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Washington State Wine

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Chances are that if you’ve come across a wine from Washington State it was one that was owned by the Altria Group.  Their wine holdings include Chateau Ste Michelle, Snoqualmie, Erath, Hawk Crest, Fourteen Hands, Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte, Villa Maria, Esk Valley, Seven Falls, O Wines, and Domaine Ste Michelle.  I say it’s statistically probable because they account for something like 80% of all wine exports out of Washington and that’s really a shame.  No, it’s not a shame because they produce poor quality wine.  In fact, they’re producing pretty good wines for each of their respective price points.  Even the fact that the Altria Group changed their name a few years ago from Phillip Morris Companies which leaves many that know that in a moral dilemma anytime they consider buying one of the wines isn’t the entire reason.  It’s a shame that the Washington wine you’ve probably had comes from the Altria group because there are so many other talented people growing grapes and making wine in that state that you really need to start drinking their stuff.

I’ve been going to a Washinton State trade and media tasting in Minneapolis off and on every March for the past 5 or so years and I think what is most remarkable about the event is that the wineries that show up are still wanting to prove that their wine is just as good as California or even Oregon which is now just starting to fade out of their brief shine in the international spotlight.  It’s a combination of optimistic enthusiasm and a serious chip on the shoulder; the plucky boxer that is hell bent on reaching the top and won’t stop to even acknowledge what they’ve accomplished so far.  Ironically, in my work with the Minnesota wine, I look to Washington to learn lessons about how to market and grow the industry.  To me, they’ve been nothing but a success story and are still climbing.

Sometimes it's ok to pick a wine based on its label.  Gorgeous labels. Tasty wine.

Sometimes it’s ok to pick a wine based on its label. Gorgeous labels. Tasty wine.

The winemaking culture in Washington borrows heavily from France; Bordeaux and Rhone in particular.  While you certainly see a number of single varietals, it seems everyone has a flagship blend of either the Merlot/Cabernet Sauvingon/Cabernet Franc or Grenache/Syrah/Mouvedre variety.  Reds are certainly heavily favored, but their Chardonnays and Rieslings are certainly attractive options.  What is nice is that most of the wineries tend to shy away from the “Fruit Bomb” style that’s so popular with Robert Parker and California wines and instead opt for a touch of grace.  I believe we call that restraint.

Next time you’re out at the wine shop or a restaurant, do yourself a favor and search out a Washington wine and give it a try if you’re unfamiliar.  Walla Wall and Columbia Vallery are perhaps the two most established wine regions, but new ones are popping up regularly now.  However, it’s always difficult to find wine from these newer regions unless you drive the 4 hours + from Seattle to get to the regions themselves.  If you can manage it, try to avoid the Altria Group wines as well.  Again, not because they’re making bad wine, but to give the other winemakers a chance.  I’d say in most cases you’re not going to be disappointed and everyone wins if they start shipping more wine out of Washington.

Washington State AVA Map_Page_1

More maps and winery listings can be found here.

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Your dreams of procuring me AND helping out a great charity are finally coming true!  On Saturday, March 29 at 5pm Emerging Opportunities for Sustainability (EOS) International is hosting their Cheers for a better future event at the 508 Bar in downtown Minneapolis.  This is your opportunity to support EOS International’s mission of providing low-cost technologies to rural families in the developing world.  There’s also a lot of really cool stuff to bid on during the silent auction, including an intro wine lesson for up to 10 people by yours truly (with wine).Check out the list below and I hope to see you there!

EOS Internationl Mission:

To provide underserved communities with access to low-cost appropriate technologies that generate income and improve health. EOS International will accomplish this by implementing our core technologies, promoting and teaching these technologies to both development organizations and rural villages how to implement them, and developing technology kits to distribute as a way to extend our impact to other areas where we are not currently working.

