The Grapes: Syrah
The Region: Columbia Valley, Eastern Washington
Pairs Well With: Light savory meats (pork loin, lamb, etc) when done in a moderate style
Stay Away From: Intense red meat, robust red sauces
You Will Like It If: You want a juicy sipper for casual enjoyment
Stay Away If: You are looking for an age-worthy red with layers of complexity
Cellar Potential: Best now, will keep for a few years
All I could see of the cheesemonger was bushy long hair and a scraggly beard, bustling among cylinders of Muenster and domes of triple crème as if they were his children.
I was working part-time in a local specialty foods store, a small grocery and café facility that brought our small Midwestern city its first taste of a number of premium, organic and locally produced items. It was a small shop, roughly the size of a local drug store, but in these early days it was always packed.
Walking through the front door, customers were flanked by a robust selection of organic produce, and the smell of the gourmet café at their left, which featured a modest custom menu, was pronounced and would follow customers throughout the store. At the back, creations from the store’s on-site bakery showcased unique incarnations of fresh breads and custom pastries. Opposite, a small custom wine shop, where I typically helped out, highlighted a modest selection of quality wine at affordable prices.
In the store’s middle, a specialty meat counter faced the shop’s crown jewel, a small cheese case run by the infamous cheesemonger. A younger guy of 30 at the oldest, his knowledge, quirky personality, and striking appearance had made him something of a local celebrity. An eye-catching character with long bushy hair and a thick curly beard, he had a reputation for exceptional intelligence and unapologetic opinionation. As peculiar as he was outspoken, he would gaze keenly at you behind all that scraggly hair, quick with a knowing glance and a snide remark. One was always left wondering, when grappling with this unique character, at whose expense some unspoken joke was being made.
I would watch with interest as this cheesemonger flitted around the store, mixing crude humor with opinions on everything from the shortcomings of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc to the subtleties of La Quercia Prosciutto (cured meats were his second passion). Always, he refused to compromise his discriminating tastes in what seemed like a quest to bring the world great food.
I regularly sought the cheesemonger’s opinion on new and interesting wines, as his breadth of wine knowledge rivaled his cheese know-how, and he was always ready with copious opinions on both. So when a new Washington wine caught my interest, I wandered across the aisle to get his thoughts.
Seeing the cheesemonger at work, at his perch behind his cheese counter, was always something of a marvel. I was aghast how much there was to do within such a little space, so that much of the cheesemonger’s effort was put into directing two minions. These underlings restocked product, wrapped and priced cheese, and assisted customers according to the cheesemonger’s demanding will. Meanwhile, he was busy cutting down larger blocks of bulk cheese into sizes suitable for sale. As I brought my bottle his way, he was wielding a large knife like a child’s plaything, seeming not to notice his work as he chatted with patrons.
And the customer flow was constant. As I waited my time at court, the cheesemonger’s disciples kept him busy with questions about new cheeses and requests for recommendations. I was left to hover in the background, where I could only see only a mop of frizzy hair bouncing around excitedly, as he preached his gospel to the cheese-loving flock. When the crowd finally thinned, I presented him with the bottle.
I don’t even remember what the wine was, only that it was a Columbia Valley red I had tried at a local tasting, and I had found it riper and fatter than expected. I voiced my reactions and asked if he wanted to taste this strange red (limited wine samples are a burden we in specialty wine and food have to bear). His feedback surprised me. He looked at the wine deliberately then shook his head solemnly.
The cheesemonger informed me almost dejectedly he had just come back from a trip to the Columbia Valley area, and the wines had been for him a big disappointment, to the point where he refused to even try this one. Washington was enjoying increased popularity in the press, so I was surprised he was so pessimistic on the spectrum of its reds.
“Fake” was the word the cheesemonger hit-on to describe the myriad of wine from his travels. They seemed universally over-manipulated and ripe in an unnatural way. He went so far as to admit he couldn’t put his finger on why Washington reds came across this way, but he had been disappointed by the heat in these wines.
Now wine-related opinions are a dime a dozen, and I typically take each with a grain of salt. But since Washington has been a growing force in the wine world over the past several years, with new wines (heralded in the press) constantly hitting the market, I had a unique opportunity to test this notion. I’m sorry to admit I have found it all too many “fake” Washington reds.
