Thinking outside the box…
That was our goal before starting our tour of the American vineyards. Many have taken us for oddballs when we decided not to go to California, the State super star of the country which accounts for 90% of the country’s wine production(1).
Except that here… each of the 51 states of the United States produces wine, including Alaska and Hawaii! A multitude of discoveries in perspective. So we rented a car for a month and drove from Washington to Texas, passing through Idaho, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico.
An alternative way to discover one of the giants of the wine sector, the 4th biggest wine country in the world, with 22 million hectoliters produced in 2013(1). En route for a road trip of 8,400 km.
Washington, US n°2
Washington is the second largest wine producer in the USA (24,000 ha for 800+ wineries), before New York (15,000 ha) and Oregon (6,700 ha). What to explore… Car rental in hand, we started with the suburb of Seattle. It was pouring, the sky was black. Depressing. Here there are no vineyards on the horizon (the vines are situated far south of the State), but we visited two wineries which was of interest for their differences. The first one is ultra media and trust big Parker notes, the second is family owned and much more discreet.
So we started with Quilceda Creek, where we tried our luck even though I knew they don’t receive visitors. “We sell everything on allocation or directly to high-end stores. No tasting is possible here, I’m sorry “, explained John D. Ware, one of the co-owners, who agreed to meet us and to show us the winery. But how can we evaluate a winery without tasting its production? Aware of our disappointment, John offered us a bottle of their Quilceda Creek “CVR” 2012 ($80), in order to face the gray outside. We appreciated the gift. Especially as we discovered a very nice red wine (mostly Cabernet Sauvignon), smooth, with notes of spices and nice black fruit. Our morale regained colours.
Direction Efeste, our second winery to visit, for a practical session on the sorting table with the workers. It’s was so good to put our hands in the grape berries as soon as we got the chance! Here the smell of fresh grape juice filled the room and delighted the nostrils. Enough to wet our appetites before tasting the wines ; like their delicious Emmy 2011, a Rhone GSM blend(2) with a nose of pepper, licorice and plum and velvety palate of black fruit, violet and cocoa. A treat! ($45).
But it is in the region of Walla Walla (4h driving south) where most of Washington’s vineyards are located, because it’s warm and dry. We took the road as we were expected on site by Gilles Nicault, a passionate (and exciting) French winemaker established in the region for 20 years now.
Gilles is the permanent winemaker at Long Shadows Vintners, a unique and ultra-premium collection in Washington, created by Allen Shoup (former director of Château Ste Michelle) and gathering 9 winemakers of international renown. It includes famous names like Armin Diel, John Duval, Randy Dunn, Michel Rolland and the Folonari brothers. Choice of yeasts, ageing period, selection of cooperages… every winemaker has his secrets and Gilles, a good conductor, develops wines with respect for everyone’s wishes. “We must constantly challenge ourselves in order to better reflect the personality of each wine expert in their respective vintages. It is very pleasant”. He decided to take us to see the vineyard more closely, to feel the atmosphere of the harvest. After an hour’s drive we reached the heights of the Snake River, one of the two largest rivers of the State.
A big surprise awaited us. Ahead of us appeared what is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful vineyards in the world: green rows of vines that literally plunge into the canyon below the river, all on a blue sky background. A postcard that I even added on my computer screen background.
Except that here… on the other side of the Columbia River, just a few hundred meters away, the seen is different. Out of sight is a sandy desert – an Indian reserve requisitioned by the government in the 30s, now neglected and a place that the Americans don’t know what to do with because it is highly polluted and dangerous. What is this place?
“Here is the nuclear site where the two bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August 1945 were created”. We were speechless. I stood there, febrile, meditating long minutes in the face of such horror. How can the world “offer” us such startling contrasts ?!
Are the river and the canyon sufficient barriers to protect the vineyard? Not sure… However wine is the healthiest and the most hygienic of beverages, Pastor said. And those we tasted here were delicious; like the cuvées Sequel 2011 ($60) and Chester-Kidder 2011 ($50), two beautiful wines made for ageing. So let’s enjoy them safely.
Some other beautiful red discoveries: the cuvée Estate Barbera 2012 ($29) from Woodward Canyon Vineyard and the GSM 2011 ($33) from Forgeron Cellars.
Idaho, the campaign of yesteryear
When we think of Idaho, we imagine the snowy mountains and ski resorts. But at Caldwell, in the south of the State, they have been making wine since 1865! Of course this wine production is very small (50 wineries for 485 ha), but the vineyards have charm. We found there a touch of rural country side which sometimes lack in the American wine landscape. As with Ron Bitner, Doctor of Biology and soil connoisseur who likes to hang out on his 10-hectares property, Bitner Vineyards, to admire the beneficial insect species which colonize the vineyard. “Here each insect plays a major role in protecting the plant and replaces the use of pesticides. It’s not magic, it’s simply an ecosystem”, he likes to point out rightly. A couple that doesn’t lack humor since his wife, Mary, has created a label with an original name: Menopause Merlot. A provocative but charming red wine, full of red fruit and energy.
