Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Rating the Raters (Cont.)

Wine Press Northwest 92/12 Wine Press Northwest, as its name indicates, deals with wines from Washington, Oregon, British Columbia, and Idaho. Since Bonair Winery is a Washington winery, this is important to me.

Wine Press Northwest uses a double blind methodology to insure complete anonymity to the wines being judged. They use a simple scoring system, Outstanding, Excellent, Recommended, and if none of the above, a simple description of a wine that at least rates publication. A 'Best Buy' is awarded on price and quality. They even allow winemakers to sit in on the tastings as blind judges – a good idea to let winemakers know their strengths and weaknesses. Only in a blind tasting would Washington Pinot Noirs stand up to Oregon Pinot Noirs. When raters see the bottle, Pinot Noir loses ten points for being from Washington. When raters see the bottle, the wine gets five extra points for a three pound bottle. Obviously, only a great wine would be put in an ecologically insane chunk of glass. (Waste makes me grumpy and rewarding waste makes me grumpier.)

Their judging panel is listed on the website. In addition to Dan Berger (already rated) the panel includes Bob Woehler. I have judged with Bob at the Washington Wine Competition and in my opinion he is not the most perceptive judge, but on the bright side, he is very positive toward Washington wines and rates things generally higher than I do. When I was on his panel, more gold medals were given than from any other panel I have served on. Great news for wineries! Bob is like a cheer leader and probably adds to the positive aspect of the reviews.

Andy Perdue, editor, gets a little testy when challenged on the facts, so tread lightly. For example he made the following assertion, " The Rattlesnake Hills can be somewhat cooler than other areas of the Yakima Valley." which just ain't true. The Rattlesnake Hills is one of the warmer AVAs in Washington and definitely a warmer area in the Yakima Valley. He defended his statement by saying it is cooler than Red Mountain. Well, Red Mountain is cooler than Badger Canyon (not yet an AVA, but sure could be), so does that make it a "somewhat cooler" area of the Yakima Valley, also? The year in question was 2006 when the Rattlesnake Hills AVA racked up 2799 degree days - 228 more than the Yakima Valley. The new Snipes Mountain AVA is cooler than the Rattlesnake Hills AVA. There is a continuing misconception that the Yakima Valley gets cooler as you go west. If this were true, Red Willow Vineyard, in the shadow of Mt. Adams, would be ice cold. It is not. It is considered a warmer site. The cooler areas in the Yakima Valley are found around Prosser, Grandview, and Sunnyside. (Misconceptions make me grumpy.)

So, I give Wine Press Northwest and 'outstanding' rating and a 'best buy' if you are interested in northwest wines.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Rating the Raters (cont.)

Dan Berger Wine Experiences
98/18 Dan's personal experience and qualifications can be summed up by the link to his website, so I won't go into it here. I give Dan an 18 out of 20. Pretty high score.

I had the privilege of judging wine with Dan at the Washington Wine Competition. This is a unique competition where the wines are all judged anonymously (double blind), privately, and individually, followed by the judges posting their scores for all to see, followed by discussion of the wines. It is sometimes intimidating to post your scores for all professional judges to see, but usually there is not a lot of variation in the scores. Judges may be cajoled into changing their scores so as to help a wine to medal or not. Flaws are pointed out and the wines re-examined during discussion. Judging is based on a simple, yet very effective criterion: Gold, Silver, Bronze, and no award. Double gold medals are awarded when all the judges agree that the wine is gold medal quality. If four out of five judges give it a gold, the dissenting judge is allowed to up his/her score to make it a double gold. This happens often if the dissenting judge gave the wine a silver.

So, I have judged wine side by side with Dan Berger and I know exactly how good he is! Basically, he is as good as I am and that is damn good. We only disagree on certain late harvest wines and I tend to deviate quite a bit from all judges in this category. This causes him to lose two of his twenty points, but no one is perfect, just like no wine is perfect in every sense.

Dan does not like big alcoholic wines, but he and I are both guilty of scoring them highly when sniffing and spitting are de rigueur. These wines show well out of the chute, but get really boring after one glass. Give me some wine with varietal character and some acid to stiffen it up so it goes well with food. If I want a cocktail, give me a gin and tonic – real gin, not Bombay Sapphire!

Personally, Dan is affable and easy to talk to. He even published a humorous article that I wrote anonymously in his newsletter. The piece made fun of none other than E. Robert Parker.

Disclaimer: to my knowledge, Dan has never knowingly rated a Bonair wine and has never published a rating of our wine.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Scientifically Speaking, the 100-point Scale Isn't

Before I get into rating the raters, I need to address two fundamental concepts in testing: validity and reliability. I have a master's degree in school administration so I have had a lot of classes on statistical analysis and trust me; wine raters do not score high on either count, validity or reliability.

