For two decades, we have called Taste Washington “the Super Bowl of Wine Events.” It’s the country’s largest single-region wine and food extravaganza, and returned March 6-13 in Seattle after a three-year break because of the pandemic. We went to the Grand Tasting, and had an epic time connecting with some incredible winemakers, and tasting their new releases.
Grand Tasting at Taste WA 2023
The Grand Tasting offers a massive amount of taste potentials. So we always arrive with a plan. We knew we wouldn’t be able to stay for very long, because I had just had knee replacement surgery. It was a two-hour drive and a lot of walking! So, we made a list of wineries that we wanted to visit, yet left room for some flexibility.
We weren’t sure if we were even going to Taste WA this year, because of my knee replacement surgery. Each day that week, we discussed it and still could not decide, much as we wanted to attend this fantastic wine event. Then, the morning of the Grand Tasting, we saw two Canvasback ducks swimming on the little lake in our backyard. This rarely happens. So, we took it as a sign that we should go to Taste WA and visit Brian Rudin of Canvasback.
We’re so glad we did. First, we had a chance to catch up with Brian and learn all about his new releases. And then he poured Canvasback Red Mountain 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon, Longwinds Estate Vineyard. Brian partners with legendary Washington vineyard manager Dick Boushey on Longwinds, planted on Red Mountain in 2014. Longwinds features 13.5 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon grown in the rockier, exposed soils at the top of the vineyard.
We previously tasted, and loved, the 2018 vintage, the debut bottling. The 2019 (99% Cab Sauv topped with 1% Merlot) is somehow even more poised and polished. Aromas of cherry pie, black licorice, herbs and floral notes lead into luscious flavors of wild strawberries, cherries and raspberries.
This wine has the wow factor, which is not surprising because Canvasback is known for luxury, single-vineyard and appellation-designated Cabernet Sauvignons. Canvasback is the only Washington label under the Duckhorn family of wines.
Grand Tasting: Two Vintners
Next, we visited rock-star winemaker Morgan Lee, who has never made a wine we’ve tasted and didn’t love. (In fact, we just ordered some of the latest vintage of one of his special wines, Block Wines Ankleroller Syrah, but that’s another story.)
At Taste WA, Morgan poured us 2022 Grenache Blanc, the white varietal anchor in his Two Vintners lineup. We’ve appreciated this unique wine since the first vintage in 2010 with fruit sourced by famed WA grower Dick Boushey.
Morgan says his Grenache Blanc increases in popularity each year, and we understand why. This 13th vintage is a gorgeous balance of acidity and fruit aromas and flavors – peaches, melon, apples and citrus. It’s a blend of 90% Grenache Blanc and 10% Roussanne from Boushey (90%) and Olsen (10%) Vineyards.
It’s a beautiful wine to sip on the deck or lakeside, but there’s no need to wait for the warm weather because it will also pair perfectly with seafood all year.
One of the highlights for us at the Grand Tasting: finally meeting the amazing Rich Funk of Saviah Cellars. Believe me, we tried to get together many times in the past, but something always came up. What a treat to chat with Rich, who is an extremely talented winemaker and such a friendly, kind man. It was also wonderful to see his son Jared, whom I met on Instagram and later in person at the winery. Such fun!
And then there were the wines. Oh my. The latest vintage of our favorite The Funk Estate Syrah (2020) and the debut 2019 The Funk Estate Cabernet Sauvignon were beyond impressive Rocks District wines. Both are heaven in a glass, but for different reasons.
This vintage of the Funk Syrah is the best funky and exotic Saviah Rocks Syrah we’ve had. And we have tasted every one of them. But the new Funk Cab Sauv, while also lush and concentrated, is more refined and subtle. Rich says the release of this wine marks a milestone that has been on their minds for a very long time. This is a very special, classy and elegant wine that will age gracefully over the next decade or longer – if you have the patience not to drink it right away.
We also tasted another of our Saviah faves, 2020 Stones Speak Syrah, grown in extraordinarily cobbled soil. This is another classic, savory Rocks wine that makes us smile.