Not far from there, at Fujishin Family Cellars, we visited a family of Japanese origin. They have a range of wines which is as impressive as it is diverse: Riesling, Viognier, Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay, Petite Sirah, Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon… “In Idaho people drink beer first and then whiskey, so we try to offer a diverse range of wines for everyone to find his favourite”, according Martin, the owner. Spotlight on their Amatino 2010, a blend of Syrah (92%), Viognier (5%) and Petite Sirah (3%), priced at $22 a bottle.
Utah, the (impossible) challenge: making wine in the land of Mormon
We are not here to talk about religion, of course. Everyone is free to have his own thoughts and opinions and to choose religion, atheism, or even agnosticism(3). Except that… try to imagine for a moment selling your wine in a State where the majority of the people – because they are Mormons, or should I say from “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” – must abstain from alcohol(4)! You better saw off the branch on which you sit.
We were seduced and touched by the few irreducible winemakers we met. Because fruit wines apart (like The Hive Winery in Layton, producing fruit wines to taste urgently), you just need the fingers of one hand to count the number of winemakers in Utah. Michael Knight, from Kiler Grove is one of them. His peculiarity : he produces and sells his wines in Salt Lake while his vineyard is in California… 12 hours from there. Atypical? “Alas, no, it’s very common in the US and is practiced in many States, by many wineries”, Michael confided. Two reasons: the prices of grapes per kilo are unbeatable in California and the climate allows consistent quality year after year. Difficult to speak of “identity ” or “terroir” in the wines after that.
However, two wineries have their own vineyards in Utah. And not just anywhere: in the red mountains of Moab, where cult films like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Mission Impossible 2 or the racing vessels in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace were filmed. A firing landscape.
We arrived at nightfall at Spanish Valley, a very nice family domain, where we were invited to stay for the night. In the evening’s program: food and wine pairings with the best pizza in town. I must admit that the duets vegetable pizza/Riesling 2012 and Neapolitan pizza/Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 made this evening perfect! The next day we took the direction of Castle Creek, 20 km away, where we found a production of fresh and fruity wines, such as their 100% Muscat Lily Rose 2012 ($11). A nice vineyard, simple and modest, which sells a part of its production to the tourists visiting the area.
It is indeed a challenge to be winemaker in Utah. Because in addition to requiring a great dose of courage and passion, people must above all be able to make living and many wineries have simply been abandoned, due to a lack of funds. This is the case of Native Wines, in Mt. Pleasant. Its owner takes it philosophically. He has since reconverted into being a guitar teacher. “Ten years ago I couldn’t survive, because of a lack of clients. And now I have more students than I had clients before”, he likes to tell.
Same situation at Round Moutains, in Moab, where two retirees launched themselves into wine for their love of the product. “We had to stop in 2008 because of the taxes and the exorbitant price of the license. And the stock that we still have can’t be sold since this would be illegal. So we offer these bottles to friends”, they explained to us sighing.
It is clear that wine is not always welcome in some parts of the world. Yes I know, you can’t please everyone…
On the way to Colorado our bitterness were consoled by the surrounding landscape. What a sight.
Colorado, altitude and friendly wines
The continuation of our American road trip now gained altitude: Colorado is on a plateau. And it is at 1600 m above sea level, around the town of Palisade, that we decided to stop. A temperate climate, dry and sunny (300 days of sunshine per year) helps the development of the vine and allows thirty wineries(5) to express the full potential of demanding varieties like Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
At Mesa Park Vineyards, we were welcomed by Brad and Brooke Webb, a young couple who decided to embark on the adventure in 2009, with the help of Brooke’s parents. “A new challenge for a new life”, said Brooke with a smile. This year the weather was particularly capricious and they had to buy grapes from other Colorado producers. Whatever. “It’s part of the game. We must listen to nature and stay humble”. The 2012 Merlot ($25) and the 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon ($20) are well made. Brad cooked Mexican food and we dined watching SOMM, a documentary depicting the journey of four candidates at the prestigious Master Sommelier exam. A beautiful evening.
The next day during breakfast, Brad suggested that we should visit Maison la Belle Vie, where his French friend John Barber has been making wine since the 90’s. “I call him!“. One hour later the Frenchy – as they call him here – awaited us gay as a pinch and overexcited like a new electric battery! John is connected on 1000 volts. No wonder, that weekend he had to manage two weddings. John is a keen supporter of oenotoursim and he does everything to make the customer feel good at Maison la Belle Vie (a winery that couldn’t wear better name).
His time is valuable but who cares, we were now his guests. “Here we make light and fruity wines with a good acidity, to pair with the French cheeses and meats that our customers crave. I want people to enjoy being here”. Evidence with three lovely wines: Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2011 ($30), Syrah Reserve 2012 ($32) and Red Blend 2011, a blend of Merlot, Petit Verdot and Syrah. John is a phenomenon… Portrait coming soon.
