One question I hear consistently from staff and customers is why I choose to source certain grapes from certain vineyards. There are three criteria that I use for choosing a vineyard:
- How good is the site for the grape variety I am looking for?
- How good is the grower at managing that site?
- Do I enjoy working with the grower? (Life is too short to have people in your life that you do not enjoy.)
In this article I would like to address the first of these questions. It is no secret that certain varieties do much better in some sites than in others. Hey, they don’t grow Pinot Noir in Burgundy and Cabernet in Bordeaux without a reason. Brian Carter Cellars brings in about twenty varieties and buys from about a dozen growers, most of whom I have been working with for as long as Brian Carter Cellars has existed, and many for much longer – dating back thirty years or more. Over that period, I have tried a lot of varieties from a lot of sites and landed on my favorites for each. All of the growers I deal with are great for the last two items above, but not every grower excels with every variety.
For most of the major varieties I use, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Viognier, I use more than one site, often two or three. Why? I may need a different style of wine for each of several different blends I produce with any given variety. For instance, the Cabernet I use for the base wine in Solesce, which often comes from the hot area of Red Moutain, needs to be full flavored, well-structured, and of moderate acidity. The Cabernet that I use as a blending grape for Tuttorosso, which comes from a much cooler part of the Yakima Valley, needs to be much less aggressive, less structured, and higher in acidity. My favorite blending Cabernet for Le Coursier and Trentenaire comes from Stone Tree Vineyard on Wahluke Slope, and in certain vintages it can also make a very positive addition to Solesce. The Stone Tree Cabernet is generally full and ripe but without the structure or tannins that the Red Mountain Cabernet has. So, to summarize, the reason for sourcing from these different sites gives me more diversity when I sit down to blend, or to put it metaphorically, more colors on my painter’s palette.
I cannot always predict which vineyard source is going to work best in each blend until I sit down to make the blend. Each vintage is different; the wines that work in a cool year may not work for the same blend in a hot year. This leads me to the second reason why I diversify my sources: to give me a sort of insurance policy. It is not just the vagaries of the weather during the growing season that determine what happens to the quality of the grapes. It can be a winter freeze or a spring frost that destroys the crop in one area but not in another. It can be the failure of the irrigation system at a particular vineyard. It can be an insect infestation that destroys or limits the crop. I have even seen hailstorms dramatically affect a crop in just a matter of minutes. Diversity helps make better wine and also secures that I will have grapes with which I can make wine.
In deciding if a site will work, soil type is certainly a factor, but in general, soils are not as diverse in Washington as they are in a lot of other grape growing areas. Most of the soils here are relatively loose and shallow, which means they do not have a lot of moisture holding capacity. This is one of the real reasons our grape growing area is so successful, as low moisture holding capacity means we can use deficit irrigation to control the growth of the vine, giving us smaller berries and focusing the energy of the plant into ripening grapes, not growing excess leaves. This smaller berry aspect is particularly important for larger berried varieties such as Grenache, Tempranillo, and Sangiovese, so paying attention to the soil is especially important when selecting a site for those varieties.
While soil is important, heat is probably the most critical variable. Some varieties can do well in more diverse heat sources. As mentioned above, the style of Cabernet Sauvignon can vary greatly depending on its source, and Cabernet could certainly be considered adaptable to a variety of sources. Another variety that falls into this category is Syrah. The one variety that I would say really requires a hot site is Petit Verdot, as it is a very late ripening grape. Varieties, in my opinion, that can do well in medium-warm to quite hot areas are Malbec, Tempranillo, Mourvedre and the Port varieties, including Touriga Nacional and Souzao. Those varieties that require a pretty narrow range of moderate heat – not too cool and not too hot – are Grenache, Counoise, Cinsault, Viognier and Roussanne. These more medium heat areas are probably my favorite and are exemplified by Olsen and Lonesome Springs Vineyards west of Benton City, and also the Dineen Vineyards near Zillah.