Validity refers to the fact that a test measures what it purports to measure. Wine quality is such an individual value that no tester can validly measure a wine that you would like. I refer to an experience in the Bonair Winery tasting room where a man walked in and asked me to try "our best wine." I proudly poured him our Morrison Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. His face scrunched up in pain and announced, "yuk, that is really sour. Don't you have anything sweeter?" Ah yes, a nice sweet late harvest Riesling. So, to understand the validity of a rater, you have to know what that rater likes. For example, Parker likes boatloads of new French oak, high alcohol, and micro-oxygenation to the point of burning the varietal character out of the wine. So if this is your palate, Parker might be considered valid for you, but not for real wine drinkers who drink wine on a daily basis with meals. If you like food friendly wine, you should probably find a more 'valid' rater.

Reliability refers to the ability to give the same score to the same wine again and again. This is easy with most raters, because they are looking at the bottle and their notes. "Hum, this tastes like dog piss. What did I give this wine last time? Oops, I gave it a 94 – (note to self: don't smoke too much marijuana prior to rating wines.) Well, to be reliable, I'll give it a 92 an hope no one calls me on it" Or, "This wine is from Walla, so I have to give it at least 90 points, otherwise people would think I don't know what I am doing. (Note to self: What am I doing?)"

Psychology, which deals in an inexact science just like wine rating, uses test-retest reliability to verify that a test can be repeated and give the same result. Using a complex formula, the test to retest reliability must be 95% or better for the test to be reliable. If there were a true, 100-point scale, this might be easier. A score of 90 would be statistically the same as 94 and 86. (This is probably truer than you think.) But, we are only dealing with a 20 point scale, so the test-retest reliability is harder. It comes out that a rater must nail the score within one point each time to be reliable, i.e. first blind test 90, second test cannot be more than 91 or less than 89. Also, to be a truly reliable score, not only must Gregutt nail the score blindfolded in this manner, the Wine Advocate and the Wine Advisor must also come within the same range of 89-91.

So, you can see, wine ratings are highly unreliable and invalid, statistically speaking both internally and externally. If you are unsure about what wine to buy, buy only wine your friends will think is good. They will be impressed and you should be able to choke the stuff down while all are smiling and commenting how good hog piss tastes.

What is the difference between a connoisseur and a city sewer? Not much, both are full of crap.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Rating the Raters on the 100-Point Scale

Most winemakers shudder in fear from wine writers - and now wine bloggers. I think it is time to rate the writers on their phony 100-point scale. But first, I will offer my corrected version of the 100-point scale.


Actually, it is a 20 point scale at best and can be understood better by subtracting 80 from all scores. Want to know why people don't seek out wines rated 87? Well, with my corrected score, they only rate 7 out of 20. That is pretty sad. So my ratings will look like this:


Brett Weinspitter/Wine Expectorator 86/6. (6/20 being his real score) Brett loves alcohol - so much that he refuses to rate any wine that contains less than 14.5%. He also loves the sweetness that goes along with this high alcohol and the boatloads of new French oak that held the wine. In fact he loves oak juice so much he rated a wine at 99 points because it had 200% new French oak. Brett never drinks wine with food since none of his selections go well with food. Brett has also been known to weigh the empty bottles and add points for extra glass. Brett is known to be bad for wine, but in small amounts it is called terroir.


So, I will rate each wine writer/magazine/newsletter on the 100-point scale followed by my corrected score. Stay tuned to see how the raters score.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

So, Who Will Survive?

With over 600 wineries in the state and very limited shelf space, who will survive the cutthroat cost cutting now going on at the retail level? I have already heard rumors of several wineries closing their doors. In fact, in my 25 years as a commercial winery a lot of wineries have come and gone. Remember DeHavilland or Stewart or French Creek Cellars? I heard that even Joan Wolverton of Salishan is calling it quits.

A lot of people entered the winery business via spreadsheet. Yes, you read that correctly. They did not have a passion for winemaking, but saw a way to a quick buck with little investment. Steve Burns, when head of the Washington Wine Commission, said there is no end to the high end market and no price that is too much to charge. (I think he meant if you were located in Walla or Woodunville.) A lot of people bought this. There are now over 100 wineries in Walla a long way from Seattle. I just read that two are opening tasting rooms in Woodunville.

Back to the spreadsheets. Okay in cell A1 I put the price per bottle. In cell B1 I put my case production. In C1 I put in the formula =A1*B1*12. Okay $50 sounds reasonable considering I might have to wholesale some of it, and 1000 cases should fit in my garage. Voila, I can make a cool $600,000 per year. If Parker gives me a 95, I can raise my price to $100 per bottle (Remember, Steve said there was no upper limit to what you could charge) I can make a cool $1.2 million and not even quit my day job.