New Mexico, a touch of Italy in the desert
Driving is fun, especially in this part of the world. And although we had already easily swallowed some 4,000 km, the road ahead was still long. Because even though New Mexico has about fifty domains scattered throughout the territory(6), it is South of the state where we have decided to surrender. I never imagined so much beauty and landscape diversity.
We wanted to go to Luna Rossa Winery, in Deming. An Italian success story. Paolo D’Andrea, 4th generation of winemakers in Friuli, left the country in 1986 to come here to teach Hispanic workers how to prune vines. Do not forget that we were only a few kilometers from Mexico and that here – more than anywhere else in the country – all workers are Hispanic. In 2001 he had the opportunity to create, with his wife Sylvia, his 120 hectare estate. Paolo is a purist. “For all the great Italian varietals planted here, we age the wines a minimum of 5 years in barrels and 4 years resting in bottle before releasing the wine on the market. Otherwise people don’t have the patience to wait and drink our wines without understanding them”. A rare and great initiative that provides deep and complex wines; like the spectacular Barbera Reserve 2006 ($50).
Once a month Paolo gets out the pizza truck, equipped with a fire wood sytem, for a festive evening at the winery. And lucky for us we came on the right day! As per usual there were crowds. “The base of the pizza is the essential ingredient. I import everything from Italy. That’s what made us so successful”. Over 250 pizzas prepared for the dinner… goal achieved. In closing and after having celebrated the event worthily, Paolo invited us to sleep in his holiday motorhome, located on the edge of the vineyard, in order to save us from a night in a motel. “You are the guardians of the field tonight”, he said laughing.
Bigger than France, historically conservative and dominated by Republicans, Texas primarily appeared to me as the homeland of rodeo, western and country. Well… not only that! It wasn’t counting on a booming wine industry from the 1650s initiated by Spanish settlers(7), and now has forty winemakers, mostly located in the vicinity of Austin.
Furthermore, we owe a debt of gratitude to Thomas Volney Munson, a Texan scientist, who suggested in 1880 to his French friend Pierre Viala – while the French vineyards were about to be ravaged by Phylloxera – to send Texan rootstocks, resistant to the insect to France. The decision was made and the vineyards were saved! Thomas was made a Knight of Agricultural Merit, the highest honor awarded to a foreign person by France. Thank you Mr Munson for helping to safeguard our heritage.
One can understand the resistance of Texan rootstocks even better when looking at the local climate. To the East of the State (where the vineyards are located), the area is subtropical. It is very hot, humid and cyclones are numerous because of the influence of the Gulf of Mexico. The lakes are mostly dry in summer and the harvest is very early (starting around July 15th). Nevertheless frost can occur during spring and devastate the first buds, like at Flat Creek Vineyards, where the majority of the grapes were destroyed early in May last year due to heavy frost. A setback, yet at least not enough to worry Rick and Madelyn Naber, the owners, who still produce very nice wines, such as Four Horsemen 2011 ($45) and Tempranillo 2011 ($45). Two other sympatic wineries to visit: West Cave, where the owners, having made their fortune in another industry, invested all their money in their dream: a vineyard of 11 hectares. Started from scratch in 1990, they are known nowadays for their very down to earth philosophy. Made evident with their Spectrum White 2012 ($35) and Ruby Cabernet 2013 ($27). Finally, Fall Creek Winery, with their delicious GSM 2012 ($30), a generous and elegant wine.
Ironically, our American wine marathon ended with California, not for a winery tour (next time, I promise!), but to return our rental car in San Diego, before crossing the Mexican border. This opportunity let us to discover that California is also a paradise for “RV Resorts “, otherwise known as “luxury campsites“. Caravaning is king in the United States, especially in California. More than one in ten homes would be attracted by this activity. And larger motorhomes look like real homes on wheels. We visited one of them, Sunbeam Lake R.V. Resort, to share a drink with some regulars who just arrived for the next six months of winter to better understand the phenomenon.
Thank you to Gilles Nicault, Zachary Weber, the Stripeika family, Brad & Brooke Webb, Paolo & Sylvia D’Andrea and to our dear French friends Anne Caron and Fréderic Leclercq for having hosted and welcomed us with open arms.
(1) Source : Sud de France
(2) GSM : Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre; the three main red grape varieties used in the southern Rhone Valley.(3) Agnosticism (or religion of the query) is an attitude of mind considering the truth of certain proposals concerning the existence of God (or gods) as unknowable. Agnostics refuse to decide.
(4) This is what we call the Word of Wisdom: a health law among Mormons which consist to abstain from alcohol, tobacco, coffee and tea.
(5) For more information about the Colorado wines: http://www.coloradowine.com
(6) For more information about the wines of New Mexico: http://nmwine.com/wineries/wineries-map/
(7) For more information about the wines of Texas: https://www.texaswinetrail.com
NB : The “51st state”, in post-1959 American political discourse, is a phrase that refers to areas or locales that are – seriously or facetiously – considered candidates for U.S. statehood, joining the 50 states that already make up the United States of America. It is used here in a positive, humorous and friendly way ; to highlight the fact that great wines can be produced anywhere in the country.