ready for us.

What was most fun about tasting these wines, was the non-standardness (this term I shall create) of the varietals. This was not "a Cab" and "a Syrah," this was a particular Cab and a particular Syrah from a particular place. In this, Mr. Harrington has succeeded enormously. 

What was a learning experience for me, was when we opened a bottle of Woodward Canyon Aritist Series Cab from 2008 and tasted it side-by-side the Gramercy Cab. Here, it became apparent that Woodward has more established vines, and produces wines with a deeper structure. Structure like rosewood cabinets and oaken stairways you can step down in search of plums, dried cherries and tanned leather. The Gramercy Cab, by comparison, was a welcoming parlor created through excellent taste, with an aesthetic that is undeniably enticing. The walls are hung with warm red fruits like that tingle in the side of your mouth. Neither better nor worse that the Woodward, but so so different. 

The moral of this story, is that if you are in Washington State (even if only Seattle!) it is worth your while to drive to Walla Walla, and it is even more worth your while to visit Gramercy. This is a winery that will be producing the best wines out of Washington State. Mr. Harrington is a man of taste; and as such, he's creating and will create wines framed for the cellars of wine drinkers of a discerning disposition.