Varieties that can be successful in a variety of sites from cooler to warmer (but that I prefer to get from cooler to moderate sites) are Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Riesling. Last, the variety that I think cannot make great wine in anything but the cooler sites is Sangiovese. The central part of the Yakima Valley where the Willard Family and the Boushey Vineyards are located are the best examples of this. Of course, the grape that demands the coolest sites, Pinot Noir, needs sites so cool that they only exist in Washington and Oregon on the west side of the Cascade Range where the marine influence is greater.
What makes one site more suitable for a certain variety than another? It is important to mention that different winemakers prefer different sites for different reasons. I would say that selecting a site for its grapes, along with picking time, may be the biggest determining factors in the style and quality of the wines they make. The biggest effect of that is expression of varietal character. For instance, both Cabernet Franc and Merlot can make good wine in hot sites, but the cooler sites, especially in a warm vintage, bring out that classic cherry character in the Merlot and that bit of herbs in the Cabernet Franc that make these varieties sing. Color is also a big one: varieties with modest color, including Grenache and Sangiovese, seem to do best where the cool temperatures, especially at night, produce the highest amounts of anthocyanins. Then there is acidity, most important in white wines, rosé, and of course Sangiovese. The cooler the site, the higher the acidity. I have tried Grenache on Red Mountain and the Wahluke slope, and they are pale in color in most years.
Well, now you’ve got me started. Better reign me in before I write more pages. Now you all know everything you need to go out, pick a vineyard and make some really great wine. Hmmm, maybe a couple more of these lessons first!
Ever wonder why it seems like some wines are almost always paired with the same foods? There's a reason why these "classic pairings" are just that--classic. Both the food and the wine consistently bring out the best in each other, their flavors and textures intermingling and enhancing the whole tasting experience. Think freshly shucked oysters with a crisp sauvignon blanc, or a bold red sauce with an equally bold and bright sangiovese, or salty blue cheese with port...or, you guessed it--lamb with a traditional Bordeaux wine.
We don't want to leave you hanging. Check out this delicious and easy recipe from our friend Karen Binder, sure to pair beautifully with all of our Bordeaux blends.
Lollipop Lamb Chops Provencal & Olive Smashed Potatoes
Karen: I love rack of lamb but find it difficult to know precisely when the rack is how I enjoy it most…perfectly medium rare. Thus, I’ve taken to cutting the rack into “lollipops”, so called because one picks them up to eat them. They make a wonderful main course (3 or 4 per guest) served with olive smashed potatoes. It can be served (1 per guest) as an elegant appetizer on a buffet.
- 8 Lollipop lamb chops (buy a whole Frenched rack of lamb which is made up of 8 ribs and cut between them to form lollipops)
- 3 T olive oil
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 or 3 T of Herbes de Provence or a mix of fresh rosemary & thyme
Marinate the lamb in the mixture of olive oil, garlic and herbs for a few hours in the refrigerator. Bring to room temperature before cooking if possible. Heat a cast iron skillet over medium high heat until the pan is hot. Place the lollipops one one side in the skillet (the oil marinade should be enough oil for cooking). Sprinkle with a good amount of salt and pepper based on your taste. Turn chops after about 3-4 minutes and continue cooking on the second side for another 2 minutes. Remove to a warm plate and let rest a moment. Serve with olive smashed potatoes.
Olive Smashed Potatoes
- 4-5 medium size Yukon gold potatoes
- 3 Tb olive oil
- ¼ C pitted Kalamata or Niçoise olives, chopped
Place potatoes (skin on) in boiling, salted water and cook until tender. Drain and allow to cool. Using a potato masher, coarsely “smash” potatoes (I leave skin on you but can peel if you wish!). Add olive oil and olives and mix. Serve with Lollipop Lamb Chops.
