Back in 1988 as a recent graduate from UC Davis' Viticulture and Enology graduate program, my dad was hired by Mike Januik (a fellow Davis grad) at Snoqualmie/Langguth near Mattawa, WA for his first winemaking job. After doing a harvest at Waterbrook in 1990, he rejoined Mike as a part of the winemaking team at Chateau Ste. Michelle, and worked alongside him for just under a decade, becoming the head red winemaker in '93 as Mike was serving as the head winemaker. They worked on the the first few vintages of the Col Solare project together from '95 to '98 and helped push Washington onto the world scene with the wines they crafted together during their time at the Chateau. Itching to start their own projects they both left around 1999, Mike staying on the west side of the state and creating Januik and my dad starting Fidelitas on the eastside. But you probably know this already, it's been well documented and touted by us throughout years.
What you may not know is that Mike's son, Andrew, who apparently I spent a lot of time hanging out with when I was too young to remember, has stepped into a winemaking role at Januik, and has his own "Andrew Januik" label since 2011. He started working part time at the winery when he was 13 and shortly after started working full time during the summers - a sentence that sounds all too familiar to me.
Since starting to manage our Woodinville tasting room about a year ago I reconnected with Andrew - which felt natural to say least with how much we had in common with our lives following very similar paths. After many glasses of wine, nights at karaoke bars, times spent dog-sitting for him, and quests to find the best beers in Seattle we became good friends and thought it'd be and awesome idea for me to join him for a Malbec project he had going in the famed Uco Valley region of Mendoza, Argentina. Not wanting to pass up on the opportunity to travel and learn from a talented winemaker like Andrew it was a no-brainer. Below are some highlights of past few weeks spent harvesting in Argentina:
We flew into Buenos Aires after a layover in London (this is what happens when you buy tickets at the last minute) and spent 1 night there before heading over to Mendoza. We spent hours and hours exploring the city with plenty of stops to drink beer and play cards:
Then over to Finca Agostino in Mendoza to check in on Andrew's 2017 Vintage:
Checking our fruit the day before the first pick:
Note how high these Cabernet vines are planted
First day of crush at O Fournier
Early Morning Pumpovers with a view
If it weren't for the snow-capped Andes in the background you'd think this was Eastern WA
Before and after pumpovers
With plenty of breaks for empanadas
Thanks to Andrew for letting me tag along.
There's so much I can take away from this trip to help me in my winemaking journey.
Make sure to go taste his wines if you haven't yet!
Come see me in the tasing room this weekend!
With 3 different releases coming out of one of our favorite vineyard sites next month I wanted to look at the history of our relationship with Quintessence vineyard and what makes their site so special.
Quintessence is a young site with the first phase of planting taking place in 2010. The first fruit we pulled from this initial phase was cabernet in 2012 which blew us away with the quality for such young vines. So much so, that we decided to blend the clones 169 and 191 Cab into a single vineyard Cabernet, and our Optu Red Mountain for that same year was 47% sourced from Quintessence. This was the beginning of a love affair – since then we’ve made 3 more single vineyard cabs (always sourced from those same French ENTAV clones), 2 single vineyard sauv blancs, a new single vineyard malbec, and likely more vineyard designated wines to come.
While the general slope of Red Mountain gently angles to the Southwest, Quintessence is slightly more Southeastern facing right into the teeth of the morning sun. This early morning heat and rocky top layer that retains and reflects that solar energy is why I think Quintessence is consistently one of the first sites to ripen in the AVA and results in extremely concentrated wines across the board.
An incredible vineyard site can only take you so far if it's not placed in the right hands. Luckily Quintessence has Marshall Edwards to look after it, who like my dad, has over 3 decades of experience managing some of the best vineyards in Washington to draw on. It's great that the two of them have known each other for so long too, because Marshall enjoys harassing my dad: last time we were there for harvest a couple days before the first pick he told him that "all of the work was done - now don't mess things up."
One of the most unique aspects of Quintessence is all the different clones of Cabernet that are planted there: go wild and explore their interactive map. In one block you can taste the sweet, bright, red fruit, large clone 8 clusters and walk 10 yards to another block and taste the lower yielding ENTAV clones where the taste of the thick skins and seeds is much more present and the fruit tone darker.
