Calgary Wine Life: Gramercy Cellars Master Class @ Divino

26 05 2017
FullSizeRender-614

Greg Harrington, Gramercy Cellars

A month ago I had never been out to visit my all-time favourite winery, and they had not yet had the opportunity to come to Calgary for a tasting event.  Three weeks ago I finally made it out to Walla Walla for the first time, and among other amazing wine memories made, I paid a couple visits to my wine pinnacle, Gramercy Cellars, attending their Spring Release party on my birthday.  Almost immediately after I got off the plane in Washington State, I got an email inviting me to Gramercy’s first ever tasting Master Class back in Calgary, led by the winery’s founder and winemaker Greg Harrington.  That tasting was held this week at the marvellous Divino restaurant, and I left thinking that my next trip to Walla Walla couldn’t come fast enough.  It would be an understatement to say that this month has ticked a lot of boxes.

FullSizeRender-612Washington State has both the sun to grow big red grapes and the soil and climate to make them interesting.  The main wine areas are all in the southeastern part of the state, separated from lush, drizzly Seattle by the Cascade Mountain range, whose rain shadow blocks most of the coastal precipitation and creates a warm, dry canvas for grapevines to thrive.  The Walla Walla Valley, straddling the Washington/Oregon border, is bounded on the east side by another mountain range, the Blue Mountains, gaining both altitude and cool nightly winds off the slopes as a result.  Over millennia, the historically recurring Missoula floods have laid fine sandy soil, massive rocks and other alluvial deposits over an already-impressive volcanic basalt soil base.  Put all that together and you end up with an area that sees heat and sunlight during the day but features significant diurnal temperature drops at night, ideal for prolonging ripening and retaining acid in grapes; fine soils with intriguing mineral content that drain well and in which (thanks also to the cold winters) the vine scourge phylloxera cannot survive, allowing all vines to be planted on their own rootstocks; and a remarkable array of slopes, aspects, exposures and microclimates in a relatively concentrated area, letting farmers and producers match specific varietals with specific sites to maximize their potential.  In short, it screams winemaking opportunity.

FullSizeRender-616

The Gramercy winery and tasting room, Walla Walla.

And it screamed loud enough to bring Greg Harrington there.  Harrington, a Master Sommelier holding a prestigious position for a group of New York City restaurants, had a chance tasting of Walla Walla Syrah lead him to a trip to Washington State and then to a life-altering decision to change careers and time zones, all in the span of a couple years in the early 2000s.  After a crash course in winemaking and some assistance with grape sourcing from Washington wine pioneer Norm McKibben of Pepper Bridge in 2004, Gramercy Cellars came into existence and released its first vintage in 2005.  It has been honing its style and its craft since, continually looking for ways to sharpen its approach.  While Gramercy has always aimed for lower ripeness and alcohols and higher acid and longevity in their wines, as of 2014 it strove for further complexity by switching over to all native-yeast fermentation and introducing large square concrete tanks to its winemaking armada.  Future plans include going fully organic with its growers in the vineyard and gaining additional control on the farming side of the process, as evidenced by its recent acquisition of the well-regarded Forgotten Hills vineyard just south of Walla Walla.

FullSizeRender-617

Concrete.  Badass.

Greg Harrington spoke of these things and more across two riveting and information-packed hours with the Calgary wine trade, and at some point while we were at it we also found the time to taste through the bulk of Gramercy Cellars’ portfolio, starting off with the ultra-small production 2016 Picpoul (electric limes! on fire!) as we came in the door and not stopping until we had gone through FOUR consecutive groundbreaking Syrahs that firmly established Washington State’s place as a New World powerhouse.  Buckle up. Read the rest of this entry »





Entering The Hatch, Spring 2017

23 05 2017

[These bottles were provided as samples for review purposes.]