And when I tried Owen Roe’s 2008 Ex Umbris, the cheesemonger’s take on Washington jumped immediately to mind. The wine, made from Syrah sourced from several Columbia Valley vineyards, takes a decidedly open and juicy approach to Washington Syrah. On the nose, it displays a modest level of complexity in its mostly fruit-driven flavors, showing notes of gooseberry and raspberry. Touches of wet leaves and coffee keep the wine honest underneath. Every bit of its 14.1% alcohol is readily apparent right away, and it actually comes across rather hot. This alcoholic heat translates to the palate, where undeniably basic raspberry and coffee flavors are light and quickly fade out on the finish. Tannins are mild and don’t really play into the wine’s overall profile.
Overall, the 2008 Ex Umbris only approaches the level of balance one might expect from a Washington red of this pedigree (Owen Roe, a relative newcomer in premium Washington wine has impressed me with a number of bottlings). And the alcohol, while technically modest at 14.1% (I once read a review of an older Penfolds Grange that seemed aghast at alcohol as high as 13%, but I guess times have changed) is really what pervades its character. And the general lack of structure means this is a wine best purchased with immediate consumption in mind.
It’s important to keep in mind this fruity, basic style is probably exactly the target at which Owen Roe is aiming. Ex Umbris is a relatively inexpensive wine, usually priced under $20, so it is designed more as a casual sipper. And the wine market, along with much of the domestic wine press, seems to favor bright fruit over complexity. And those who appreciate fruit driven styles at affordable prices will no doubt find more to love in Ex Umbris than I.
And there is no arguing Ex Umbris hits the mark with its marketing approach. The name “Ex Umbris” itself, which the Owen Roe website says is Latin for “Out of the Shadows,” is provocative and is said to reflect its heritage as a secondary bottling introduced after wildfire smoke once damaged some of the Columbia Valley crop. This name is the only information showcased on the wine’s minimalistic label, which brings to mind small-run “garage wines” with little money for fancy labeling. For the modern customer, these marketing efforts seem to carry real weight, and I’ll admit it was the unique look that attracted me to Ex Umbris.
But cool label and interesting name aside, there is no getting around the wine’s imbalanced ripeness and hot alcohol. It somehow tastes likes it was made to be ripe, rather than naturally developing that way, and the cheesemonger’s notion of “fake” Washington reds is again brought to mind. Ex Umbris will be a pass for me from now on.
But Washington reds are not a pass for me across the board, and I have come to believe there are two winemaking approaches at work. The hoard of fakes competes with a minority of classically balanced reds showcasing notes of cassis and loam underneath nuances of cranberry and currant. In fact, I have never seen such a stark stylistic line in any other wine region. It’s easy to tell, with one nose of a Washington red, to which philosophy a wine subscribes. Wines are either super ripe and (to me) quite out of balance, or lean and complex.
The Powers winery, which makes a fascinating reserve line (retailing at levels similar to the Ex Umbris) is just one example. The Powers Reserve Meritage (I know it’s not a Syrah but bear with me here) is affordable but extremely complex and age-worthy. I tried a 1998 last year that still seemed young and evolving, showcasing youthful tar, earth, and black cherry notes.
It would be easy to explain away the notion of ‘fake’ Washington reds on natural causes. Vineyard conditions and general climate could play a role. And eastern Washington, a warm, dry region all about sun-roasted vineyards and requisite irrigation, is far more suited to grape ripening that its northern latitude might foretell. But the fake camp of Washington reds seems to move beyond natural brightness into an over-manipulated, imbalanced style.
Washington reds fascinate me in their duplicity, but it’s the riper style that seems to increasingly dominate the market, and this style just doesn’t pique my interest. Complexity, balance, and general food-friendliness are undermined. And while the differences are stark in Washington, over-ripeness continues to move throughout most major wine regions like the plague (a major publication recently ran a story on the much-heralded 2009 Bordeaux vintage and seemed to champion skyrocketing alcohol). In the coming years, we might be in danger of losing classically balanced wines.
All content and photographs © 2010 jb’s pour house