We're not in it for the accolades, but we're pretty excited these days. Over the past year, our wines have received numerous gold (and platinum!) medals, impressive scores, and amazing press. Brian has continued to produce some of the most acclaimed wines in Washington, and luckily we all get to reap the rewards.
Just ask Eric Degermen, who recently wrote in the Tri-City Herald, "This year marks Brian Carter’s 40th anniversary as a Washington winemaker, and according to the latest Platinum Judging, the Woodinville producer is making some of the best wines of his storied career." Click here to read the full article.
These are just a few of the highlights from 2019:
2015 Takahashi: Double Platinum at Wine Press Northwest Platinum Judging, Double Gold at Cascadia International Wine Competition, 92 points by Robert Parker
2014 Opulento: Double Gold at San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition
2014 Tuttorosso: Double Gold at Seattle Wine Awards, 93 points by Jeb Dunnuck, 92 points by James Suckling, 92 points by International Wine Review
2015 Paul Thomas: Gold at San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, Gold at Jefferson Cup Invitational
NV ONE Graciano: Platinum at Wine Press Northwest Platinum Judging, Gold at Seattle Wine Awards
Click here to see the full list. And while we absolutely appreciate the praise, what really matters is what YOU think. So stop in soon to try some of these wines for yourself.
We recently finished pressing off the last of our reds from 2019: Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon from Solstice Vineyard. Good to see it come to a close! I feel confident that we made some very good wines. Harvest began pretty much on schedule with our first picking of Sauvignon Blanc, on the 12th of September. Our big push for red varietals was delayed until the 19th, not so much by the weather as by fire.
In late July the vineyard manager from Stone Tree Vineyards called me to say that a fire had occurred a month before and that their grapes were not going to be harvested as a result of smoke taint. While the Yakima Valley is our largest AVA supplier, Stone Tree is our single largest source for grapes. It is also the earliest ripening site we pick from since it is warm there, and some of our earliest varieties such as Tempranillo come from there. This resulted in my needing to replace most of the grapes sourced from that vineyard. The silver lining is that it allowed me to experiment with a few new vineyards and blocks, including some clonal selections of Tempranillo which are hard to come by. Getting back to harvest dates, it also affected the time of harvest since most of the new sites were a bit cooler than Stone Tree.
All the fruit that came in early in the season was spot on in quality. Then in early and mid-October we had some low temperatures, which included some frosting of the leaves and pretty much the end of the ripening process. Fortunately, the sugars and most of the flavors were there, but the acidity was a little high in a few cases. But as you all know, this is not my first rodeo, and I have seen these types of issues before, most recently in 2011.
While it is early, I am happy with almost everything: good fruit, good color, and some good acidities – all of which is up my alley for making European style wines.
In celebration of the harvest, as well as an excuse to bring far reaching family and friends together, we will soon celebrate Thanksgiving. While the main course requires little imagination for most of us, the supporting players can stretch our culinary brains and talents. Of course there are the traditional mashed potatoes, peas, and sweet potatoes with brown sugar and marshmallows. But how about wowing the folks with some fabulous original side dishes?
Nicole Aloni’s Yam Fries (www.consciousfeast.com) | Makes 8 servings
3 pounds Garnet yams (or sweet potatoes), peeled and cut into 1/2-inch slices, then again into 1/2-inch strips
1/2 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme (or 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme)
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 eggs, well beaten
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup Panko (or fine breadcrumbs)
Preheat the oven to 500° F. Lightly grease a large baking sheet with vegetable oil to evenly coat.
Combine the thyme, garlic, salt, pepper, Panko, and half of the parsley and toss to mix. Dip each piece of yam into the beaten egg mixture, shake off the excess liquid, and toss in the seasoned crumb mixture to coat. Spread the yams in a single layer on the prepared baking sheet, taking care not to crowd the pan. Bake until the “fries” are tender and golden brown, turning occasionally, about 30 minutes. Transfer the yams to a platter and sprinkle with the remaining parsley.
