I’ve taken several well-read swings at the whole idea of crowd-sourcing, as it pertains to ratings of most anything, for the simple fact that, in crowd-sourcing, the basic principle is “crowd”, in its literal sense: a collection of random citizens whose knowledge base and judgment is unknowable and unquantifiable. They may be experts and they may be complete dullards. They may, in fact, know absolutely nothing of the subject upon which they’re asked to comment. They may just like to join groups. They may just like to troll the internet. And the inability to know any of this is at the core of why, to me, crowd-sourcing simply does not work…
…until it does.
While I have infinite respect for Chateau Ste. Michelle and the enormity of their accomplishments – not the least of which is spawning many of the country’s best winemakers – CSM is not and has not been for the past 20 years, really representative of what “Washington Wine” means. The answer to “Why?” is right there in their name. CSM has clung to and is only gradually moving away from a resolutely Old World aesthetic that governs everything they do, from graphics to marketing to picking to winemaking, while the rest of the state and, in fact, much of American wine, is moving just as resolutely away from that restrained, “nuanced”, (faux) “elegant”, Euro-driven mindset that is best described as “Francophilia Run Amok”. The rest of Washington has been busily and gleefully turning out wines with size and fruit and depth and an almost unbridled robustness, while CSM has reined in all that New World, soda-poppy, fruity nonsense and hewed tightly to the ideals of their French roots…and that has unquestionably worked for them. I’m not enough of a Wine Snot to argue that millions of people drinking your wine should move you away from What Sells but I also have really NOT imbibed a whole lot of Ste. Michelle wine in those 26 years. The last time I sat down and actually drank a bottle was about four years ago, at Ste. Michelle, for an Amos Lee concert. I had a bottle of their wine club Petit Verdot and enjoyed every drop. But I only bought that, in their lovely Chateau shop, because they didn’t have anything on hand from the one division of their parent company that I really, really love…Columbia Crest.
CC and CSM are part of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, which is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Altria Group, Inc. (renamed from Philip Morris Companies Inc. on January 27, 2003) one of the world’s largest producers and marketers of tobacco, cigarettes and related products, headquarters in Henrico County, Virginia. Columbia Crest started in 1982, with Doug Gore as its first winemaker and it quickly became a massive success story, routinely outrunning its big brother in sales and critical acceptance.
CSM and CC are almost polar opposites of each other, in terms of their practices and aestehtic. Ste. Michelle has thrived in consistency and not pushing the envelope (no need: they owned the envelope), while Columbia Crest has frequently refused to even admit that the envelope exists. CC’s Grand Estates Series has racked up 90+ scores as concictently as a roomful of doctors’ thermometers and its Cabernet has been one of my go-to value cabs for 15 years. (Others: Marques de Casa Concha, McManis Family Winery, Saviah’s “The Jack”, Tahbilk Nagambie Lakes, Parducci Mendocino, and Owen Roe “Sharecroppers”) Their Grand Estates Chardonnay has been, for most of those 15 years, the only American Chard I would lay down $$$ for in a retail store, their Syrah is inarguably the best value in ALL West Coast Syrah, and their GE Merlot remains the only bottle of Merlot from anywhere that I have willingly laid out money for in the past two decades. (Okay, there was the Boscaini Merlot “Dirada” Veneto but Boscaini went out of business) And both those were gifts….and all of these wines are less then ten dollars!
But lately…Columbia Crest has done the wine equivalent of running naked through The Louvre. The American wine culture – that’s wine estates and artisan wineries, as opposed to “fun brands” like Jellybean and Big Ass Zin and Mommy’s Time Out, etc., etc – is a place that has, traditionally and quite smugly, had a broomstick up its fundamental orifice ever since before I was born, back when dinosaurs roamed Nebraska. It has only been the past ten years that playful labels or names have been common enough to stop eliciting massive disdain and abuse and, to this day, the idea of messing around – in ANY way! – with the basic principles of how wines are made is considered such a profound act of virtual treason that a winery which gets caught at dosing their juice with tannin additives or adding sugar or (God Forbid!) adding any sort of flavoring to their wines runs a very real risk of being put literally OUT of business.
So, last year, when CC’s passionately excellent winemaker, Juan Muñoz Oca, decided to try his hand at making a wine in the style of Spain’s Toro region, with vastly extended (NINE Months!!) maceration in tank, petticoats of wine weenies all over the West fluttered in a frenzy. But that was all before they tasted Intrinsic Cabernet (L). Intrinsic was just above all criticism. I admit that even I was a little skeptical, as Cabernet is just a different grape from the workhorse Tempranillo used in Toro. I was sent a bottle of Intrinsic and reviewed it and another new CC wine experiment, CrowdSourced Cabernet in a post entitled “Intrinsic and Inferno: Steps Into the New Frontier of Wine“, so I’ll just leave that link there and say that, when the new bottle of Columbia Crest CrowdSourced Cabernet 2015 arrived (along with another bottle of the 2014), I was up speed about what CC had hoped to do with Crowd Sourced and had some inkling of what was possible.
