Highlights of the 2014 Congressional Wine Caucus Tasting

May 29

If there’s one caucus in Washington with a truly bi-partisan membership, it’s the Congressional Wine Caucus, under the leadership of WineAmerica, the trade association for American wineries.  The recent all-American wine tasting at the Longworth Congressional Building on Capitol Hill  attracted 15 members of Congress, ten times as many staff (on “fact-finding” missions), with maybe about 20 industry related guests such as this writer, according to WineAmerica Public Affairs director Michael Kaiser. Fellow regional wine writer and Drink Local Wine Board member Dave McIntyre (wine columnist for the Washington Post) was also there.

Twenty-five states were represented, and aside from the West Coast states who had dedicated tables, were organized by region such as Midwest, Southeast, Rocky Mountains, etc. 152 wineries were represented pouring 204 different wines. Here are my highlights (mostly the whites; time ran out before I could switch to the reds).


Biltmore Blanc de Blancs 2010, North Carolina: Few people realize that Biltmore Winery in Asheville, NC has the largest number of annual tasting room visitors in the country. Demand has been higher than the native grape supply for some time but with this delightful, versatile and well-balanced sparkling blanc de blancs, Biltmore was able to secure a home-grown grape supply. Nice lemon and hints of yeast on the nose are followed by a clean, round and fresh texture, nice yeast and lemon hints and a fresh clean finish. Off-dry and very versatile.

Great Shoals Winery (MD) “Blazing Star” peach cider NV: with a plethora of cideries now on the scene it’s nice to see people doing original variations like this. A bouquet of fresh peaches makes you think the wine will be sweet, but as with apple cider, it’s surprisingly dry on the palate, with that slight sour pungency you also get in apple cider. It also reminds me of “Krieck” beer flavored with peach.


Ferrante Gruener Veltliner 2012 Grand River Valley (OH). This fun and friendly version of the popular Austrian white is a little fruitier than the austere Austrians, but still dry, with apple and grapefruit flavors and a long lingering finish. Original and stylish, versatile for sipping or food pairing.

Chankaska Petit Colline 2013 (MN): The name of this very stylish and very riesling-like wine sounds like a new grape but it’s really a skillful blend of northern grapes: La Crescent, Brianna, Prairie Star, Frontenac Gris, Saint Pepin, Edelweiss, and Petite Amie, with about 5% neutral barrel fermented and aged, 95% stainless steel aged.  The nose has lots of peach, apple and tropical fruit, with like flavors and bright and lively acidity on the palate, very much like riesling.

McFarland Frontenac Rosé 2013 (IA): Another U. of MN hybrid, released in 1996, frontenac has loads of bright cherry fruit but also very high acidity. As a result, it’s not used for dry red table wine as much as for rosé and port. This wine shows you the potential of this grape in a rosé format. The nose is HUGE with bright lively cherry fruit. On the palate, the fruit is full-bodied with great balanced acidity, vibrant and juicy.

New York

Lieb Pinot Blanc 2013, North Fork of Long Island: A regular favorite of mine for over a decade, this is a perfect, versatile summertime white. A faint, lightly lemon bouquet is followed by a surprisingly vibrant and racy lemon/citrus palate, refreshing and stylish, perfect for matching with shellfish.

Anthony Road Rosé of Cabernet Franc 2013 (Finger Lakes): Another winner of a rosé and starts with a bang; lively nose of roses and red cherries. On the palate, the wine is vibrant and packs a punch of fruit and acid, dry and full-bodied with a vibrant finish.

Rocky Mountains

Of all the regional tables, I was most impressed with the quality and diversity of wines I tasted from Arizona, Idaho and Colorado at the Rocky Mountain table. Cinder Vineyards’ Viognier 2012 (Snake River Valley), ID was very impressive and shows the potential for this great white Rhone grape in this AVA. Delicate nose with fruit hints and lees is followed by surprisingly large volume on the palate, from time on the lees, rich, round and fat texture with peach and honeysuckle fruit flavors. A sappy wine but not flabby; impressive.

Bitner Cabernet/Shiraz 2009, Snake River Valley, ID: An impressive, reserve-style blend with nice maturity, this 50/50 blend shows the best of both grapes in a well-integrated, rich and full-bodied, spicy blend. This will beat out most California, and Australian, cab/shiraz blends.

Stone Cottage Cellars Gewurztraminer 2012 (West Elks), CO: This comes from the highest altitude vineyard in North America (over 6,000 ft.) and is amazingly Alsatian in style, with rich, floral aromatics of rose and spice, luscious and juicy palate with good acidity on the finish; outstanding varietal character and balance.

Gaduces “Sancha” 2012 (AZ) A fun, fruity, spicy wine that’s almost all tempranillo with a touch of grenache, it actually drinks like a Rhone blend with a spicy grenache-like nose, ripe fruit and spice, and long lingering finish. Original and stylish.