Harvest 2017 - making sure Marshall hadn't messed anything up
Quintessence Clone 8 Cab
Often the winemaking team isn't sure what wines are going to be released for the upcoming year until they go through and taste all of the finished wine in barrel and see if anything jumps out at them. This is where we get small production releases such as Canyons Malbec, Ciel du Cheval Petit Verdot, Old Vines Merlot, and the upcoming April release Quintessence Malbec which will likely never make it to the tasting bar for long.
Tasting 2016 Quintessence Cab
When you first pop open one of our 2015 Red releases you may notice something a little different about the cork. We’ve switched from our traditionally used “bleached” cork (pictured on the left) to a more natural wash (right). As some of the industry is switching to screwcaps, synthetics, and other ways to seal off their bottles, we’ve taken a step back to a more classic look.
While taking a step back on appearance, we’ve made a simultaneous technological leap forward on performance. Chances are if you’ve been drinking Fidélitas long enough you’ve heard our mantra of being Faithful to Bordeaux grape varieties, Loyal to modern craft winemaking techniques, and True to Washington State's Red Mountain terroir. The switch to Portocork’s new Icon Certified closures is the perfect example of our dedication to modern craft winemaking, and as my dad put it: “a step closer in delivering the perfect bottle of wine.” We pride ourselves in not being tied to tradition and switching if something comes along that will help us make better wine.
Charlie's trip to the cork capital of the world: Portugal
Natural corks have been the choice of winemakers for centuries due to their ability to let in just the right amount of oxygen allowing wine to age properly (info on diffusion vs. permeation). Problems with natural cork material causing the switch to the other types of closures is 1) the chemical compound 2,4,6 Trichloroanisole (TCA) may be present causing cork taint – the unpleasant wet cardboard or musty basement smell we’ve all experienced or 2) inconsistent density – a good example of this is opening an older bottle of wine which should be aged perfectly, however you pull out a squishy cork, too much oxygen has been let through, and the wine is prematurely past its prime.
Thanks to advancements by our supplying partner, Portocork, we have put these natural cork problems in the past. Their NDtech screening method along with other quality controls “effectively eliminates the risk of cork taint” by getting rid of any corks that have TCA content above the human detection threshold of 0.5 nanograms/liter + each cork density is tested for consistency in aging.
Hopefully you'll stop to appreciate all the work that went in to something as simple-looking as a wine cork the next time you open up a bottle of Fidélitas.
Cheers to the pursuit of Red Mountain Wine perfection,
As the year winds down and plans are being made to get together with family for the holidays, I thought I'd take a look back at my year and journey coming back to Fidelitas. I get asked in the tasting how long I've worked for Fidelitas, and I can proudly say that one of my first memories is placing capsules on the first run of 2000 Meritage - I still need to dig those pictures out of the basement. Anyways, here's a small sample of what is hopefully many more vintages, long days at the cellar and tasting room, and many more bottles of Fidelitas!
Working Harvest 2016 in the Willamette Valley
January barrel tasting at Wine Boss
Finding gems like this in my dad's cellar - 2005 Red Mountain Merlot - one of the first Red Mountain wines Fidelitas ever made.
Market research in Santa Barbara
Celebrating a birthday with my 2 favorites at Rione XIII - Jessica, and 2014 Blackwood Canyon Cab.
Tasting some Heitz Cellar Martha's Vineyard Cab alongside the original 2012 Fidelitas Estate Cab - everyone seems pretty happy.
Staff vineyard tours at Kiona.
Washington Barrel Auction with some WA wine legends.
Checking out Quintessence Cab a couple weeks before harvest.
Wine and Pines event at Swiftwater Cellars, Suncadia.
Top 10 meals of all time - 2012 Champoux Block One with Bizarro Cafe meatballs.
Happy Holidays from Team Fidelitas!
Long before the place we call home became riddled with award winning vineyards, wineries, and wines; 2 former General Electric engineers turned wine visionaries planted the first Red Mountain vines in 1975. Scott Williams of Kiona and Jim Holmes of Ciel du Cheval. My dad has recognized the quality from CDC for quite some time – our Ciel du Cheval Cabernet which has become a Fidélitas staple was first produced in 2006. But what is it about Ciel that makes it so special? I doubt this blog post will do 42 years of intensive vineyard management justice, and with terroir it seems there’s only so much we can explain – but here is one of my favorite characteristics:
1, 100-acre vineyard – 39 separate blocks. One of the ways that old vineyards become so unique and sought-afer is how different the individual plants become over time. A little different slope here, slighty more sunlight there, even an irrigation pipe that drips water at a faster rate. All these differences cause each of the plants to develop their own personalities – even if 100 acres or so are all the same exact root stock to begin with.