 

Donors providing items up for bid:

Aaron Berdofe (That’s me!)
Blue Door Pub
Bryant Lake Bowl
Christmas Point
Cowles Performing Arts Center
Digi International
Erte Dining
George and the Dragon
Greg McGrath
Jessup Cellars
Joe Dunlay
Linda and Jarrod Peterson/ Yellow Tree Theater
Minnesota Twins
Marlen Kemmet
Sabai Body Temple
Slade Kemmet
Summit Brewing Company
Three Rivers Park Driving Range
Two Sisters Bakery
Wes Meier

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This past Friday I was a judge at the International Cold Climate Wine Competition hosted at the University of Minnesota.  I’ve helped out at the event before and honestly enjoy being on both sides of the competition because I think it is well run.  They use ranked voting in the final round to determine winners which even those who think very little of wine competitions tend to agree, works out pretty well.  Here are the results for the top awards:

Top White Wine: Parallel 44 (Kewaunee, WI) for their La Crescent

Top Red Wine: Shelburne Vineyard (Shelburne, VT) for their 2011 Marquette Reserve

Top Specialty Wine: Illinois Sparkling Company  (Peru, IL) for their “Stereo” sparkling wine blend of La Crescent and Frontenac Gris

Top Minnesota Wine: Millner Heritage Vineyard and Winery (Kimball, MN) for their 2012 Little Iza (La Crescent)

Overall, I think there were a lot fewer moments when judges were impressed by the wines this year compared to the last, but I don’t think it was caused by a drop in quality; just a rise in expectations.  I was involved in a debate about whether to award medals to wines simply because they were free of faults or not. I stood on the side that technical proficiency should certainly set the bar, but was not necessarily a determinate of medal-worthiness.   There’s always debate in the wine world as to whether or not some faultiness is acceptable. We don’t judge the most influential albums on the technical execution by the musicians do we? Yes, they have to be good enough, but do they need to be perfect in order for us to get the point?

The most surprising thing I learned from the judging experience was how little people know about what goes on during a wine competition or how they work.  To help the general public I have composed an FAQ made up of actual questions I have received to hopefully clear up some misconceptions.

The Wine Judging FAQ

1. Aaron, how do you hold all that alcohol? You’re drinking like 40+ wines in a day. Are you Russian or Irish?

Truth is, I have a little of both in me, but that’s not relevant.  As expert wine judgers, we spit out all the wine that enters our mouths after we have tasted it.  Yes, that’s gross, and no, we don’t make mistakes about which glass to reach for.

2.  Can I watch? I’d love to see you in action! You’re soooo dreamy and handsome!

Wine competitions are usually closed events and for good reason.  I’m not sure anyone would really want to watch a bunch of people sitting around tasting wine and then spitting it out all day.  Although, I do suppose people watch golf and fishing, which are at the same excitement level, but I don’t think most reasonable people can handle it.  After all, it’s not like you’d get to participate.  The press shows up and takes awkward photos or video of you swirling and swishing, but they usually look like they’d rather be drinking the wine.  However, if you’d like to get a group of adoring fans together for my next event to do some tailgating, crazed cheering during the breaks, and maybe some autograph signing if I’m in a good mood, then that’d be just fine.

3.  Is the International Cold Climate Wine Competition truly international?

Yes. 300 entries were received from commercial wineries in 12 different states and Canadian provinces (Count: 2 countries).  We even had Canadian judges!  Some “international” competitions can’t claim this.  In fact, I’m pretty sure there are some “international” airports that can’t support their claim either.  The ICCWC is unique in the fact that only wines made from cold hardy (French-American hybrid grapes) varietals and fruits are allowed.

4.  Anybody can judge wine, right? You’re just saying which ones you like?

No and no.  Wines should be judged on two aspects: one the technical details of the wine (Appearance, Nose, Palate, Finish, Faults) and the other is whether the wine is a good representative of what it is.  Knowing both of those items takes a great deal of experience and knowledge.  Personal preference should always take a back seat.  Just to toot my own horn a little bit here: I was able to correctly identify through blind tasting that a Marquette that I felt most represented what a Marquette is was actually from Vermont.  I knew this because I have had a lot of experience with Marquette (not unique in the room of judges) and also I had a lot of experience of tasting Vermont Marquette (unique in the room of judges).  This was in fact the Vermont Marquette that won the Best Red award.