King’s Ridge 2012 Pinot Gris Willamette Valley Spicy pear notes on the nose. Full-bodied but fresh, nice lingering acidity; a fine food wine and example of Oregon’s talent for this grape.

The most fun wine of the evening was the Bitner (ID) “Menopause Merlot”, with a cartoon drawing of a middle-aged woman on the label, and a hot pink capsule. Aside from the concept (note: it was designed by the vintner’s wife Mrs. Bitner), it was a pretty good merlot! Fresh, generous cherry fruit, juicy, not oakey, easy to drink and probably a great beverage for women able to laugh at the idea.




Let me know if you need anything else.




Michael Kaiser

Director of Public Affairs


Payette Elected to Virginia Wine Council

May 28

Tom Payette, a winemaking consultant and winery industry veteran, was recently elected to a three year term on the Virginia Wine Council. Tom will fill the only Class II position on the council, replacing outgoing member Gordon Murchie.  The Class II member position is the only representative on the council who is not affiliated with a specific winery, but provides support to the Virginia wine industry as a whole.

The Virginia Wine Council was formed in 2008 and is a strong coalition of Virginia’s wineries, vineyards, the Virginia Wineries Association, the Virginia Vineyards Association, wine trails throughout the state, and individual supporters.  The Virginia Wine Council (VWC) serves as the Virginia wine industry’s representative on legislative and regulatory issues pertaining to winery and vineyard activity, providing value to Virginia’s booming wine industry through education and advocacy efforts.

Tom Payette is a winemaking consultant assisting mostly East Coast Wineries including several Virginia wineries.  With decades of winemaking experience he assists clients with winery design and operations set-up, still and sparkling winemaking, and general winery issues.  In addition to serving his clients Tom is a noted author, international speaker and wine judge.  Mr. Payette may be contacted at 540-672-0387.

Wines of the Week from The Appellation Trail

May 18

As the spring moves into summer, we have a nice pairing of white wine releases from the 2013 vintage, and red wine releases from the 2012 vintage. They make a nice pairing, since 2013 was a cool vintage making white wines of vibrant acidity, great for the upcoming warm weather, while the 2012 vintage was hot, making red wines that are ripe, full-bodied and easy to enjoy.

The first Wine of the Week is the Stinson Vineyards 2013 Sauvignon Blanc. Very different from the 2012 version, this is mostly made with the musque clone from their own vineyard. The result is like a Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé on steroids.

The nose has lemongrass and gooseberry with gravel notes, and is very assertive. On the palate, the wine is not as acidic as you’d expect, but is pleasingly full-bodied and dry. Another Loire Valley style element is the low alcohol at 12%, a refreshing change from the 13.5% found in most Marlborough blancs from New Zealand.

This wine will be great with chevre cheese and dill, any seafood especially shellfish, and herb roasted chicken.

The second Wine of the Week is the “E-ville” Pink dry rose 2013 from Glass House Winery, another Appellation Trail member (www.theappellationtrail.com). This pale pink wine with a wicked label has a fun story. Nearby Charlottesville is sometimes called “C’ville”, and Glass House Winery is near Earlysville, or “E-ville.” Additionally there is a women’s group in that town that call themselves the “E-ville women.” So the label shows the rear view of a woman in an elegant evening gown, and I can’t tell you more, but how fun is that?

But I digress. The wine is very provençal in style, and is a blend of merlot and cabernet franc, with delicate aromatics of cherry blossom and cream, with ripe red cherries on the palate, and a smooth palate with a fresh finish.

The third Wine of the Week is a full-bodied red from 2012 from another Appellation Trail member, Grace Estate Winery, namely their 2012 Petit Verdot Reserve. Due to the hot vintage, late-ripening grapes like petit verdot were able to ripen fully with typical varietal character.

This wine had complex aromatics of integrated oak and damson plum, and on the palate, was rich, round and smooth, with oak, fruit and spice elements, and a long lingering finish. I was also impressed that despite the hot vintage, this wine did not have the low acid, “flabby” and short finish that petit verdot wines can get in Virginia in these kinds of vintages; this is balanced, full-bodied but elegant, and is drinking surprisingly well now. Those of you who like gutsy but stylish reds can enjoy this with barbecued ribs or steak in the near term but it will be better by winter.


Essays on Riesling by Sharpe Hill Vineyards (CT)

May 09

Now that winter has finally given way to summer (?!) on the East Coast at least, we start to re-acquaint ourselves with white wine classics: sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, sparkling wine and riesling.

Most Americans not well-acquainted with wine still think riesling is always sweet. In Germany, almost all sweet riesling (aside from the rare icewine) is exported to the U.S., while Germans themselves drink only dry riesling.

SharpeHillBut there’s room for all palates in the world of riesling, and I was happy that winemaker Howard Bursen of Sharpe Hill Vineyards in Pomfret, CT sent me three different dry rieslings he makes, all from the same vintage. It was fun and instructive to taste and contrast them, and so I’ll share my impressions for you.

