Monday, May 23, 2011

Under Arrest

Ben and Gaye in their cellar
From mechanical engineer to brewer to winemaker, Ben Smith’s path to making righteous wines from Washington State isn’t exactly typical. In 1986, Ben moved to Seattle from Columbus Ohio where he grew up. As he’ll tell you, Ohio isn’t exactly an epicenter of epicurean delights so the move to Seattle was a bit of a culture shock. The biggest difference for him was that Seattleans actually cared about where their food came from. Everything had to be local. Working as a mechanical engineer for Boeing designing flight control systems for the Boeing 737 and 757 airliners, he found himself developing a fascination for fermentation and started home brewing beer with locally grown hops. From there, he developed a taste for wine and found a winemaking club at Boeing. Turns out, Ben had some skills. He continued to place 1st at Boeing’s annual winemaking competition. For those that don’t think that’s such a big deal, consider that this club now purchases 52 tons of fruit every year. Suppliers started approaching Ben, seeking his wines for their portfolio. Ben took is winemaking to the next level by “volunteering” at Andrew Will Winery where he gained invaluable experience under Chris Carmada’s wing for the ’94,’95, ’96, and ’97 vintages.  Cadence Winery was born in 1998

Cara Mia in her new vineyard
Ben and his wife Gaye do all the wine making together. The first commercial vintage was 1998 and produced about 630 total cases. The 2007 vintage is now in the market place with 2008 just around the corner. Total production is now about 2,400 cases. The wines are produced from fruit grown on Red Mountain, Washington State’s premier AVA. The Smith’s purchase fruit from the Ciel du Cheval and Taptiel Vineyards, among others. In 2004, they planted their first vineyard in Red Mountain with 40% Cabernet Franc, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot and 10% Petit Verdot. The vineyard is named Cara Mia after their daughter (now 10 years old). They realized the error quickly as Cara Mia now refers to it as “her vineyard”. Whoops.

It's all about terroir
It’s no wonder wine critic Stephen Tanzer commented on the Smith’s 2007 vintage, “There are any number of powerhouse Bordeaux blends being made in Washington, but very few wines with this degree of class.” The wines produced by Cadence Winery are nothing short of arresting. Powerful, yet seductive, use of Cabernet Franc lends full bodied wines that roll across the palate and with each turn, saturate it with daedal layers of fruit, earth and spice. Each wine more tenacious than the next, they handcuff your palate, steal your thoughts and force you to stare longingly into the glass as you try to grasp “just what is that subtle flavor in the back?” That subtle flavor is terroir, skill, class and passion. It can’t be faked.

Ben and Gaye’s names have been whispered among certain circles since their 2001 vintage. Their names are popping up more and more often in wine publications. They are clearly making an ascent to the top of the Washington wine list. That’s no small feat. When the Smith’s started the winery in 1998, there were only 125 wineries. Today, there are over 700.  But the wines are often overlooked by lazy restaurant and retail store owners who opt more for name recognition rather than quality from a region that is still just a pre-teen (in regional age). But as the Smith’s wines continue to garner praise from the press, wine geeks can expect to see the word “Cadence” on more and more wine lists and retail shelves. Production levels are enough so that serious collectors and curious enthusiasts can soak their palates. Don’t expect to trip over a stack of cases at discount stores or your local Morton’s. Thank goodness.

Recommend Wines:
2008 Cadence Winery Coda
2007 Cadence Winery Ciel du Cheval
2007 Cadence Winery Taptiel
2007 Cadence Winery Bel Canto

For More Information About the Wines:

To Purchase:

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Is Anyone Listening?

Once again I find wine writer Eric Asimov as my muse. A recent article in the New York Times written by Mr. Asimov highlights the wine list of Nice Matin, a Proven├žal restaurant on the Upper West Side of Manhattan (article here). Mr. Asimov writes of the surprising depth and diversity of the list built by beverage director Aviram Turgeman. With access to the old cellar collection of the now closed Chanterelle and the ability to purchase the cellars of private collectors, Mr. Turgeman has built a list that rivals many of the top wine lists in NYC. He estimates that he can keep the list’s depth on going for the next 5 years. If Mr. Turgerman’s networking skills are solid, which I suspect they are, the list should continue to provide great wine geek pleasure for many more than 5 years. Nonetheless, I’d be astonished to find any wine list in my home state of Connecticut to be half as deep as the first three pages of Turgerman’s masterpiece. There’s a reason for that.