“CrowdSourced”, as used by Columbia Crest, means that, through a wesbite specially created for this project, people who signed up online – average Joes like you and me – were given the task of making ALL decisions on how the grapes were harvested, at what ripeness, how they were crushed, tanked, macerated, fermented, pressed, barreled and bottled. Every decision that is usually made by the winemaking staff was made by the public. Oca and his people were there to keep things from getting too bizzare but they only intervened when not doing so would jeopardize some technical process. These wines were, in fact, made by committee, and the results prove that, to every rule like mine of crowd-sourcing being a chump move, there IS an exception.
What I found in these two bottles was an extraordinarily fine Cabernet that very nearly sets a new value standard for upper tier Washington Cab. At just under $30 a bottle, the new CrowdSourced is a bright and boisterous red that shows a noticably darker, more viscous character than Washington value Cabs have traditionally shown. We just do not make Cabernet of the weight and density of Napa Valley Cabs, here in WA state, and the reasons involve climate and soil and all that basic stuff. Add to that the fact that California wineries often have vines to draw from that are forty, fifty, eighty years or older. Our first vitis vinifera vines were planted in the early 60s, so our OLDEST vines – all white grapes – are less than 60 years old and our red wine vineyards average just about half of that. As vines gain age and roots in Eastern Washington, the wines continue to gain depth and richness and expressiveness without sacrificing the one attribute in which this state’s wines have already exceeded those from California: complexity.
Columbia Crest CrowdSourced Cabernet 2015 flauts that complexity the way Seahawks fans sport their Super Bowl XLVIII caps. It starts with a gusher of mixed berries; a glorious shower of blackberries, dried cranberries, raspberry jam, blueberries, and even a hint of fresh strawberries. Behind that are cocoa and graphite and vanilla and cafe au lait and figs and black plums and glove leather and bright, tangy minerals, finishing with pink peppercorns and cinnamon. In terms of weight, it’s not anything approaching Napa but is solidly medium-bodied and substantial, with a lovely persistence on its lazy finish. It was aged for 12 months in 60% new oak barrels and its lovely, aromatic vanilla and wood scents bear that out, as opposed to the ’14, which spent 16 months in 30% new French Oak and was a tad less expressive of the barrel. But the true test of this wine is going to come with a bit of age and – make no mistake about it – these wines are both eminently age-worthy. They’re built like all CC wines have traditionally been, with firm but unobtrusive tannins, ample but not pushy acidity, and near-perfect intensity and extraction. I believe this wine will age better than Helen Mirren and…I have some supporting evidence… 93 Points
Also inlcuded in the box was the Columbia Crest CrowdSourced Cabernet 2014, the original vintage and just one year farther along. The contrast between these two wines was startling. I remember the ’14 quite clearly and I would have had to rate it just a hair behind the ’15, upon release…but, ahhh!, we’re not “upon release”, are we? We’re now a year down the road and the difference in this wine from the coltish puppy I tasted one year ago is eye-opening. This is a round, full, replete, silken, opulent, nearly Napa-gauge Cabernet that reveals a shocking richness upon first sip and then opens up to a genuine bounty of flavors and grace notes that actually made me sit back, look at my glass, and say “Whoa!”
The aforementioned berries, chocolate, and coffee of the ’15 are more pronounced, now, and fleshed out beautifully by dark caramel, coconut, lanolin, cherry compote, Cassis liqueur, baking spices, and a hint of something aromatic like eucalyptus. The aroma is intoxicating, decadent, and delivers just as much extravagance on the tongue. This is, without exaggeration, one of the most evolved wines in the period of just one year that I’ve ever come across. Usually, a year’s aging delivers some subtleties. This is very nearly a new wine. It is absurdly smooth on the palate and mouth-coating in a way that’s seldom found in wines that don’t say “Napa” or Barossa” or “Mendoza” or “Toro” on the label. I took this to a family get-together and almost missed it altogether, as one of my step-children opened the bottle, tasted it, freaked out (there’s no other word for it), and was passing the it around, saying, “OMIGOD, you gotta taste this!” I had to wrestle the bottle away from her to even get my one glass.
I honestly do not have a clue if this little miracle is going to repeat itself in the 2015 edition but, given their common origins and the titanic skill of Juan Muñoz Oca, I am betting it will. I’m going to lay in at leats a half case of this 2015 and whatever I can find of the ’14 and see how this little success story turns out but, for right now, you probably cannot spend $30 on ANY wine from Washington that will deliver this degree of pleasure or flavor and certainly not a Cabernet. 96 Points