IMG_6146Ever since I first saw The Hatch’s avian-Thomas-Crown-Affair primary logo shortly after it opened a couple years ago, I have been sort of transfixed from a distance, finding both the winery and its artistic ethos strangely compelling despite knowing basically nothing about them.  Based out of a rustic-modern “shack from the future” in the heights of West Kelowna and sourcing grapes from across the Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys, The Hatch initially comes across (quite intentionally) more like an artists’ collective than a commercial winery, listing Salman Rushdie on its personnel page and expounding in esoteric wine-code about “Ross O” and B. Yanco” (I’ll give you a second to sort that one out).  They confidently found their visual style from the outset thanks to the remarkable imagery provided by local western Canadian artist Paul Morstad (who is also found on The Hatch’s personnel page, playing a banjo); once people have been drawn in by the graphics, it’s up to winemaker Jason Parkes to keep their attention.  The whole artistic cacophony and the simultaneously grand yet whimsical presentation lends The Hatch a jolt of personality that the generally strait-laced BC wine scene can happily use…but does the buzz extend to what’s in the bottle?  Happily, I got to find out.

FullSizeRender-601The Hatch releases its wines in stylistic series, of which I had the opportunity to experience two:  the mid-tier Hobo Series wines, featuring a panoply of hand-drawn labels of hobos (seriously) that risk making you cry thanks to their sheer beauty (also seriously), and the ambitious Black Swift Vineyards series wines, which collectively form an expansive single-vineyard project focused on the various facets of BC’s glorious dirt.  The wine, like the winery, was never boring. Read the rest of this entry »





Happy NYE 2016: Piper-Heidsieck Brut NV

30 12 2016

[This bottle was provided as a sample for review purposes.]

Quick – what’s the most festive thing you can think of to drink right now, right in the middle of this holiday season?  Champagne?  Close.  Champagne wrapped up like a present, complete with bright red bow, in its own custom bottle cozy?  Bingo.  I have long been a proponent of seasonally packaged wines (as long as they’re done right – when done wrong, they’re not pretty), and the holiday edition of the Piper-Heidsieck Brut NV Champagne nails the Christmas/New Year’s vibe about as well as anything I’ve ever seen in a bottle.  Seriously, just look at this thing, first wrapped up:

fullsizerender-521

Wait for it…

Then unwrapped:

fullsizerender-523

Oh yeah.  So sweet.

YES.  That is so, so clever.  And it’s reusable!  How can you go to a New Year’s party tomorrow and NOT bring this?  And it’s on sale online at the moment at Willow Park in Calgary, and maybe elsewhere, at a price that’s shockingly friendly for true Champagne from a historic house.  Oh, and most importantly, the juice lives up to the packaging.

Read the rest of this entry »





2013 Emiliana Novas Gran Reserva Carmenere/Cabernet Sauvignon

13 10 2016

[This bottle was provided as a sample for review purposes.]

fullsizerender-430

Chile: home of Carmenere and inexpensive quality.

If you were starting up a wine venture today and were looking to maintain high quality but stretch your viticultural buck as far as possible, you would almost certainly go to Chile.  While braver souls are now starting to venture to the more extreme climatic and geographical parts of the country in search of cutting-edge lands and the flavour potency and complexity that can come with them, those who stick to Chile’s warm central valley find themselves in something close to a grape-grower’s paradise:  warm, mild, consistent growing seasons, refreshing cooling breezes at night off the surrounding mountains and a relative lack of vineyard pests.  Since the Southern Hemispheric nation is fairly segregated from the rest of the world’s vineyard (with its closest main viticultural neighbour, Argentina, walled off by the Andes), it has managed to keep itself free from the devastating vineyard louse phylloxera, which has ravaged vines almost everywhere else and has required the bulk of the world’s wineries to graft their vines onto resistant North American rootstocks to allow their crops to survive.

What does all that mean from a commercial perspective?  It means that you can have a vineyard with a lot of beneficial, normally highly costly or dangerous features — organic viticulture, no pesticides or herbicides, own-rooted vines — without the associated price tag or risk of crop loss.  That allows you to make bottles like this one, a single-vineyard wine from 25 year-old vines planted on their own rootstocks, farmed organically and then hand-harvested, and then sell it to export markets at a shade over $15 a bottle.  That combination of price and input quality is basically impossible in the majority of the wine world. Read the rest of this entry »





2014 Henry of Pelham Old Vines Baco Noir

5 10 2016

[This bottle was provided as a sample for review purposes.]

fullsizerender-429

Welcome Baco.

