Walla Walla's dazzling Chateau Rollat; blending innovations at Conn Creek

October 17, 2007

By Paul Gregutt

Special to The Seattle Times

Pick of the Week

King Estate 2006 Pinot Gris; $16.

Pinot Gris, not so long ago, was virtually unknown in this country. When King Estate announced grand plans to specialize in the grape, in Oregon no less, it was as if someone growing grapes up in the Okanagan said he was going to specialize in gruner veltliner (not a bad idea, actually). Fast forward: Pinot gris (or grigio in Italy) has become a consumer favorite; King Estate is the country's leading producer. This fruit-powered, iconic wine is a model for how to do it. Clean, fresh flavors suggest pears and apples, with good midpalate concentration and a lively snap to the finish. (Young's-Columbia)

There is some special magic to the autumn season that seems to spring wine surprises on you at every turn. This past week was a gem.

It began with an unexpected phone call from Matthew Loso, the winemaker and owner of Matthews Estate in Woodinville. "There's someone you should meet," he said, without indicating who or why.

My curiosity bone was rattled. Loso makes great wine and suffers no fools. We met in the bar at an area restaurant, and I was introduced to Bowin Lindgren, the owner of Chateau Rollat, and his consulting winemaker, Christian LeSommer.

Lindgren spent 35 years "climbing the corporate ladder" with an East Coast pharmaceutical company, then retired with the goal of learning to make wine. He phoned LeSommer out of the blue and (says Lindgren) badgered him mercilessly until the poor man agreed to make a visit to Walla Walla. Lindgren had set up camp there in the fall of 2004.

Among the wineries listed on LeSommer's résumé are Chateau d'Yquem and Chateau Latour, where he was general manager and wine master for more than a decade. He is now the consulting manager for Domaines des Barons de Rothschild.

They agreed on a plan, recalls LeSommer, to produce "the best possible expression of ripe Walla Walla fruit" — specifically, Bordeaux blends of Seven Hills and Pepper Bridge cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot.

The first releases of Chateau Rollat (ROLL-ah) are just out and dazzling. The mid-level wine, a 2005 'Rollat' Cabernet Sauvignon ($38), presents supple, ripe and sweet fruit on a bed of fine tannins. The word that kept cropping up as I tasted the wine was "polished." It has a sophisticated finesse that moves the beautiful fruit flavors into a more elegant dimension than all but a handful of Washington wines. The Rollat is available by the glass at the Waterfront, the Herbfarm and the Barking Frog, and at a few Eastside wine shops. For purchase information call 509-529-4511.

Rollat's still more substantial sibling is the 2005 'Edouard' Cabernet Sauvignon ($62), which will be released at barrel tasting weekend in Walla Walla in early December. All Chateau Rollat wines are being made at Va Piano for the moment, though a dedicated winery is in the planning stages. The Edouard, in French terms, is a vin de garde — a wine to put away for some years. "I hope it will be a giant among wines," says the winemaker. Based on my first impressions (dark, smoky, nuances of bark, soil, subtle layers of earth and barrel), I believe it will.

The Napa factor

Lest you cringe at the prices for the two wines just mentioned, here's an update from the Napa Valley, where wines of comparable quality will cost two to three times as much. On a brief visit to Piña (http://www.pinanapavalley.com/), an excellent boutique specializing in single-vineyard cabernets, I was given an insider overview of current costs for startup wineries. Piña is owned by several brothers whose family roots in the Napa Valley go back to the 1850s. They make their living selling grapes and hiring out as vineyard managers; the winery is mostly for their amusement.

Good vineyard land in Napa today costs $300,000 an acre and up. It takes $50,000-$70,000 an acre to install the vineyard, and $30,000 per acre annually to farm it. That's before you build a winery, purchase winemaking equipment and barrels, or begin to make wine. Even though good grapes are selling for as much as $10,000-$12,000 a ton, it does not cover the costs of growing them. Growers as well as small wineries, say the Piñas, are being forced out of business. Draw your own conclusions about what is fair value.

I also toured a marvelous new tasting room, called the AVA room, at Napa's Conn Creek winery. Winemaker Jeff McBride has set out barrels of single-vineyard cabernet sauvignon from each of Napa's 14 sub-appellations (including the proposed Calistoga AVA). There are also barrels of the other four Bordeaux blending grapes — merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot and malbec — and three barrels of wines aged in American, French and Hungarian oak.

Beginning early next year, visitors will be able to schedule appointments to taste through all the different barrels; learn about the specific soils and other factors that create the flavors for each sub-AVA; and make a blend of their own, which they will bottle and take away. The cost for the tasting/blending will be in the $100-$150 range. It's a unique experience. For details: e-mail info@conncreek.com or call 707-963-9100.

Zinfandel memories

The week concluded with a revelatory bottle of an almost-40-year-old zinfandel. Many readers have written to express their concern over the rising alcohol content of many wines, particularly California zinfandels. An increasing number of them now top 16 percent and some reach beyond 17 percent alcohol. It is difficult, if not impossible, to drink such wines with food; they blow out all flavors except jammy fruit and chocolatey oak. Nuance and detail? Forget about it!

So it was an almost-forgotten pleasure to visit the home of some wine-loving friends where the best wines of the night were both under 14 percent. A Nalle 2004 Reserve Zinfandel ($40) — the first in the winery's history (http://www.nallewinery.com/) — displayed the bright and brilliant raspberry fruit that used to characterize many of the best Dry Creek Valley zins. Young, sappy and seductive, it was a walk down memory lane, a return to a time when zinfandel was my California red wine of choice.

But the real shocker was a 1969 Mirassou Monterrey/Santa Clara Zinfandel. Plucked from a temperature-controlled cellar, where it had rested since its release, the label read just 12 percent alcohol! In today's wineries such a wine would be untenable, dismissed as green and unripe. And yet ... it amazed us all. A lovely, burnished mahogany, it opened up quickly with scents and flavors of cooked cherries and berries; slid gracefully into still darker flavors of figs and smoky prunes; then hung a surprising left turn to end with a riveting, baking chocolate and lemon-peel finish. Such epic wines convince me that although a great deal has been learned in recent decades about grape growing and winemaking, something important may have been lost.

Paul Gregutt is the author of "Washington Wines and Wineries: The Essential Guide." His column appears weekly in the Wine section. He can be reached by e-mail at wine@seattletimes.com.

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