1 head of cauliflower (about 2 pounds, be sure it is white with compact florets)
½ cup olive oil
6 garlic cloves chopped
Salt and pepper
*This simple technique for roasting cauliflower may be used for fresh fennel, Brussels sprouts, red peppers, zucchini, or almost any other savory vegetable.
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Core the cauliflower and separate it into florets. In a large bowl, add the olive oil, garlic. Toss the cauliflower florets in the oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Dump out onto a cookie sheet, and roast in the preheated oven for about 20-30 minutes. Check occasionally and move the cauliflower around on the baking sheet so that it is evenly roasted and golden. Serve hot.
Spinach with Pine Nuts and Raisins | Makes 6 servings
This recipe is loosely based on the way my best friend’s Sephardic mother prepared spinach when I was growing up in New York City, and is the original way I got my children to love spinach.
3 pounds fresh spinach, washed and lightly dried with any tough stems removed
3 Tbs olive oil
1 large sweet onion, chopped
½ cup of raisins plumped in hot water
½ cup of pine nuts
In a frying pan large enough to hold all the spinach, warm the olive oil. Add the pine nuts and sauté till golden. Add the spinach and raisins. Cover and cook for about 5 minutes shaking the pan occasionally to prevent sticking. Cook till the spinach is warm and completely wilted. Serve immediately.
Butter-Poached Brussels Sprouts | Makes 4 servings
1 pound Brussels sprouts
½ pound butter
Salt and pepper to taste
Cut the end off the sprouts, discard, and cut the sprouts in half. Blanch them as follows: Bring a pot of lightly salted water to a boil and pop sprouts in. Cook for 6 minutes. Drain and place them in an ice water bath. This will cool them rapidly to prevent over cooking and will keep the bright green color. Drain and dry with a paper towel to absorb as much water as possible.
In a frying pan, melt the butter. When it bubbles, toss in the sprouts and poach on low heat for about 6 more minutes. Season with salt and pepper and serve hot.
Happy Thanksgiving, all!
The story of Port is one steeped in lore. It is a story of trade, warfare, colonization and power, accidental genius, and good fortune.
We begin in the 1600s: a scene set in England as anti-French Brits began searching for new wine origins. France and England had been on-and-off sparring partners for generations, and the 17th century saw some of their most gruesome battles. At this time, countrywide boycotting of French wines was occurring, and other options were being sought out.
Trade relations with Portugal at this time were blossoming; a royal wedding between Henry VIII’S sister and the King of Portugal opened a strong opportunity for fortunes to be made and shared between the two countries. However, the seas were not kind to the wine trade, and between the ever-shaking boat, hot sun, and frequent piracy, Portuguese wine would never reach England tasting as it should.
Two Portuguese brothers, as the story goes, fortified the wine with Brandy before the trip to England to help ensure its quality. This concoction became a hit with the British, and the rest was history. Over the next two centuries, the influx of British port makers was visible up and down the Douro Valley. In fact, some of the oldest and most respected Ports have British names like Taylor and Graham.
In 1756, The Douro Region of Portugal received the very first Designation, or “specific growing/production region” (like Champagne in France) in European history. This valley consists of three areas: Baixo Corgo, Cima Corgo, and Douro Superior. Though there are as many as 100 grapes that can be used in the production of Port, five varietals are among the best: Touriga National, Tinta Cao, Tinta Roriz, Souzao, and Touriga Franca. Here in Washington, Brian Carter Cellars sources four out of five of those varietals (all but Touriga Franca) from the Snipes Mountain AVA for our award-winning Opulento.
The Douro Valley has seen its share of changes over time. The blight of Phylloxera between 1868 and 1872 destroyed more than two-thirds of the vineyards in that region. What followed was a slow rebuilding and restructuring of the Valley and Port production in general. Even though Port no longer travels by ship, but by land now, that doesn’t hinder the tourism and charm of the area. Visitors flock to the city of Porto to eat, drink, and celebrate the ethereal elixir we call Port.