Marcus Rafanelli is creating some standout wines at L’Ecole 41, and kudos to Washington wine pioneer Marty Clubb for hiring him a few years ago.
We’ve known Marcus for a long time, so it was fantastic to see him at the Grand Tasting and sample some of L’Ecole’s exciting new releases.
First, 2022 Grenache Rosé is Marcus’ best one yet – 100% Grenache, Provence-style, and also drier, not at all sweet, and lip-smacking delicious. Yes, it will be a big part of our summer, but we also drink pink all year round.
Next, L’Ecole 40th Anniversary Red Wine is epic. The original label of the schoolhouse is historic. The gorgeous blend of Merlot (50%), Cabernet Sauvignon (30%) and Cabernet Franc (20%) is sourced from two of the earliest Walla Walla Vineyards – Estate Seven Hills and Pepper Bridge. In other words, this beauty properly honors 40 years of L’Ecole greatness since their initial vintage in 1983.
Further, Marcus poured the newly released 2020 Ferguson Estate, a complex and elegant blend of Cab Sauv (59%), Merlot (24%), Malbec (7%), Cab Franc (6%) and Petit Verdot (4%). Ferguson is L’Ecole’s pre-eminent Bordeaux blend, and this new vintage is as luscious and stunning as previous ones.
Grand Tasting: JM Cellars
The Grand Tasting is a perfect opportunity to try excellent WA wine and connect with the super-skilled winemakers who make it. That’s exactly what we experienced when we spent time again with John and Tommy Bigelow of JM Cellars. John is the epitome of a winemaker who is both an artist and a scientist. We’ve been drinking his impressive wines since we moved to Seattle in 1999, one year after John and his inspiring wife Peggy opened JM Cellars.
His son Tommy is Cellar Master, and one of the most enthusiastic young people we’ve met in the wine industry. Previously, he was Viticulture Technician at Seven Hills Vineyard in the Walla Walla Valley. He worked for Sadie Drury, one of the most respected growers in the northwest.
At Taste WA, John poured his stellar new release, 2021 Concrete Chardonnay. We tasted this 100% Chardonnay last year, while it was still aging in a concrete egg. It was outstanding then and even better now. This is such a substantial Chard that you can drink it through 2031. (Of note, it’s a wine-club only wine, with 85 cases bottled.)
John also poured the second vintage of The Royale Stillwater Creek Vineyard Royal Slope, a medium-bodied 2019 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (64%) and Merlot (36%). Aromas of cherries and licorice lead into flavors of black and red fruit, with a hint of spice.
While The Royale pairs well with comfort food, John says it’s also a “fireplace” red – easy to drink on its own while enjoying a fire on a cool evening. And since we’re in the midst of some of those now, it’s perfect timing. While the 2019 is very drinkable now, John predicts it will be even better in 2026.
We hadn’t seen Kevin Correll and Bonni Ruchty, co-owners of Barrage Cellars, in way too many years since we moved from the Seattle area. So it was another highlight to catch up with them at the Grand Tasting. We’ve been fans of Kevin’s wines (and the two of them) since we met in 2008, two years after Barrage Cellars launched.
Like many winemakers here, Kevin started making wine as a hobby in his garage. From there, he moved his craft to a winery in a remodeled barn. Put the two words barn and garage together – Bar+rage – and voila, Barrage Cellars was born.
Kevin takes the minimalist approach to winemaking, beginning in the vineyards. He works closely with the growers and spends countless hours with them. In addition, Kevin focuses on 100% varietal wines to emphasize Washington’s notable quality of fruit.
At Taste WA, Kevin poured our perennial favorite of his wines, Cease and Desist 2017 Yakima Valley Cabernet Franc. We have been drinking this 100% Cab Franc since the 2007 vintage. Year after year, it is one of the best Cab Francs in WA.
Full of black and red fruit, this rich wine is earthy and herbaceous, with a hint of minerality and chocolate. The 2017 vintage is sourced from Boushey Vineyard and Red Willow Vineyard, which speaks to that quality of the fruit.
