7/7 Mark Ryan…and Mark Ryan

Woodinville wine tasting is always a surprise, and I love that about it.  You never quite know what you’re going to get–in the best possible way!–and today was no exception.

We read about Mark Ryan in our wine book, and were excited to try it given the description.  Upon arrival at Hollywood, I was a bit puzzled, expecting big reds and fairly expensive bottles.  Took us about a solid 10 minutes to figure out that Mark Ryan has TWO separate brands–and we were tasting the newer, more affordable label–which is actually called Board Track Racers.  (I think we must have an old version of the Woodinville wineries map; Mark Ryan proper used to be at Hollywood.)  We left with a great Rosé, perfect for summer, at the affordable price tag of $14.  Here’s my super rad only picture from Board Track Racers:

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Since we still wanted to taste the original Mark Ryan wine, we asked about the location of that tasting room.  Turns out it’s closeby, so we walked across the street to the Purple Cafe plaza.  I was excited to try the two Mark Ryan brands back to back!  It was hopping in the tasting room, and I can see why.  I was delighted with almost every wine I tried!  Rich, bold, complex reds with plenty of acidity.  Quality of the fruit he’s starting with is clearly GREAT.  Jonathan actually preferred the Board Track Racers brand, but Mark Ryan moves to the top of my Woodinville favorites list.  Wines were a bit pricey, so I didn’t spring for any today, but the next time we have a special occasion or a reason to splurge on a bottle, I’ll be seeking out a bottle of Mark Ryan.  I can see why it’s considered “One of the new cult wineries of Washington.” (Wine Enthusiast)  It’s seriously fun to try new wines every weekend and happen upon an unexpectedly great find.

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6/16 Baer + Ezell’s

Being within close reach of Woodinville has its advantages.  For us, it means we can run a few errands (you know, the kind involving paper towels, cleaning supplies, and potting soil) throw in a wine tasting, and call it a productive afternoon with rewards.

We were in desperate need of a Target run, and I was running out of reasons to avoid a trip to Molbak’s (Ireland trip!  No one to water our plants for two weeks!  We don’t really need plants this year!  Tomatoes never grow in Seattle anyhow!  …But what will we do with all the empty pots and no garage/closet/any place big enough to hold them space to put them?)


We ate dessert first and saved our vegetables for last.  Baer Winery!  It was a quiet day in the warehouse district, and we had the place to ourselves with the founder’s sister, Lisa,  pouring for us.  Lovely flavors here, the kind I like in my wine; roasted coffee, astringent tea, warm spices, and dark chocolate.

I’m that person wineries probably are so annoyed by–that person who always wants to know the story behind the winery.  I just–I can’t–I just can’t help myself.  I need to know.

Through our conversation with Lisa, we learned that her brother, Lance, started the winery, but tragically died at a young age a few years ago.  She has carried on the business as a labor of love in his memory.

I’ve forgotten the rest of the story behind the label (good thing I asked!) though in the course of vainly researching it, I found a pithy, witty interview of Lisa talking about Baer.

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What I do remember: the wines are named after the Greek names for constellations.  The last name “Baer” is bear, like the Great Bear.  You know, the constellation that’s celebrated enough that every kid who’s ever been to a planetarium show can recall it?  “Ursa,” (the Great Bear’s Greek name) is the signature blend here.  I doubly loved the Greek connection, since the Greeks, clever devils that they are, were pretty much, among many other things, the forbearers of modern wine (shout out to my recent read, “Inventing Wine,” for that fun little factoid).

Once again, no surprise, I found myself swept away with the packaging.  Bold, cobalt blue bottles, mostly unadorned save for a simple, hand-sketched, twinkling star.  Straw-colored crates wood-burned by hand with crispy, dark brown stars singed into the surface.

We toddled off…him to Target, me to Molbak’s…and then I made the decidedly brilliant suggestion of taking a slight detour on the way home to stop at Ezell’s for some legit fried chicken and Southern cooking.  Sadly, Ezell’s is tucked away in a strip mall about a mile or two from Woodinville wine central…sadly, because Ezell’s really deserves to be on every wine taster’s itinerary!  Seriously delicious fried chicken, fried okra, creamy mustardy potato salad, tangy cole slaw, thick mac n cheese, sweet potato pie, and on and on.  Given the relative dearth of dining options in Woodinville wine territory, I’d strongly encourage people to head to Ezell’s for satisfying, cheap, unfussy Southern goodness!

5/12 Kestrel and Des Voigne

To the Woodinville Warehouse District, today!   Just to shake things up a bit, and also because there are a TON of tasting rooms up there!!


First up, Kestrel, named after a falcon that’s native to Eastern Washington where the vineyards are located.  The quality of the wines here varied a bit, but there was a huge variety to try, so we didn’t mind too much.  For a $5 tasting, you get to try more than the average tasting room.  We left with the Tribute Red, which will be perfect on a night we want something unfussy to go with simple summer fare like burgers.