The good news is that if you can’t make it to Portugal right now, Brian Carter Cellars is offering a Vertical of our Opulento Port-style wines, including our 2013, 2014, and 2015 vintages, for your holiday table.
The even better news is that if you see a trip to Portugal in your future, tickets for our all-inclusive 2021 Douro Valley Cruise are available. Click here for more details!
Tell us about yourself (where are you from? Sisters and Brothers? Pets?):
I’m originally from the VA Beach area, but I spent the last 15 years living and working in and around DC. I moved to Seattle last summer with my husband and 2 dogs – a not-so-smart yellow lab named Zeus and a super-smart mutt who looks like a yellow lab, named Clancy. I have a brother who’s 6’8” and a sister who’s 5’10”. I’m 5’5”. I don’t get it. Also, like any good introvert, I love love LOVE cooking and reading.
What is your favorite part of your job?
I’m a big nerd in general, and when I find things that I can totally geek out about, I get excited. That’s how I feel about wine. And the Oxford comma. Finding a job in wine and marketing, which is all about communication, allows me to tell stories all day to people about one of my favorite topics—in person and in writing—and I love that. And the wine is pretty good, too!
What attracted you to work at Brian Carter Cellars?
I recently moved from Northern Virginia, where I worked for a very esteemed winemaker who reminds me a LOT of Brian. Both have been making wine for over 40 years, both focus on blends, and both are never content with good enough. I’m pretty sure I applied for the job the same day it was posted.
Sidenote: there is some exceptional wine coming out of Virginia, btw. A lot of folks I’ve talked to on the west coast seem very surprised by that. I’m a huge advocate, and I’m happy to offer recommendations…for a price. Just kidding. Maybe.
What is your favorite Brian Carter wine?
Hmmm…right now I’m loving the 2015 Corrida. It’s smoky and dark, and it has good acidity to keep it fresh on the palate. Great for Fall! But ask me again tomorrow.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
I got into the wine biz by accident about 10 years ago as a direct result of the recession. Like every good/weird story, it all started with a law degree. Since then, I’ve done just about everything you can do in the industry (sommelier, teaching, marketing/sales, consulting, legal compliance, events and programming, wine club, and a dash of production). Also, I can quote just about every episode of Seinfeld, The Office, and Parks & Rec. That’s talent.
Brian Carter Cellars just released two new varietal wines under our ONE label. While we have been blending these two wines for several years, we have not bottled and released them separately until now. Since they are not common varieties, especially in Washington, it may be the first time you have been exposed to them.
Graciano is a spicy, aromatic grape used mostly as a blender in Rioja and has been used since 2010 in our Corrida Blend. The second wine is a varietal named Souzao which we have been making for some time in a sweet wine variation as a part of Opulento. It is a very dark wine and one of the most highly touted of the many Port varieties.
If you have not yet tasted a 100% varietal Graciano or Souzao, you are not alone. These are examples of the many varieties that have become available to consumers over the last few decades. For many of us, this is an exciting time, with bourgeoning opportunities to try something new and different. For a few of you, however, it might also be a bit overwhelming - how many of these new varieties do I have to learn about?
You might remember the good ol’ days when store shelves were stocked with just a few varieties: Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and maybe a Merlot or Sauvignon Blanc if you were lucky. Exposure to more exotic varieties such as Cabernet Franc or Grenache was rare. You probably had to have taken a wine class to have been exposed to varietals like Viognier or Mourvedre. Now, the shelves are crammed with dozens of different varieties. If you are naturally inquisitive, you can even search out exotic wines from Aligoté to Zweigelt.
So, how many of these varieties are there and why bother trying a new one? Nobody knows for sure how many varieties there are in the world; new varieties are being discovered all the time. Oz Clark, in his book Encyclopedia of Grapes states there are over 8,000 varieties. More recent publications say 10,000. The good news is you can’t possibly learn them all, so you don’t have to try! There are 82 permitted varieties in Portuguese Port production alone, and I can guarantee that you have never heard of more than a half dozen of them.