CDC takes it one step further. Making up some 102 total acres here are 36 separate blocks planted with an average size of 2.8 acres. Each one with its own row orientation, plant spacing, training methods, etc… to create individual terroirs at a micro level. The vineyard management is exhausting and would be much easier to farm the 100 acres in a uniform manner, but this small-lot method shows Holmes’ commitment to producing the best fruit possible. The methodology reminds me of our winemaking team which uses all sorts fermentation vessels, yeasts, and barrels to have multiple components to work with for one wine. A bottle of Ciel du Cheval cabernet is way more complicated than it seems.
This strategy was used to combat the homogenous soils of the vineyard. Example of the sandy, well draining, high in calcium carbonate soil on Red Mountain:
Ciel du Cheval in relation to Fidélitas (note the red hue of the “Red” Mountain cheatgrass):
Walking around the vineyards with the Wine Boss a few days ago at the very start of harvest brought back some fond and not so fond (long hours) memories. Here are some interesting tidbits, musings, lessons learned, etc… from harvest:
The rain on Red Mountain isn’t as much of a pain as it is in the Willamette Valley. On Sunday of last week on my way from Seattle to Tri-Cities it had rained the whole way, including all night in the vineyards. Luckily the wind picked up that morning – as it always seems to do – dried off the fruit, and we were able to pick some Quintessence Cab early afternoon. Harvest 2016 in the Willamette Valley, from what I can remember, had fortunate weather. However with the chance of it raining more often and for longer periods at a time (it’s usually just short bursts in Eastern WA) and the Pinot Clusters being tighter and harder to dry precipitation definitely gives OR winemakers fits.
Harvest 2016 - Bishop Creek Vineyard, Willamette Valley
Sampling Cabernet at Quintessence
A vineyard looking more well-manicured (see Quintessence above) doesn’t mean it’s necessarily “better managed” – I think it’s more up to particular style of that vineyard manager. Perfectly groomed rows look amazing and you can appreciate the work that goes into them, however grape vines are wild plants and don’t need to be completely tamed to produce amazing fruit (see our Estate vineyard below).
Estate Vineyard 9/21/2017
A roller fermenter only yields about 1 barrel of wine (25 cases) – this small quantity alone should tell you how much our winemaking team loves them vs. doing larger stainless steel fermentations.
Grape-sampling and getting accurate Brix readings is a crucial part of making pick decisions. Here’s how I’ve been taught: pick at least 2 rows to walk down from the block that you’ll be sampling – take a certain number of steps, turn either left or right (switching back and forth each time), and choose the first cluster you see. With everything being handpicked you can assume that any green clusters or anything else that looks funky won’t be brought into the winery, but by making it as random as possible you avoid just selecting clusters that look delicious, or have a little green in them and getting an inaccurate reading.
The 2015 “Old Vines Merlot” is amazing and you can catch some pretty amazing sunrises in Tri-Cities getting up at 5 am to taste through fermentations. Cheers to a successful harvest.
During my visit to Tri-Cities this past weekend I was able to listen in on some blind tasting by the Fidélitas winemaking team. My previous experiences in “blind tasting” have been at dinner parties when each person brings a bottle to share or tasting a couple different combinations of varietals in the blending process. Our winemakers, however, were taking it to a completely different level.
Charlie, Hillary, and Mitch were sitting at the end of the long conference room table (it’s this type of business meeting that makes me excited to become a winemaker) with what seemed like 100 sample bottles in front of them, tasting 3-4 wines at a time, sitting in silence taking notes, swirling, spitting, then discussing their notes after each set. Once that was done, another set was sampled and the process was repeated – a testament to how a winemakers pallete must be built-up and trained over time. What they were doing was scientific and fascinating.