So, the big meltdown happens. Not even wine shops want your $50 French oaked monster because they already have the shelves filled with unsalable $50 wines. You paid $1200 for those French oak barrels, $3500 a ton for grapes (about $5.00 of juice per bottle) you read about in an article by Paul Gregutt, and you paid $21 a case for those three-pound bottles, and $.60 for each of those two-inch #1 extra-premium corks. I hope you like your wine, because you have a lot of it to drink.

I hope you didn't borrow money to start you garage winery, because that is the next group of wineries going down. Highly leveraged wineries have to add debt service to the above expenses. How about that new $11 million tasting room? How do you get that money back.

Ste Michelle Estates will survive. They make good wine on a scale that gets good deals on all packaging materials. They have a quality image and an established distribution network. But what about those midlevel brands that come and go. You know who I mean, the 300,000 case wineries. Just big enough to not get the small producer tax credit, but not big enough to compete with Ste. Michelle. Good luck.

Let's look at the wineries in the Rattlesnake Hills. Many are estate wineries like Portteus and Bonair. They can grow grapes that are equal to the finest in the state for about $500 per ton (about 67 cents of juice in every bottle). Both Bonair and Portteus sell wines for under $10 in the Seattle market and make money because production costs are kept low. We do not work for the bank.

The Rattlesnake Hills AVA is only two hours and fifteen minutes from Issaquah via freeway. It can take that long to get to Woodunville at certain times. Because the wineries are in a rural setting, people like coming here. They have seen enough strip mall and industrial park wineries. Those wineries around Zillah should have no trouble surviving because most the sales are at retail through the tasting room. We had the best September and October in the history of the winery. As Paul Portteus said, "We have become successful in spite of the Washington Wine Commission."

There is a very famous Red Mountain winery opening a tasting room in Zillah. I wonder why? More to come.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Oak Joke on Parker

Yesterday I opened up a 1991 Bonair BFD Riesling. After 18 years the wine was a deep golden color, but still retained bright fruit with a nice bottle bouquet. The wine was amazing with a simple halibut entrée pan-fried in olive oil and butter. You snobs who think only red wines age are just plain ignorant. Riesling is the longest lived wine in the world. (It all boils down to pH and TA for those who know anything about making wine.)

There is an interesting story behind this wine. This is the only Bonair wine to be rated by the "Wine Advocate." Bobby Parker himself, of course, didn't rate the wine. He doesn't stoop to rate northwest wines. (Gag me with a spoon.) It was someone else, maybe Cesar Rovanni. I can't remember and really don't give a shift. It was a typical Washington Wine Commission event where the important people do cellar tastings and ply these leeches with food and wine and afterwards the also-rans meet at a restaurant and present their wines.

This occasion took place at Birchfield Manor, a local chef-owned gourmet restaurant and B&B. We wineries queued up and presented our wines one at a time - from dry whites, to dry reds, and on the late harvest wines. Then the next winery would present in the same order, so the dumb bastard was always going from sweet dessert wines to dry table wines.

When the article came out, our BFD (anyone who has attended Washington State University knows what BFD stands for) or Barrel Fermented Dry Riesling got an 86 or something non-committal like that. In the review, the Wine Advocate stated that "the oak overpowered the fruit." Here lies the joke and maybe the reason I am now a grumpy winemaker. The barrels that the wine was fermented in came from Pittsburgh, PA and were made by United States Steel. This wine never saw so much as an oak chip let alone an oak barrel. So, does the label influence Parker. You bet it does! Well, that and the weight of the bottle and maybe some nice perks.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

How to Sell Wine in Seattle


I've been in the wine industry in Washington for almost 25 years and I have finally figured out the secret to selling wine in Seattle. I get a kick out of new wineries that are only going to sell to "upper end restaurants and wine shops." Well, there go two cases. I've sold my friends one hundred cases, so what do I do with the other 398 cases of my 500 case special grand reserve Parkerized lot?


First, we tried knocking on doors. "Hey, we are a new boutique winery and have a limited amount of product to sell. I'll bet you would love to get your allocation." Response, "Come back when you are famous." My wife even asked a particularly snooty wine buyer at the University Village Safeway, "When are we going to get an end display?" Answer, "Lady, you ain't never going to get an end display." (Wrong, I now get them regularly because I learned the secret!)


Second, we entered contests and sent free wine to wine writers. (There's a racket if I have ever seen one. I think I will get into it when I retire and don't have access to copious amounts of free wine.) I have drawers full of medals. I don't even know what to do with them. My wife suggested we mount them on a board (actually lots of boards) and display them in the tasting room. Well, there is not enough wall space. And, all those awards don't sell wine. Nobody gives a rip if you won a gold medal at the LA County Fair (Yes, we have on our Morrison Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon.)