The State of Connecticut Liquor Laws prohibits retailers and restaurateurs alike from procuring the cellars of private collectors for resale. Under the ruse of protecting the consumer, wine enthusiasts, diners, foodies and the general consumer are forced to choose wines that are generally too youthful to enjoy while dining at a restaurant or celebrating a special occasion at home. Retailers and restaurateurs are bound by state law to purchase only those wines currently offered by a state registered wholesaler. These wholesalers are not in the business of collecting wine, they are in the business of selling wine. Their inventories are rife with the newest vintages and very rarely have any selections that offer maturity or bottle age. Therefore, consumers are limited by the selections that are chosen mostly by big box distributors whose interests lie mainly in depletions and placements, not quality, choice and depth. It’s easy for most to procure a package store permit, open your door, and choose from the Beverage Media a host of recognizable brands to stock the shelves. Of course, that’s a generalization. And yes, there are smaller distributors focused on artisan, handcrafted wines that a solid retailer or restaurateur will seek out and support. Most just don’t have the drive or passion to do so, a subject for another day. I digress. Conversely, a consumer or diner can simply shop and dine out of state to find a wine list that is as deep as Mr. Turgerman’s. I often find myself preferring to take a 45 minute drive to the Lower East Side of Manhattan where I have a cacophony of restaurant choices whose food and wine list will be miles apart than anything I can find in Connecticut. I’m not bashing Connecticut food. There are good places to eat and some have adequate wine lists. But the buzz of Manhattan and the choice are simply unmatched in a sleepy bedroom community.

I suspect this lack of consumer choice is because the State legislators fear it would lose much needed tax revenue by the reduction of sales from big box distributors. I also suspect that allowing retailers to purchase from private collections goes against the special interest of big box distributors that strongly lobby for any change in law that benefits the consumer or retailer. I’ll admit that is being slightly sensationalist, and perhaps meant to bash and provoke. But perhaps the Governor can consider the increased sales tax revenue this State would be rewarded if small, medium and large size wine retailers in CT were able to sell older vintages of Bordeaux, Burgundy and cult California Cabernets. Imagine the possibilities of a retailer selling a private collector’s $60,000 cellar to another collector for $72,000 reaping $4,320 in sales tax? Those numbers are small on purpose. That’s what one singular 800 square foot store would be able to achieve quickly, at least those that are aggressive and proactive. Now imagine those numbers on a larger scale. Repealing or rewriting the statute would pump countless dollars into a suffering industry and keep business in the State of Connecticut. The purchase would, of course, have to be approved by the State, detailing the transaction and the amount of juice to be procured. Furthermore, the State could gain additional tax revenue by subjecting the retailer’s (or restaurateur’s) purchase to the same liquor taxation the wholesalers face. The onus would be placed on the retailer (restaurateur) to pay that tax. The retailer simply builds that cost into the shelf price of the wine.  More importantly, it allows Connecticut retailers and restaurateurs to be more competitive in a market place that is increasingly more difficult as consumers move their purchases on-line and out of state. Those seeking older vintages of wines are forced to shop on the internet, spending their dollars outside of Connecticut and taking their special occasion dining out of state as well. I was under the impression that the current legislators were focused on keeping business in CT. Changing this legislation can do that. But is anyone listening?    