As a wine fan we all hear stories of consumers doing blind tastings and them rating a wine higher after the person running the study tells them it’s more expensive (even though it’s boxed wine) or even characterizing a white wine that has been died red with your typical red-wine descriptors. The point is that the human brain plays tricks on your taste buds which is why blind tasting is so important. A winemaker might love a certain barrel type or think that a certain fermentation method produces much higher quality, but can they really make that assessment fairly if they never taste it blindly? Pulling a barrel sample from their favorite barrel that was ferment in their favorite oak tank they are already gearing up to love the wine and even the most honest winemaker can’t be trusted to give their true opinion in that moment.
So back to our winemakers: they were going through and tasting barrel samples of a specific wine (our 2016’s in this case) pulled from a neutral barrel, and 2-3 other new barrel types to see what effects they were having on the wines at about the midpoint of the barrel-aging process. Different fermentation types were also sprinkled in to taste their effects blindly as well. To me this exemplifies how winemaking is the perfect blend of art and science – the method extremely scientific with it being completely blind and a control sample (neutral barrel) to compare everything against + them sharing their opinions on the different flavors, aromas, and mouth feel they’re experiencing. It also shows how committed Fidélitas is to staying true to Modern Craft winemaking techniques. Respecting what we’ve done in the past, but always testing our own opinions and seeing what else is out there to help us make world class wine on Red Mountain.
My favorite thing about wine (besides drinking it) is that there’s always more to learn. Just ask to see the stack of note cards of anyone who’s studied for the Master Sommelier program – I’m sure they’d be more than happy to show you. It seems that every time I’m back in the winery or on Red Mountain I pick up more tidbits of information, and this most recent staff vineyard trip was no exception.
Some of the original vines at Kiona vineyards, the oldest on Red Mountain, were trained to look like a wild tree instead of neatly separating the cordons out to the side for easy management. As JJ explained to us, there was reliance on trial and error back then instead of how-to guides or the internet.
Older vine wines gain complexity, in part, because of variance from the mean. When the vines are first planted in the ground the plants are essentially all identical. But as a block grows older, and the soil, irrigation, sunlight and heat exposure, etc… are all slightly different for each plant causing them to mature differently and bear unique fruit.
“Tannins are different than tannic” – I knew this concept but had never had it explained to me so eloquently. “Tannins” in the oak barrels that are used for fermenting and aging soften the wines and make them less “tannic.”
Barreling down at harvest 2016
I’ve always heard that Red Mountain receives the most sunlight of any growing region in the state, but personally hadn’t sought out the evidence. Thanks to the people at WSU Viticulture and Enology and their work on growing degree days of different Washington AVA’s I can now say this with confidence. Here’s a link for the full description – GDD units = (the average daily Fahrenheit temperature) – 50, all added up during the “growing season” April 1 to October 31 to get the cumulative measure.
With the release of our first ever Red Mountain single vineyard Malbec, 2014 Canyons Malbec, coming August 1st, and yesterday’s bottling of our 2015 Quintessence Malbec, I decided to call up the Wine Boss and talk all things Malbec.
As far as vineyard designate wines go, Cabernet Sauvignon, has been the staple for Fidelitas and Washington state as a whole. However, after creating a Red Mountain Malbec for the first time in 2013, Charlie started to notice that Malbec from our AVA was complex and distinct enough to stand out on its own, and like many other varietals stood out in a lineup as being from Red Mountain with its more bold and tannic nature. Fidelitas had traditionally done a Columbia Valley Malbec beginning in 2004, with a single vineyard Northridge Malbec in 2012.
When asked to compare the two Malbecs against each other, he noted that 14 and 15 were both warm vintages so there isn’t much variation there. The Canyons vines are quite literally in a canyon – sitting on an extreme slope down into a pot creating its own mesoclimate. The wine created here is more of a traditional Washington and comparable to South American Malbec with the spiciness showing strong notes of white pepper. The Quintessence sits on more of a traditional gradual south-western facing slope, and is more similar to the 14 Red Mountain Malbec showing juicier and black fruit characteristics, however does have the traditional spice notes that you’d expect just subtler. The extremely dark color (mimicking our black-on-black, phantom, murdered out, matte black, etc… label) tends to be deceiving with how fruit-forward and approachable the wines are.