I admit to approaching this bottle with a slight sense of foreboding.  One benefit of learning about wine is that it helps you pinpoint rare or obscure high-quality grapes or regions that are under-appreciated, and thus underpriced, by the market.  However, one drawback is that it can stratify your thinking about what quality looks like and give rise to unwitting prejudice about varietals or areas that aren’t always known for it.  Baco Noir, like all hybrid grapes, falls within the latter category.  But this bottle is proof that wine prejudice can be overcome.

Almost all of the quality wine grapes in the world, including all of the varieties you can list within 5 seconds of reading this sentence (Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir, etc.), belong to a grape species called Vitis vinifera, widely (and accurately) known to be the best of the many families of grapes in the world for wine production.  A hybrid grape is a cross between different species of grapes; in wine-speak that usually means a cross between a vinifera grape and a non-vinifera grape.  These crossings almost always arise out of intentional experiments by people looking to combine the flavour, quality and structure of vinifera with non-aesthetic desirable characteristics of the other species, usually ability to withstand weather or disease, ease of ripening or size of yield.  Spoiler:  they usually don’t accomplish all of these goals. Read the rest of this entry »





Domaines Paul Jaboulet Ainé: The Next Level

5 08 2016

[These bottles were provided as samples for review purposes.]

I recently tasted and discussed the entry-level Parallele 45 lineup from the Rhone Valley’s Domaines Paul Jaboulet Aine, which showcased the red, white and pink sides of the Southern Rhone in an impressive value-priced package.  Today we kick it up a notch.

FullSizeRenderJaboulet’s Alberta portfolio is supplemented by a quartet of upper-echelon bottles from a group of distinctive quality regions scattered across the Rhone, each of which has its own character and legend to live up to, and each of which, I’m happy to report, Jaboulet and winemaker Caroline Frey reflect to a tee in these beautiful offerings.  See my prior post for more details about this historic winery and its renaissance in our market; for now, we have a lot of wine to drink.

Read the rest of this entry »





Wine Review: 2015 Gramercy Cellars Olsen Vineyard Rosé

19 07 2016
FullSizeRender-386.jpg

Think pink.  And WA State.

This is the first time in a long time that I’ve sat down to write about a wine just because I wanted to.  I love (and am continually amazed by) the opportunity this blog has afforded me to try new bottles and attend incredible tasting events, but every once in a while it’s nice to step back and recalibrate and share the experience of a wine for the sheer joy of doing so.  And since there are few things that give me more joy in this world than opening a bottle of Gramercy Cellars (my favourite producer and a winery that currently occupies about 15% of my cellar), and since I’ve been waiting for this bottle of rosé to land for months now, this is definitely the wine for the task.

The story of Gramercy Cellars is the story of America’s youngest Master Sommelier, who went from serving, then sourcing, wines for some of the pinnacle dining establishments in various major US centres to making his own in rural Walla Walla, Washington, drawn to the desert in the Pacific Northwest by the potential he saw in the area’s Syrahs.  After graduating from Cornell University, Greg Harrington attained the Master Sommelier designation at age 26 (he was until recently the Chair of the Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas and is now on the Board as a Chair Emeritus) while working in New Orleans for famed chef Emeril Lagasse.  Stints for Wolfgang Puck in Las Vegas and the B.R. Guest Restaurant group in New York followed, but a chance tasting of Walla Walla Syrah in NYC led to a trip out to Washington State, which very quickly led to Greg and his wife Pam quitting their jobs, uprooting their lives and fast forwarding a far-off retirement dream of making their own wine to the here and now.  For me at least, Gramercy is one of a small group of Washington producers that is unwrapping the state’s wine potential in real time, turning out nuanced, textured and ageworthy wines that turn New World stereotypes on their heads. Read the rest of this entry »