It was terrific to catch up with Kelsey Devison of Devison Vintners, although winemaker/husband Peter was out and about every time we went to their table. We’ve known Peter for more than a decade, when he joined Efeste, where I had been helping out with their social media strategy.
After years as a winemaker for several well-known wineries, Peter now creates wine under his own eponymous label in Walla Walla. And his entire lineup rocks. From a mouth-watering Sauvignon Blanc to Rhône-style reds to Rocks District funk, Peter makes excellent wines.
Meanwhile, we were delighted when Kelsey poured Beneath The Stones 2020. This 100% Syrah showcases Stoney Vine Vineyard fruit and The Rocks District funk with a silky satin structure. Aromas of dark berries, oranges and pepper lead into sultry flavors of smoked meats, olives and dark fruit, threaded with concrete-driven minerality.
Founded in 1992, DeLille Cellars is a long-standing, prominent and pioneering winery in Washington. So, of course, no visit to Taste WA is complete without stopping by the DeLille table. And, of course, we had to taste their 2020 Four Flags Cabernet Sauvignon and D2.
Four Flags exhibits the elegance, depth and classic structure and power of Cabernet Sauvignon from four Red Mountain vineyards – Grand Ciel, Upchurch, Ciel du Cheval and Klipsun. Inky in color, this full-bodied wine is intense and savory. It features aromas of cassis, olives, black cherries spices and minerality, followed by layered flavors of dark fruits, cocoa and licorice.
D2 is one of two wines first made by DeLille Cellars in 1992, when the winery was launched. And here’s some Washington wine history for you: D2 paved the way for Bordeaux-style blends in the state. The 2020 is soft, approachable and delicious, sourced from more than a dozen Columbia Valley vineyards. Aromas of red fruit and vanilla are mirrored on the palate, along with flavors of milk chocolate and nutmeg.
Year after year, you can’t go wrong with these two wines from DeLille Cellars – or other ones from their extensive portfolio.
Long Shadows Vintners is a collection of ultra-premium wineries with internationally acclaimed winemakers from the major wine regions of the world, and founded by Washington wine pioneer and visionary, the late, great Allen Shoup. We were delighted to see Gilles Nicault again at the Grand Tasting. We’ve known him for years, prior to 2003, when he became their first winemaker. He is now the Director of Winemaking and Viticulture.
Gilles poured 2018 Pedestal Merlot, crafted by Michel Rolland, Pomerol vintner and famed wine consultant. This limited-production wine blends 82% Merlot with 14% Cabernet Sauvignon and 4% Malbec. As a result, it’s opulent and complex, with beautiful aromatics and flavors – think blackberries, chocolates, cherries, coffee and spice. We understand why Jeb Dunnuck gave it 95 points.
Hard Row to Hoe
Last but not least in our Taste WA series, we also met Julian Shaver, the head winemaker at Hard Row to Hoe, and the son of co-owner/founding head winemaker Judy Phelps. We’ve been fans of Hard Row and Judy’s wines for years, so it was a treat to finally meet her son.
We tasted some of Julian’s earlier wines when we visited Hard Row to Hoe two years ago. Specifically, he created Whole Picture® Au Naturel Pét-nat. It’s an amazing wine made in a very natural way, omitting typical winemaking tools like cultivated yeasts, artificial nutrients and over-use of sulfites for preservation. Low in alcohol, this sparkling wine offers flavors of berries, almonds and vanilla.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t taste any of his recent releases because we didn’t see his booth until we were heading out. But we will definitely visit Hard Row to Hoe the next time we’re in Chelan. If you’re not familiar with their wines, or their incredible and fun story, you can learn about it in our 2016 article.
Summary: Grand Tasting
In conclusion, we had a spectacular time at the Grand Tasting of Taste Washington. It was wonderful to celebrate Washington Wine Month, and attend the Super Bowl of Wine Events after a three-year break because of the pandemic.
Washington Wine Month is over now, but we drink WA wine all year, and hope you do too.
Margot and Dave