There’s the possibility of single vineyard Malbecs from Scooteney Flats and Kiona which we’ve worked with in the past, however our staple Malbec blend won’t be going away any time soon. We’re also pulling fruit from the estate Malbec vines for the first time this year so we’ll see how those shape up as well. One interesting things to note is how harsh winters can effect Malbec production more so than the other heartier varietals – meaning that production could vary year to year based off the winter freeze.
Pro-tip: bring a bottle of our 2014 Red Mountain Malbec to have with the “country natural beef short ribs w malbec glaze” at Bellevue’s Black Bottle gastrotavern.
Another pro-tip: doing the cooking yourself and stop by either of our tasting room locations to pick up some Red Mountain Malbec as part of our Pairings for the Grill discounted 6-pack.
Before we make predictions about how Red Mountain will look in the next 5, 10, or 15 years we must look at where we’ve been. More specifically the dramatic change that our AVA has undergone in the past 3 years. Since the completion of the 5-year-long Kennewick Irrigation Districts: “Red Mountain Project” which brought Yakima River water to the southwestern facing “scrublands” (as they were endearingly referred to in this 2015 Tri City Herald article, the total acreage planted has doubled to 2300-2400. Over half of the entire area. Taking a look at EveryVine.com, you’ll notice how dense Red Mountain planting (57.5%) is compared to other famous American regions’ % planted; Napa Valley = 2.9%, Oakville (Napa Sub-Appellation) = 24.2%, Saint Helena (Napa Sub-Appellation) = 5.4%, Yountville (Napa Sub-Appellation) = 12.1%, Sonoma Valley = 9%, and Walla Walla Valley = 0.9%, to name a few.
We know that Red Mountain produces extremely high-quality fruit from older vineyards that we’ve worked with like Kiona, Ciel du Cheval, and Blackwood Canyons planted back in the well-water days and think that the best is yet to come. We’re not alone. Charlie estimates that 5 more wineries will be built within the next 3 years. He’s not worried about the mountain losing its farmland charm as the entire area is zoned for agriculture -- It’ll be all vineyards and wineries for now. Plus the high-profile neighbors moving in, planting vineyards, and building wineries will make Red Mountain even more of a Washington Wine lover’s dream destination.
Although Charlie was first introduced to Red Mountain in 1989 and we’ve called it home for 10 years now, there’s still so much to be done. We’ve been highly impressed by the quality of our estate fruit for such a young vineyard (first planted in 2008). Charlie envisions future bottlings of Merlot, Petit Verdot, an Estate Red Blend, and was specifically excited about offering the wine club Individual Clonal Cabernet releases. As it stands now we have 6 different clones of Cabernet planted. The latest release of the Blackwood Cabernet was also a good sign to see that type of old-vine quality coming from a vineyard so close in proximity to ours.
The Estate isn’t the only young vineyard that we’re excited about. With the quality that we’ve gotten from younger places like Quintessence (established in 2010) and Canyons (established in 2009), Charlie believes that in 10 years’ time Red Mountain will be the best place to make Cabernet in the world. I jokingly told him that I’d quote him on that – I quickly realized he wasn’t joking. At a recent birthday dinner paired with some Santa Maria Tri Tip and grilled oysters we had our 2012 Estate Cab and some 2009 Napa Cab from Martha’s Vineyard, both incredible, but we wouldn’t say that one was of superior quality (although at our un-blind, and biased tasting we preferred Estate).
In the winery, Charlie and his team are also staying true to modern craft winemaking techniques by playing around with new and innovative ways to ferment reds in direct contact with wood. He estimates that 50% of the wines this year will be fermented using some sort of wood method while 100% of the Estate wines will receive the oak treatment. Depending on the fermentation method used the wines are barreled separately them to a) get a better sense on how the fermentation methods are affecting the wines, and b) giving them more to play with come blending time. From my understanding, the roller fermenters offer a more intimate cap contact with the juice since it’s fully enclosed and there’s nowhere for the cap to go – wood in general also provides better insulation that stainless steel. Charlie also admits that he doesn’t fully understand the interchange of the phenolics in the wood and grapes during this process (as opposed to traditional stainless-steel fermentation), however says that in general it gives the juice a more viscous mouth-feel, and that the investment in oak fermenters have been well worth the investment thus far across the board.
I for one am proud to be all-in on Red Mountain, and look forward to what the years ahead bring for Fidelitas and our AVA that we call home.