Monday, May 16, 2011

Cerebral Pinot Noirs And Syrahs

While studying English and American Literature at UC Davis (where his father was a professor), Byron Kosuge had the self-realization that he couldn’t deny his farming roots. The son of a Colorado farmer turned University Biochemist, Byron Kosuge began his winemaking career at Saintsbury Vineyards in Carneros, CA in 1987 and continued to craft beautiful wines for Saintsbury for 14 years. He amassed a treasure chest of 90 point wines and built quite a reputation as one of the premier Pinot Noir producers in California. But Byron felt there was more out there to learn about Pinot Noir and he could only improve his craft by producing wines in another region. After the 2001 vintage, Byron took the plunge, striking out on his own. He clearly does not lack courage. He began crafting wines for his UC Davis roommate Emmanuel Kemiji at Miura Wines. Soon after he connected with Courtney Kingston of Chile's Kingston Family Vineyards and began producing Pinot Noir and Syrah for the Kingston family. The chance to work in Chile was intriguing because he knew the potential Pinot Noir had in the region. It also presented a unique and challenging terroir and, of course, the chance to travel. After a few years of working with Kingston Family Vineyards (he still consults for them) he debuted his own label B. Kosuge Wines in 2004. Byron clearly has no intentions of slowing down.

“…many of the people who have made the difference in the best vineyards never get their names on the labels. Among these growers, the ones I have the most respect for are those who never hesitate to roll up their sleeves and “do whatever needs to be done” to get it right.” – B. Kosuge

His approach is as hands on as it gets. You’re more likely to find him in the vineyard than in some fancy office pouring over financial reports while on the phone trying to open new markets. His idea of multitasking is punching down the cap while trying to fix the bottling line. He prefers walking the vineyards, working the vines, sorting grapes, and working the cellar. That is where, Byron believes, the best wines and the best techniques are born. The results of this approach speak for themselves. Byron crafts wines that show the true expression of where they come from. But what I found most intriguing is Byron’s ability to put his unique stamp on his wine while exercising restraint and working with what the vineyard provides him. Defining that stamp is almost an exercise in futility. His wines are paradoxically cerebral and emotional. They are round and polished but have a sneaky edge that is exciting and riveting. They are Rita Hayworth - voluptuous, a little bit shy, very dangerous, pin-up worthy with a dark side that’s only exposed to those who know the whole truth. And I’ll be damned if that’s just not plain sexy and worth every penny.

Byron’s talents are often overshadowed by his “rock star” brethren. While names such has Kosta Browne, Peay, Siduri, and Calera dominate the California Pinot Noir headlines and Sine Qua Non, Colgin and Dumol dominate California Syrah, Byron’s wines fly under the radar. That’s just fine by me. I prefer to pay for wine, not marketing and social media expertise. He’s pretty comfortable with the idea as well. Of the seven labels that bear his name, there is a mere 1,300 total cases produced, so he doesn’t have to spend his time or money flying all over the world to move boxes of juice. Instead, he can concentrate on developing his talents as a winemaker and vineyard manager. That’s time better spent. To sell his beautifully crafted wines he simply needs to find a couple of guys like me. I’m happy to oblige.

Recommended Wines

2008 Kingston Family Pinot Noir “Tobiano”
$25 per bottle
From Chile. Small production Pinot Noir that’s rich in style but elegant in nature. Look for black cherry, ripe berry and subtle Asian spice aromas. The palate is light on it’s feet but still packs enough flavor to have depth and complexity. A very enticing finish that shows good tannic structure that’s balanced by the fruit.

2009 Kingston Family Syrah “Lucero”
$25 per bottle
From Chile. I did a double take on the price. Those in search of opulent, dense syrah, look no further. Very impressive in its youth, the Lucero shows dark berry fruit with subtle cola and licorice notes. The palate shows great acidity helping to keep the fruit in balance and leading to a long and complex finish. Just over 1000 cases produced.

2007 B. Kosuge Pinot Noir “The Shop”
$45 per bottle
Wow, this is really good Carneros Pinot Noir. Perfumed aromas of wild rose and fresh raspberry tickled with sage, thyme and white pepper. The palate is round and polished, with medium body and a rather lengthy finish. It somehow manages to stay fresh and alive. Just 450 cases produced

2007 B. Kosuge Syrah “Dry Stack Vineyards”
$25 per bottle
Another stunning Syrah value. The Syrah from Byron is quite bracing and palate staining. Big and juicy with currant, blackberry and cassis finishing with a good dose of black pepper and spice. Really complex for the money.

To Purchase The Wines:
The Wines of B. Kosuge from Nicholas Roberts Fine Wines