What a treat – we spent an afternoon with two exceptional Washington winemakers, John Bigelow of JM Cellars and Morgan Lee of Two Vintners Wines (et al) in April at their tasting rooms at The Vault in Maltby. Not surprisingly, their wines were exceptional and their stories kept us both intrigued and laughing at the same time. And we finally met Alice, Morgan’s sweet Black Lab, who has a stunning red wine named after her. We tasted that wine, along with several of Morgan’s mouthwatering Syrahs and his excellent Grenache Blanc, along with John’s stellar (and unreleased) Founder’s Reserve, and his amazing Grenache, Malbec, and two styles of Chardonnay. Read on for details.
John Bigelow, JM Cellars, Maltby Vault Tasting Room
John Bigelow is the epitome of a winemaker who is both an artist and a scientist. He’s also a class act. We’ve been drinking his impressive wines since we moved to Seattle in 1999, one year after JM Cellars opened its doors at the picturesque Bramble Bump hill in Woodinville. Since then, we’ve also enjoyed listening to John talk about his passion projects and tasting his magnificent new releases.
In April, we tasted the wines listed below. In addition, John opened an unlabelled Founders Reserve 2020, 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from Quintessence Vineyard on Red Mountain. This red wine oozes with potential and we look forward to tasting it again when it’s released. He also told us that 2020 was a challenging year, “but if you have good vineyards and a good team, you can make some great wine.” Speaking of good teams, we were delighted to see Tommy Bigelow, John’s son and cellar master, again too.
Morgan Lee, Two Vintners, Maltby Vault Tasting Room
Morgan Lee makes killer juice for Two Vintners Wines, Covington Cellars, and his Block Wines partnership with Full Pull Wines. We’ve never met a wine from Morgan that we didn’t like. However, we’re particularly enamored with his Rocks Syrah, so, not surprisingly, we call him a rock-star winemaker. Our first bottle of Morgan Lee’s wine: Syrah from Covington Cellars, where he became the winemaker in 2007. In the same year, he founded Two Vintners in a partnership with the owners of Covington Cellars, David and Cindy Lawson. We’ve been fans of his wines since our introduction.
Maltby Tasting: Two Vintners Grenache Blanc 2022
If you know Morgan Lee, you know you’re going to have an incredible wine-tasting experience, including lots of fun – as evident when he photobombed his 2022 Grenache Blanc at his Maltby tasting room. We started the day with this one, Morgan’s white wine anchor in his Two Vintners lineup. Grenache Blanc is a unique wine in WA, and we’ve enjoyed it since the initial vintage in 2010 with fruit sourced by famed WA grower Dick Boushey.
Morgan told us his winemaking style has pretty much remained consistent for his Grenache Blanc over the years, but its popularity rises each vintage. We understand why. This is some refreshingly tasty juice. 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.
Two Vintners Some Days Are Diamonds and Some Days Are Stones 2020
These are sibling Syrahs that are both outstanding, but very different. Morgan poured these latest vintages for us. And yes, we brought both bottles home. The wines’ names originate in the John Denver song of the same name. But Morgan also told us about the amazing cover version by Amos Lee on “The Music is You: A Tribute to John Denver.” Amos Lee’s cover song is almost as awesome as the juice.
Some Days Are Stones 2020
From the first sip, you know 2020 Some Days Are Stones comes from the unique and distinguishable Rocks District in the Walla Walla Valley – specifically from Stoney Vine and Stones Speak Vineyards. Morgan sourced many previous vintages entirely from Stoney Vine, but in the last two years, he added fruit from the classic Rocks vineyard, Stones Speak, which adds something special to the bottle.
2020 Some Days Are Stones exhibits the earthy, funky, savory characteristics of Rocks Syrah, with dark fruits, smoked meats, black olives, bacon fat, gravel and more. As Morgan notes, “Imagine a plethora of earthy and meaty flavors all wrapped together with a single dark berry smashed in, and you’ll start to understand.”
Some Days Are Diamonds 2020
And please don’t misunderstand – 2020 Some Days Are Diamonds is also a standout. Morgan sources this single-vineyard Syrah from May’s Discovery Vineyard in Horse Heaven Hills. He says he started working with May’s fruit in 2010, so this is the 11th vintage from this superb vineyard. Diamonds is elegant and appealing. It features aromas and flavors of dark fruits such as black raspberries, blueberries and plums, with notes of sagebrush and blackberries, and fresh and vibrant acidity. As Morgan says, “this is a laser-focused wine that makes it perfect to pair with foods.”
Maltby Tasting: Two Vintners Alice 2020
Alice 2020 is a stunning special-occasion wine that hits all the right notes. It’s an incredible blend of 90% Merlot, and 5% each of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Morgan sourced the grapes from Pollard (65%) and Dineen (5%) vineyards in the Yakima Valley and from May’s Discovery Vineyard (30%) in Horse Heaven Hills. Alice is a reserve Merlot, and Morgan’s most expensive wine, available only to the wine club. (What better reason to join?) In its second vintage, Morgan says, “Merlot is special in WA and should be celebrated.”
However, he told us, Merlot is still the hardest sell. “I’ve been a vocal supporter of Merlot since I started making wine. And this (Alice) is my middle finger to those who potty-mouth Merlot.”
He also says he experiments with blind tastings of Alice because Merlot delivers bigger, bolder and more structured wine here. “I hold blind tastings of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Not one person has guessed Alice is Merlot. Every single person thinks it’s Cab.”