We sauntered across the parking lot to Des Voigne, “premium Washington wines with soul.”  Another great example of a winery with a strong theme and memorable labels.  The owner/winemaker, Darren Des Voigne, is a fan of vintage Jazz records and Deco poster art.  This shines through in bold bottles with names like “Duet” “The Groove” and “The Composer,” and with labels of sheet music and vivid-colored, Deco-influenced illustrations of musicians.  Being a huge fan of Deco style (see our wedding and the 1,000 cranes project here), I really loved this winery.  Truly serious wine tasters would scoff at me here, I know they are right now.  The contents of the bottle are all that matter, right?  For sure, great packaging can’t compensate for sub-par wine, but the wine industry has to have its share of success stories of everyday wine that eked out its competitors through great branding/marketing–whether an eye-catching label, a clever name, or a seriously great story. Especially at an everyday drinking price point (I’m thinking sub $25)…with so much competition, the label can give an edge and make you shine.  I’m all for it!

That was quite a digression from the wine, but really this little project isn’t just about wine.  And wine is never just about wine.  So much is layered in there with it.  It’s about an experience.  The people you share it with.  For me, it’s  a chance to get out of the house and away from the daily grind, relax a little, and enjoy a handcrafted product over great conversation…taking time out to just let everything go and be happy.  Which brings me back to Des Voigne…they have chalk and let you write on the smooth cement floors!  (This simple and charming touch, in my mind, obviously hereupon grants them “best winery in Woodinville” status.)

Don’t worry, be happy!


4/29 Pepperbridge/Amavi and Otis Kenyon

Today in Woodinville, we found ourselves at the small cluster of tasting rooms behind the Hollywood Schoolhouse, excited to try the reds at Pepperbridge Winery and Amavi Cellars.


Pepperbridge and Amavi share a tasting room (they are sister wineries, because they share a winemaker) so a visit here gets you a tasting of both labels.  Jonathan proclaimed the Amavi cabernet sauvignon outstanding, so we left with a bottle of that (promptly cracking it open a week later when my brother visited Seattle).  I found out afterward that Pepperbridge is commited to sustainable viticulture–basically, very close to being organic–love it!  Before we left, we noticed an outdoor grill area kicking off its opening weekend, so a visit to the 5 tasting rooms behind the Schoolhouse now gives you a great opportunity to linger over a meal on a sunny patio with ample seating.


We crossed the street to hit up Otis Kenyon, which was having a chocolate pairing with its tasting that day–sweet!  Behind the name, there’s some crazy family history involving arson which I won’t give away here, but at any rate, they give matches to visitors, which is a fun touch.  Carmenere was memorable here, since I’d never tried it before…an herbaceous wine tasting of green pepper…not for me, but my taste buds always enjoy a departure from the mainstream!

4/6 Stevens and Pomum


We not only drank great wine, but had GREAT hospitality, which made for a terrific afternoon.


Stevens was high on my list to visit given their profile in Gregutt’s book: “Though Stevens remains a bit of a local secret, all of these wines belong on anyone’s list of Washington’s best.”

Pulling up to the Stevens tasting room in the Warehouse District, I can see how it has remained a secret. Even though we knew what we were looking for, I still felt like we were wandering into a private garage, which added to the allure. When you go to Stevens, you feel like you’re popping by for a private affair, as if you’re friends with the winemakers and they’ve invited you over for an afternoon of sampling and discussing their latest creations.

Paige and Tim Stevens personally walked us through every wine we tasted, and we were struck by how friendly and passionate they were. We LOVE hearing about which vineyards the grapes come from, the winemaking process, all of that, so we loved how forthcoming they were about all the details. Also unique to Stevens is the artwork gracing the labels. Tim is an artist and creates different labels each year. If you look to your left as you exit the building, you’ll see a collection of all the labels/bottles from years past–very cool! We bought a bottle of 2009 cab franc, our first time buying a bottle of this aromatic and peppery wine that is more typically blended with cab sauv and merlot to create Bordeaux and Bordeaux style blends.


We had originally planned to go somewhere else, but Tim and Paige said we really ought to head next door to Pomum (which wasn’t on our list/map). We were SO glad we took their advice.  Again, really wonderful wines and such hospitality!  Pomum is run by a Spanish family, growing wines in the Spanish style.  The winemaker’s sister, Anna, was overseeing the tastings, and made our visit completely memorable.  We talked and laughed for a solid hour (far longer than we normally take to taste).  Seriously, I don’t think we stopped smiling ear to ear the whole time we were there.  Anna is a superb conversationalist and sure knows how to make people feel welcome.  If I ran a winery, I’d want to hire her to run my tasting room, she’s a gem!