The justified giant of Riesling in Eastern North America is the Finger Lakes of New York. For some 30 years, pioneers in the area have persevered with a cool climate grape variety which was disappearing from the scene in California at the same time. As the Golden State discovered ripe and low acid chardonnay, riesling was poo-pooed as being flowery, containing residual sugar, and associated with the polyester and disco bad taste of the late 1970s.

Despite riesling’s sudden lack of fashion in the 1980s and 1990s, no other grape, in any species or color, was able to maintain a classic style and consistency of quality across a wide variety of vintage character in the Finger Lakes. As time went on, more vintners realized this, and more critics also took notice.

Today there are two giants of riesling in North America by reputation: the Finger Lakes of New York, and the Columbia Valley of Washington State. However, other cool climate regions in North America have also reliably produced consistent quality riesling with consistent terroir quality; the Willamette Valley of Oregon, the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia, the Niagara Peninsula of Ontario, Northwest Michigan, and even Monterey County which makes 70% of California’s riesling.

However, other areas make quality cool-climate riesling across North America which lack the high-profile of these other regions. Some of these include northern Ohio, Colorado, Idaho, but there are regions on the East Coast worth seeking out as well.

These include the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, Long Island, the Warren Hills AVA of New Jersey, and southeastern New England which is in fact a multi-state AVA of the warm coastal regions of Connecticut, Rhode Island and southern Massachusetts.

Here are tasting notes on the three Sharpe Hill dry rieslings from 2012:

Sharpe Hill Dry Riesling 2012 Finger Lakes

More Alsatian than German in style; a subtle, non-fruity nose with lemon/citrus minerality and faint yellow apple fruit. On the palate, the hint of yellow apple is joined with pear, but the dominant theme is high acid and minerality; a typical if less fruity expression of Finger Lakes terroir, with racy fresh acidity in the finish. Refreshing, dry and food-friendly.

Sharpe Hill Dry Riesling 2012 Southeastern New England

Strikingly different from the Finger Lakes version, the New England riesling has a rich viscosity and texture reminiscent of Alsatian pinot gris, but the fruit character is just as dramatically different from the first wine. This is ripe peach and apricot fruit on the nose and the palate. Despite the dense palate, the wine is well-balanced with firm acidity and a long finish. This is a ripe, rich and balanced wine and a welcome expression of terroir which is seldom tasted outside New England and deserves more notice, at least with this grape.

Sharpe Hill Dry Riesling 2012 Estate Vineyard Reserve South Slope, Connecticut

This single vineyard riesling is a bit backward at this point and takes awhile to emerge. It is the most subtle and Alsatian of the three rieslings. The nose is subtle pear with a hint of spice. The palate is surprisingly smooth and a bit low in acid, without much fruit, but takes time to emerge.

Even in a cool climate, three different dry rieslings from the same vintage can show very different characters and flavors. Dry riesling is very food-friendly, with the acidity cleansing the palate, and delicate racy citrus, apple and peach fruit complementing a wide range of cuisine. You can pick a riesling to match your sweetness level, but the high acid is a hallmark of the grape, and balances the sweetness well. Dry riesling is great with Swiss cheese, seafood, and cilantro.  If you think dry riesling is too dry to enjoy sipping alone, try pairing it with chicken, seafood or semi-soft cheeses.

Cellar Gem Feature: Miles Cellars Riesling 1997

Since 2001, when I attended a 25th anniversary tasting at Glenora Wine Cellars on west Seneca Lake, and found that most of my favorite rieslings were 15 years old or older, I have laid down Finger Lakes (and a few other) rieslings every year. I now have a vertical collection of Finger Lakes rieslings going back to 1998, and can finally start drinking the oldest ones.

Last November I shared the oldest, a 1997 semi-dry riesling from Miles Cellars on west Seneca Lake (the largest of the Finger Lakes). The winemaker at the time was Peter Bell of nearby Fox Run Vineyards.

1997 was a “classic” year for Finger Lakes riesling with well-balanced fruit and acidity, but with a 16-year old riesling stored in my basement, what could I expect? I was amazed: the wine was bright and clear with green and yellow apple aromas and lively fresh fruit and acidity on the palate. Hats off to Doug Miles (owner/grower) and Peter Bell! I wish I had more, but am glad I still have a bottle of the same label from 1998, and about 5 more cases of some 15 vintages of Finger Lakes riesling.

Could you do the same? You need to have a “cellar” that is between 50 and 65 degrees F and dark and free from vibration. Then you need to have the patience to sit on your hands and wait 15 years. For complex biochemical reasons I won’t go into, you either need to drink riesling in the first 2 years or wait until it’s 10 years old or older to get the most from it, but you have to use cool-climate, high-quality rieslings; Yellow Tail or other bargain rieslings won’t cut it.