For me, the good news is that, if you want to, you can try a new variety every week for the next year and not get bored. If you’d rather stick to drinking Cabernet and Chardonnay the rest of your life, that’s great too (I have met people who only want to drink Chardonnay). However, if you are into exploring, these are a few varieties that I have discovered in the last few years that have particular interest to me: Albariño, Aglianico, Arneis, Carmenère, Frappato, Grillo, Grüner Veltliner, Lagrein, Picpoul, and Touriga Nacional.
What will be your new favorite varietal?
This is the second release of our Dedication series, a unique blend released each year to celebrate a person who has had a significant impact on my life. This wine is dedicated to Robert Takahashi who, for the last decade, has been essential to the success of Brian Carter Cellars. Robert, a nearly 20-year veteran of the Washington Wine industry, holds an essential role in making every Brian Carter Cellars wine since 2008. He is a ‘steady hand’ who works hard and can always be counted on, from early morning punch downs to late-night cleanups. He is a great winemaker in his own right, and I rely on his palate and his winemaking advice daily. Thank you, Robert!
Robert has always had a special passion for Malbec, a variety well suited to Washington’s soils and climate. I asked him to blend a 2015 Malbec- based Bordeaux blend and the result is the 2015 Takahashi, dominated by Malbec with smaller amounts of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. This wine has already won several Gold medals and recently took home a Double Gold at the Cascadia Wine Competition where all the judges must unanimously agree it is deserving of this accolade.
When you pour this wine, you see the color is like a black hole from which no light can escape. With aromas of blueberries and damson plums, on the palate, you will find lots of body, balanced acidity, and modest tannins supported by plenty of fruit. Pairing this wine with food will not be difficult, just don’t pick anything too subtle, or this wine will dominate. I suggest rib-eye steaks smothered in mushrooms. Enjoy!
Malbec is one of the classic varieties approved in the Bordeaux district of France. However, on my last trip there, I found that Malbec was scarce or non-existent in Bordeaux today. More popular before Phylloxera, the variety did not survive the post-Phylloxera planting, not because of the quality of the grape, but because of several viticultural problems including frost, coulure (which prevents berry set) and downy mildew. However, Malbec is the dominant grape in the nearby area of Cahors, where the wines are distinctive and worth seeking out. Malbec is also a stalwart performer in Argentina where it can be found bottled on its own and in Bordeaux-style blends with varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The variety has found a home in both California and Washington as well, where its popularity is on the rise.
For fun and education, I recommend going to your local wine shop and picking up a Cahors and an Argentinian version of Malbec and try them together with the Takahashi. You will see some commonalities such as the darkness in color, but you will also see some differences as well. Keep drinking, keep learning, and keep enjoying wine!
"Meet our Employee"
If you have visited the Tasting Room during the week, you probably have met Laurie and her welcoming personality. We asked her some questions on our monthly spotlight.
What is your favorite part about your job?
I would have to say the wonderful people that I work with, and the people I get to meet every day in the Brian Carter Cellars Tasting Room. I also love learning about wine.
What attracted you to work for Brian Carter Cellars?
I have been a fan of Brian Carter’s wines for years, so the decision was easy. It’s a great place to work and be part of the Brian Carter family. It brings you closer to the wine you love.
What is your favorite Brian Carter Wine?
I love the Takahashi, I am a huge Malbec fan and the balance of the Takahashi wine is perfect. It feels very rich and indulgent, plus it’s just yummy.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
I am the ‘guardian ad litem’ for foster children who are very special to me. I love to bike around Kirkland, and love to be in the sun. Every year I escape to Southern California for a month just to avoid the rain.
Tell us a little bit about your family?
I have three grown children and four grandchildren. We are a very lucky family, to be able to live close together here in Washington. I was born and raised here- it’s home.