Third, we tried advertising. Yeah, get the word out. Advertise in wine magazines and newspapers. Get a website. People will read about you and knock down your door. Sure! I've come to the conclusion that print and air advertising are really good for newspapers, magazines, and TV and radio stations. They do nothing for the advertiser. So, what is the secret?


Under $20 is supposed to be a magical price point according to the Wine Expectorator. Most of our wines have been under $20 since the beginning of the winery and that didn't work. In fact, all those fancy Walla and Woodunville wineries now have second labels. The $50 brands are now $25, the $40 are now $20, and everyone is trying to do the $15 wine. It doesn't work.


How do you sell wine in Seattle? First it has to be good wine - and Bonair has always produced good wine. Second, you have to sell it cheap - under $10 is cheap. I am shipping out four pallets to my distributor today. Look for it in Seattle for $9.99.


The only problem is, I just received Esquin's newsletter in the mail. As Esquin Wine Merchants say, "This wine is so good at the price, it seems like a scam. Something has to be wrong! What happened? Well... the answer lies in the beauty of declassifying fantastic premium Syrah into a regular bottling." The new $9.99 is now $7.99. It's a great time to be a wine consumer. How many wineries and which ones will survive in this climate? Stay tuned.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Harvest 2009 in the Rattlesnake Hills

Harvest 2009 in the Rattlesnake Hills

Those people who opposed the establishment of the Rattlesnake Hills AVA - including some people with PhDs who should know better - said that the proposed AVA was the same as Prosser Flats -aka the Yakima Valley. As you can see by the chart below, the Rattlesnake Hills AVA was warmer in 2009 than Red Mountain. As usual, it was much warmer than Prosser Flats (Yakima Valley).




AgWeatherNet Station

Cumulative GDD (°F)

since April 1

Cumulative Precipitation (in)

since Jan 1

Oct 25

Red Mountain

Benton City



Oct 25

Wahluke Slope




Oct 25

Horse Heaven Hills




Oct 25

Rattlesnake Hills




Oct 25

Walla Walla Valley

Walla Walla



Oct 25

Yakima Valley




Oct 25

Puget Sound

WSU-Mt Vernon



Oct 25

Columbia Gorge




Oct 25

Lake Chelan

Chelan South



Oct 25

Snipes Mountain

Port of Sunnyside



Last Updated: October 26, 2009 3:04 PM

We started out the year with a very cool month of May. Because of that, we at the Bonair Winery Estate Vineyards (Château Puryear Vineyard and Morrison Vineyard) dropped a lot of fruit early, thinking that this might be a repeat of 2008, an unusually cool year in Eastern Washington. The resulting light crop matured early with extreme quality. Everything we picked came off at about 26 brix. Flavors were outstanding because berry size was small. Due to the low rainfall this year, <5 inches, bunch rot in susceptible varieties like Riesling was non-existent.

My only complaint about this year with over 3000 degree days is that our fruit was more like Red Mountain than the characteristic Rattlesnake Hills. Usually Red Mountain gets sugar before ripeness, so 26 brix is a normal picking point. In the Rattlesnake Hills, we are usually ripe i.e. beyond vegetative flavors, at 24 brix, resulting in less alcoholic wines. Red Mountain is known for big powerful tannic reds and the Rattlesnake Hills produces more elegant classical, food-friendly reds. The Yakima Valley is known for vegetative reds from Bordeaux varieties. Syrah and Pinot Noir are more suited to this cool climate.

Unfortunately, all this hype about a great vintage will be forgotten, three years from now when the first red wines start to appear for sale.

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Great Frost Story
October 11, 2009

It hit the news like a scoop. Vineyards in Eastern Washington were decimated by an unusually cold night of early frost. Will they be able to salvage the frozen fruit. Well, yes and no. Read on.

Morrison Vineyard in the Rattlesnake Hills on October 28, 2009
No frost here!

Yes, the areas of Prosser Flats and Walla Walla were hit hard. They both lie in frost belts and since the major news sources for the Washington wine industry come from Walla and Prosser Flats, that means that all of eastern Washington was the same.

In the Rattlesnake Hills and Red Mountain, most grapes were already picked except for late harvest wines. Driving through Prosser Flats and seeing red grapes still hanging leads me to believe that there will be a lot of vegetative Bordeaux-style reds from the Yakima Valley in 2009.

Red Mountain was frosted in the lower areas, but the upper vineyards still had their leaves as of October 29. In the Rattlesnake Hills vineyards under 1000' were lightly frosted, but anything above that still has leaves and could ripen fruit - most of which is already picked in this warm AVA.