Featured Wine: Chateau Ste. Michelle Gewürztraminer, Columbia Valley, Washington, USA, 2007
When visiting my mother-in-law at the Jersey Shore, I often stop in at the Manasquan wine store Spirit of 76, which offers one of the largest collections of Californian wines I know of almost exclusively focused on those heavyweight grapes Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. During the peak of the financial boom – and with it, the popularity of trophy wines – as many as four aisles a piece were dedicated to each of these varietals in their exclusively Californian guise. These included limited-run, high-priced Chardonnays made by the likes of Paul Hobbs and Robert Keenan, and more than a fair share of triple-digit Cabs: Opus 1, Phelps Insignia, Stag’s Leap, Dominus, and the like. I’m not given to spending over a hundred dollars on any bottle of wine, least of all a heavily oaked Californian fruit bomb, but I’ve met those who are, and they lean towards the kind of handsomely-paid, Jersey-based executives and Wall Street types who make up a considerable part of Spirit of 76’s clientele. (To be fair to the store and the vicinity in general, Manasquan is also a surfing town with a fair share of everyday Joes and the occasional snowboarding superstar.) Though I appreciate that some of these wine-buyers may know their stuff, my experience is that the majority go after such wines because they find it easier to talk about the acquisition of a cult Californian cab recognizable by its brand name (the vinous equivalent of a Porsche) than to discuss specific Bordeaux, Ribera del Duero or Tuscan estates and vineyards, let alone having to deal with the considerable vintage differences in Europe that are never so pronounced in California.
But on a recent walk through the store, I was interested to note that many of these triple-digit wines are languishing unsold, and those that have disappeared from the racks are not being restocked. Rather, they’re being replaced with much more sensibly priced – let’s make that bargain-priced – red and white wines, a clear reflection of the current economy. In fact, on this latest sojourn, I saw just as many Cabs priced under $15 as I saw priced above $50, and it made me wonder whether the collapse of the financial markets will spell the demise of the cult Californian Cab (and Chardonnay), or whether there will always be enough multi-millionaires, even in another Great Depression, to keep demand for the Diamond Creeks of this world well ahead of their limited supply.
By rights, this should lead to my report on discovering a top-notch Californian cab at a rock-bottom price, but unfortunately that’s not the case. I did buy a L de Lyeth Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 for a paltry $10, hoping for the best; sadly, it was sorely lacking in varietal definition, blunted by its menthol and vanilla oak notes rather than any noticeable fruit flavors or supple texture. There is, clearly, a certain price you have to be willing to pay to drink decent California Cabernet, and $10 ain’t it.
I did, however, seize on a sell-off bottle of the Chateau Ste. Michelle Gewürztraminer Columbia Valley 2007, and it served as a useful reminder of just what wonderful wines exist in the United States if you’re willing to move out of the most intensively followed States and easily-pronounced grapes. Generally speaking, Gewürztraminer is not my favorite wine (though the 1989 Pierre Sparr Reserve from Alsace, the grape’s spiritual homeland, that I tasted late last year was near enough a revelation; believe me, the better examples of this grape can AGE), but the Washington State style is very different to that of western Europe, much more fruit-forward and lively, if arguably less complex. A golden yellow in the glass, the Chateau Ste. Michelle Gewürztraminer offered up an apricot nose similar to a Viognier but with a saline smell to distinguish itself from that grape, and enough citrus aromas to indicate its acidity. Offering hints of nectarines and nuts on the front palate, it was fresh and bubbly, spirited, exuberant even, and while a little hollow somewhere in the middle (it’s that distinctive hollow touch that turns me off this grape at times), some candied apples kicked in on the finish to round it off very nicely. From a cool climate, and modest in alcohol, it’s nonetheless confident in its character, an ideal wine both for summer sipping and winter food; you can’t do much better in matching a spicy, warming Indian or Thai meal at this price. Oh yes, the price: $8. No wonder I was grabbing the last bottle. No wonder those Dominus and Insignias remain unsold, their potential for maturity called into question as they age on the shelves rather than in the safety of a climate-controlled cellar.
There’s certainly a place for fine wine: on a special occasion it’s a perfect way to celebrate one’s (emotional as well as financial) worth – but for just about all of us, just about all the time, wine is about putting a drink on the table at a price you can afford. Chateau Ste. Michelle offers that quality-price-ratio across its portfolio, but its Gewürztraminer may just be its ace in the pack. Treat yourself. You can afford this one.
Previous Gewürztraminers reviewed at iJamming!
Dr. Konstantin Frank Gewürztraminer ‘Limited Release’, Finger Lakes, New York 2000
Foris Vineyards Gewürztraminer Rogue Valley, Oregon, 2001,
Keuka Spring Gewürztraminer Finger Lakes, New York, 2004
More Finger Lakes Gewürztraminers from Atwater, Hazlitt 1852, Standing Stone and Lucas, all 2003 and 2004