When we have multiple favorites wines, as was the case here, our new MO is to go for the unique bottle…and that’s what we did here!  We left with a bottle of Tempranillo, the classic, “noble grape” that forms the basis of Rioja and is widely-grown in Spain, but is completely atypical to Washington state.  Hurrah for peeps going out on a limb and doing something different!

3/24 Alexandria Nicole and J Bookwalter

There is a cluster of 5 or 6 wineries at/adjacent to the old Hollywood Hills Schoolhouse, so we decided to head there today.

Our first stop was Alexandria Nicole, which is located in the lower half of the old schoolhouse–an historic red brick building that you can’t miss near the traffic circle–which makes for a great locale. We had a great tasting here, with enjoyable wines across the board, but we were really struck by the 2012 Riesling–grapes from Destiny Ridge Vineyards. We love Riesling–and we’re sort of Riesling snobs. It’s not often one really takes us by surprise, but this one did. It was a perfectly balanced Riesling, with vibrant, juicy flavor. Pretty easy to redeem our tasting fee here!


Next, we crossed the parking lot to try out J Bookwalter.  Solid wines here as well, with the reds really shining, but we felt that many were a bit pricey (~$50-$75) compared to other Washington reds that we like just as much. This is a great benefit of tasting though–it’s not just about finding out who you love and want to buy a case from–you also get to try and get to know the winemaker landscape in a region without committing to a $50 bottle–and you store away that taste memory for future reference. I did really like the 2011 Subplot No 27 (great value at $25), with delicious cherry, caramel, and coffee flavors, but Jonathan wasn’t a huge fan, so we decided to pass on buying a bottle here.  I might be tracking that one down at the grocery store at a later date!

One of the Bookwalter wine club members made them this really fab cork wall art. Inspiration for the huge jar of corks that is accumulating in our kitchen from all this wine we’ve been drinking??


I should note that at this point in our tastings, we’ve figured out our tasting approach. We’ve noticed that most places charge a $10 tasting fee, which gets you a generous enough pour for two people to get about 2-3 swigs each. No one has given us a hard time about sharing tastings, so we’re going with this approach. Where there is a $5 fee, we’ll generally each get our own–not because it’s cheaper–but because the pour tends to be smaller. This approach seems to be working for us, just thought I’d point it out in case it’s helpful for others!

St. Patrick’s Day: Guardian and Efeste

What better way to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day than go drink wine, RIGHT?  It’s the second weekend of our Woodinville Wine project.  We’re officially doing this, not just saying we will!

This week’s choices were influenced by comments from Paul Gregutt’s excellent book, “Washington Wines & Wineries.”  In reading profiles of wineries, the description of several winemakers and their personal stories caught my eye:

  • “I started in this business with the simple goal to drive a forklift….Plus, making kick-ass wines is a nice change from my day job of arresting people.” (Jerry Riener, Guardian Cellars)
  • “I don’t want to put my handprint on wine.  I don’t fine, don’t filter, and I use 100% native yeast.  I’m trying to be really gentle, like it’s an artifact.” (Brennon Leighton, Efeste)

First up, Guardian. They’re in the Warehouse Complex area of Woodinville, which we’d never been to before, and we were shocked at the number of tasting rooms.  How did we not know about this?!?


Guardian’s interior was exactly what we were hoping for in going off the beaten trail.  Crisp and modern, with rock-inspired posters on the wall and cool concrete–dark, but inviting.  Guardian has a great theme going on.  The winemaker’s profession–as a narcotics officer–informs the wine names, like “The Guilty” and “The Alibi.”  Wine bottles are draped with handcuffs.

The treat of going to smaller wineries is that the owners are often pouring and will give you the facts and the story behind wines in an unbeatably direct way.  When we wanted to know about the rationale behind adding 3% Viognier to a Syrah, Jerry eagerly explained how it absorbs red color like no other, making an incredibly vibrant wine, and also brings out the Syrah’s inherent qualities).  Booyah!  We are in this to learn something, after all.  While Guardian’s wines weren’t our personal favorite–wine tasting is very subjective–we loved our visit and enjoyed the memorable and unique branding.


Next and last up (since we’re our daily maximum is now two wineries)–Efeste.  Another laid back and friendly tasting room.  This place was founded by three friends who just really liked to drink wine, but whose family history also included winemaking.   The focus here is on terroir and purity.  We tasted unabashedly beautiful single varietals, with nothing to hide.  The wines here really struck a chord with us–and are impressing many others, too, by the many accolades they’re getting.  Again, we appreciated that the guy pouring was one of the owners.  On our final taste, when I asked about the name “Final Final,” he explained it was a tribute to his dad, who always referred to the last drink of the night as the “final final.”

Great wines, cool stories, and fun chats with passionate winemakers.  Good stuff, good stuff.