5.  How do you keep tasting things all day? Are you a super taster?

Very good question.  Most wine competitions limit the number of wines judges can taste because palate fatigue is a very real thing.  Varying the kinds of wine being tasted certainly helps, but going over 50 wines is just asking for some lazy tasting at the end.  If judges are tasting some astronomical number of wines you can be assured that there will be a high margin of error.  And to the second question; no, I am not a super taster.  I have yet to count my taste buds, but my preference for whiskey neat probably puts me in with the more tolerant tasters.  In other words, I’m not overly sensitive to certain things.

6.  How can I become a wine taster?  That sounds like a pretty neat job.

Through hard work and dedication, kid.  Keep at it.

6a  Keep at what? What am I supposed to work hard at?

The work that needs to be done, of course! Just work hard at everything you do.

6b  But what should I work hard at?  Can’t you give specifics?!?!

DON’T MAKE ME REVEAL ALL MY SECRETS!!!!!

***I am no longer taking any questions at this time.  Thank you.

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A new events company has just burst on to the local scene here in Minnesota called GetKnit.  They are pulling together winery and brewery tours, cooking classes, and volunteering opportunities, which all ride on the back of the Local movement.  On Sunday, April 7 at 10:30am, the new company kicked off their maiden voyage with the St. Croix River Valley Winery Tour.

Even though the day started out cloudy, the staff were nothing but sunny.  Just shy of 40 people met at the Roseville Park N’ Ride to board a luxury charter bus to the sounds of Frank Sinatra playing over the air.  I personally would have gone with Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage, but I’m not sure how many would have gotten the joke, so Old Blue Eyes was probably a better choice.  The GetKnit staff, called the GetKnit Gurus, which were nearly all in the first half of their 20s, expertly set the atmosphere establishing the suggestion that above all else, this day would be fun and social.  The company’s name itself hints at their broader goal of “Knitting the community together” and without silly games or icebreakers, they organically facilitate the co-mingling of fellow travelers.  Of course, the added suggestion that bottles of wine purchased at the wineries may be consumed on the bus certainly aided this process.  Later in the tour this set the groundwork for a sing-a-long of Bon Jovi’s Livin’ On A Prayer, which was well participated.

GetKnit Gurus Justin and Sarah

GetKnit Gurus Justin and Sarah

Stop 1 was a quick ride over to St. Croix Vineyards for a tasting of 5 locally grown and made wines including a port-style dessert wine with a bit of chocolate to finish it off.  While the group certainly enjoyed the tasting housed in a beautifully restored rustic barn, the excitement for the vineyard came at the end when a large number of visitors lined up to make purchases.  Stop 2 was in the more urban styled Northern Vineyards, a co-op winery found in the heart of Stillwater.  This tasting followed the format of the first involving Minnesota grown and produced wines, finishing with the port-style dessert wine and chocolate, but in a more urban atmosphere.  The second floor patio of the winery overlooks the scenic St. Croix River and will no doubt only enhance the experience when the chill finally leaves the air.  Much discussion was had in comparing the first winery to the second, but regardless of which side people stood on, purchases were again made.

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Around 1pm a well-deserved lunch was had just down the street at Luna Rossa.  Wine was not included in the lunch, but was available for purchase.  However, only the most adventurous chose to partake; most appreciating the brief respite piling up on the pasta and salad.  Yet, before the coma-inducing powers of digestion could set in, the GetKnit Gurus corralled everyone back on the bus for the 45 minute drive over to the last stop across the border into Wisconsin at Chateau St. Croix Winery and Vineyard.