We loved it. What a rich mouthfeel! Aromas of oranges and plums lead into flavors of dark fruit, spices, black currants and black pepper. Decant it or better yet, put it away for a few years and be prepared to be wowed.
Morgan named this beautiful blend after the winery’s sweet Black Labrador, Alice, whom we finally met during our visit. This wine sings. It is absolutely perfect for a celebration. Go ask Alice. I think she’ll know.
Two Vintners The Waiting List 2020
The Waiting List 2020 is 100% Syrah from the esteemed Boushey Vineyard in the Yakima Valley. Morgan told us the origins of the wine’s name, and the bottle label. “I had to wait seven years until I could source the fruit from Boushey Vineyard. For a long time, Boushey has been known as one of the most well-known vineyards to grow Syrah in Washington state, so I had to pay my dues.” Syrah shows sense of place more than many other varieties, and this one is as excellent as the vineyard. Fragrant aromas are mirrored on the palate of rich, dark, dense, intense fruit flavors that linger on the finish. Decant or put it away for a few years. This sexy Syrah is worth the wait!
Maltby Tasting: JM Cellars Concrete Chardonnay 2021
We initially tasted this 100% Stillwater Creek Chardonnay last year, while John Bigelow was aging it in a concrete egg. We were impressed. Many others echoed our positive feedback during the aging process. Consequently, John decided to bottle it on its own, ditching his earlier plans to blend it with his barrel-aged Chardonnay. As a result, he created JM Cellars’ first concrete-fermented and aged Chardonnay. It was outstanding then and even better now. This is one smooth, mineral-driven Chardonnay, due to the concrete. This is such a substantial Chard that you can drink it through 2031. Unfortunately, it’s only for the wine club – 1,700 members and still open! This Concrete Chardonnay is a good reason to join.
We also did a side-by-side tasting of the Concrete Chard and JM Cellars Royal Slope 100% Chardonnay 2021, also from Stillwater Creek Vineyard but barrel-aged. What a difference! Chardonnay lovers will appreciate this refreshing and textured white wine, with aromas and flavors of apples and pears and threaded with light minerality. You can also drink this one through 2031. We preferred the Concrete Chardonnay. But it doesn’t mean you will!
JM Cellars “Ancora Imparo” Grenache 2020
During our Maltby visit, John told us that Grenache is his favorite grape. And he has been working with Grenache grown on Red Mountain for the last five years. It shows in his beautiful “Ancora Imparo” 2020. Ancora Imparo is Italian for “Yet, I learn” – a perfect name to represent John’s winemaking ideology. He is always experimenting, and starting new projects.
2020 Ancora Imparo is 100% Grenache with a pretty nose of raspberries and pepper, and deep, rich flavors echoed on the palate. Specifically, John crafted this wine with estate fruit from Shaw Ridge along with Ciel du Cheval Vineyard. One-third of the wine was fermented and aged in a clay amphora, and the other two-thirds in French oak.
John says the approachable tannins and a freshness, as a result of aging in clay, means this wine can be enjoyed now or will age well for the next five to seven years.
JM Cellars Malbec Margaret’s Vineyard 2020
My notes about JM Cellars Malbec Margaret’s Vineyard 2020 state: “100% Malbec, fantastic, tasty and rich, blackberry pie with hints of baking spices, chocolate and espresso.” This beauty is reminiscent of the big rich Malbecs of Argentina, but made with grapes planted on Margaret’s Vineyard in Walla Walla Valley in 2007. John told us that these grapes accurately express what Malbec is known for – an inky black color, and aromas and flavors of rich dark fruit, subtle oak spices and a hint of pepper. He also says this 2020 vintage might be the best one he’s produced yet. We loved it. And by the way, Margaret’s Vineyard is named after John’s wonderful wife, Peggy.
JM Cellars Cabernet Franc Margaret’s Vineyard 2016
One of the many wines we brought home from Maltby: JM Cellars Cabernet Franc Margaret’s Vineyard 2016. This is a rich blend of 83% Cabernet Franc from two separate blocks of this Walla Walla vineyard and 17% Cabernet Sauvignon. With seven years of aging, this Cab Franc features concentrated blackberry aromas and flavors, accented with savory notes and hints of olive tapenade and green bell pepper. It’s been a JM Cellars favorite since the first vintage in 2010. John suggests pairing this full-bodied red with duck, which sounds intriguing. But we served it with marinated and barbecued flank steak, and it was delicious.
JM Cellars Late Harvest Sémillon 2020
John only makes JM Cellars Late Harvest Sémillon when the time is right. This 2020 vintage is the first time since 2007! His team picked the Sémillon grapes, frozen on the vine, from Stillwater Creek Vineyard on Dec. 15, 2020. At that time, he told us, the initial sugar level was 42% and the juice was intensely sweet, vibrant and full-bodied. After fermenting the wine over two months in stainless steel, this dessert wine now has 20% residual sugar that is well balanced by good acidity.
What a gorgeous nose, followed by flavors of honeyed raisins, mango and citrus. It paired perfectly with blue cheese on the charcuterie platter shared with us during our visit. John suggests trying it with pears too. This 2020 Late Harvest Sémillon should cellar through 2041.
Summary: Maltby Tasting
In conclusion, we appreciated a special time with two talented winemakers at the Maltby Vault, John Bigelow of JM Cellars and Morgan Lee of Two Vintners and Covington Cellars. Many thanks to both of you for taking time out of your busy days to spend with us, and pour some of your superb wines. Not surprisingly, we loved them all.
Margot and Dave