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This stop was perhaps the least Midwestern feeling of the wineries visited as it was inspired by various aspects of France showing off regal statues and a fountain out front, a French hunting lodge inspired tasting room, candelabras, chandeliers, and even full sets of armor standing at guard.  The wines themselves were mostly made from grapes imported from California, but to reassure people they were in fact still in the Midwest (Specifically Wisconsin), the winery does have two wines labeled Buckhunter Red and Cheesehead White.  For good measure, they also have produced a wine from the University of Minnesota hybrid Marquette grape as the previous two wineries had which appeared to be their grape of choice planted in their burgeoning vineyard mixed in with some Prairie Star.  After a quick tour of their facility, another port-style wine and chocolate pairing was had.  The women again swooned.  Purchases were again made and even bottles of beer were bought (When in Rome…) for the ride back across the state line to the tours completion.

Chateau St. Croix being guarded by a lion.

Chateau St. Croix being guarded by a lion.

Most surprisingly was how smoothly everything operated for GetKnit’s premier outing.  The GetKnit Gurus seemed particularly adept at herding cats and there was not a single blip in the schedule, or if there was, no one noticed.  At $65, the tour was an absolute value (15 wines, 3 wineries, lunch, transportation, wine glass memento) and not only the participants, but the wineries and the staff all appeared to be having a wonderful time.  The company has already lined up a number of events, including the wine tour through May with more events likely to follow.

Happy tourists.

Happy tourists.

For more information about GetKnit events follow the link.

Compensation disclosure: Tour fee comped for an event write-up for the Midwest Wine Press

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Hello all! The cold climate conference 2013 has just begun in downtown St. Paul. If you remember, exposure to the conference last year prompted me to take a another look at Minnesota wine and give it a second chance. This year I am rushing back from Georgia so I can work the event! Pre-conference activities are going on now and the main event begins tomorrow.

I hope to see some of you there!

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I spent all day Wednesday and Thursday at the 4th Annual International Cold Climate Wine Competition on the campus of the University of Minnesota and the event with off with much success.   A panel of 21 judges were brought in to survey the latest offerings of winemakers who specifically use French/American hybrid grapes (Those that can withstand the cold winters).  The attention that the organizers put into making sure this was a truly blind tasting was fantastic. Each judging team was lead by an enologist and then was balanced out by sommeliers, wine consultants, and chefs.  The flights were organized wonderfully and the back room used for prep was…well, a fun chaos made heady by wine aromas.

1 prep table of 7

Out of 325 wines entered into the competition, there were 2 Double Gold, 20 Gold, 61 Silver, and 79 Bronze medal award winners.  It should be noted of course that the judges did not have to award any medals at all.  I was surprised to see some medals coming out of the Frontenac Gris varietal since it is pretty new, but perhaps that points to a rosy future for the grape.  Minnesota was certainly well represented, but entries came in from Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, South Dakota, New York, Vermont and Quebec as well.

The overall “Best of Show” was certainly a landslide victory, taking the top White Wine category as well.  In addition to taking a number of medals, the Four Daughters Vineyard and Winery took all the glory with their La Crescent.  This win points to a lot of hope for the future of Minnesota wine since I don’t think the winery has even been open for an entire year yet.  Much promise is ahead.

The best Red Wine went to Shelburne Vineyard from Vermont for their Marquette Reserve (I told you it was going to be a good red!).  The best speciality wine was taken by Danzinger Vineyards’ Midnight Voyage red dessert wine from Alma, Wisconsin.  If you ever get out to Alma, check out Nelson’s creamery as well for some ice cream, cheese and cured meats.  They also probably have the best wine selection of middle-of-nowhere Wisconsin as well.

Rest assured, the non-medal winners did not go home empty handed.  All of the judges comments are sent back to the winemakers, which for some, was the sole purpose of entering this competition.  It will be this competition that helps define what each cold hardy varietal should be, so the wine drinking masses in the cold regions should have a listen.

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For all of those in the Twin Cities this Sunday stop on out at The Homegrown Experience on Nicollet Island. Lots of local vendors for food, beer, and yes, wine! I’ll be giving a presentation at 1pm on the importance of locality in wine and an overview of Minnesota wine. Hope to see you there.

http://www.thehomegrownexperience.com

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