When I moved out from North Carolina to Seattle, it was 1992. I was a precocious thirty-something and had been a wine fan and sometime critic for about 20 years. But NC, at that time, was home to exactly no “serious” wineries, which we’ll define, here, as wineries that work with vitis vinifera varietals (all those grapes you know and like, in short) and was in a region that had fewer than a dozen working wineries that made anything like Cabernet and Merlot and yadda-yadda.
So, here’s me, a budding wine critic, coming from a place that didn’t make wine, except for the sad American grapes like Foxen and Scuppernong and Norton and even the quirky Chelois, which had wandered down from NY state and, ahem, took root. The wines were, to be blunt, not good. Most were white and those were sweet. The best grape NC had growing was sweet Muscadine, a grape best known for the syrupy plonk guzzled by derelicts of all faiths and creeds to get hammered. But Muscadine CAN be a nice, tasty, unchallenging white wine. Duplin Cellars, of Rose Hill, North Carolina, made a wine called “Magnolia”, back then, and whenever I wanted something I could easily find and not think about, I bought Magnolia, a 100% Muscadine sweet white, which tasted of honeysuckle and baked apples and stewed pears and flowers. It was nice. But when I wanted a real wine, I had to go to DC or Atlanta and schlep back cases. It was expensive and tiring and then…
…Liberation! A state where there were over fifty wineries! Some were even close enough for me to drive to, in less than an hour! Making real, legit bottles of Cabernet and Cab Franc and Chardonnay and Merlot and even the exotic Pinot Gris…even – hold onto something! – Viognier! My all-time fave white grape and not even that expensive. I was in…Heaven.
I always have splurge wines; bottles for which I’ll take my big crowbar in my garage and pry open my wallet and shell out real dollars. My back East splurge wine? Arrowood Reserve Cabernet. The price? $34.
Within two years of arriving in Seattle, I had found my West Coast splurge…
Delille Cellars “D2”.
The first vintage was that 1992. I tasted it one cool September (or was it October?) afternoon at Esquin Wine Merchants, waaay down there in the SoDo industrial area of South Seattle, a store where, ten years later, I would wind up working. It was among the first blended red wines of any kind from Washington and there was considerable curiosity about it. One noted Washington wine critic was at that same tasting. I met him through a clerk I had befriended in my previous visits and we stood chatting amiably as we went through the other wines being poured.
When we came to this new D2 thingie, my new pal looked at me sideways and murmured, “Yeah. Bordeaux blend. From Washington grapes. I’m not optimistic.”
We swirled and sniffed and both sipped at the same time. The look on his face can only be characterized as skeptical.
We both said it at the same time: “Wow!”
Two weekends ago, I was invited out to DeLille to see their new facility, located in the former Red Hook Brewery building in Woodinville’s Sammamish River Valley. It’s a handsome building, with ample space for all the business activities that a major winery concerns itself with and a far more manageable space for the winery, as opposed to their old place, which was something like making wine in a Habitrail.
The tasting was of all their current releases and was spread out over all three levels of their new retail complex, to let guests see everything and taste everything.
My shameful admission, here, is that I have not tasted DeLille wines in several years. I’m not more immune to the allure of the new and emergent that any other reviewer and so was BUSY, in a major way and not making adequate time for our state’s old-guard wineries. And that fact is not likely to change, sadly. In 1992, there were somewhere between thirty and fifty wineries in WA state. Now, there are about a thousand. The math is fairly easy.
I had also had a rather disturbing episode, in 2006, with a person then attached to DeLille and wound up nursing a considerable grudge for about five years. Whatever else that says about my professional values, I am, without doubt, a contrary son of a bitch and I am fully capable to holding onto gripes for a long damned time. But I also have a rather active sense of fair play and my primary principle is that I write off NOBODY, ever, no matter what the reason. As the person with whom I had the dust-up has nothing to do with winemaking, the decision to go and revisit my old crush was easy.
The other factoid in my feelings about DeLille is aesthetic and deserves mention here: like its gigantic neighbor, Chateau Ste. Michelle, just across South 145th Street, DeLille is among the last remaining True Believers in the old and mainly discredited idea that American wineries should emulate France in All Things Wine…which effectively meant that, while about 98% of all US wineries were moving resolutely into a new future, in which we are celebrating OUR grapes and OUR cultural tastes and OUR style of wines, Ste. Michelle and DeLille and a relative handful of Washington wineries (and a FAT bushel of Oregon Pinot Noir producers) were walking just as stubbornly in the opposite direction. Western style opulence and splendor and unapologetic fruitiness…vs. restraint and nuance and the stylistic approach of “Always Leave ‘Em Wanting More” that the French have embraced for the better part of 500 years. After almost seven years of not tasting D2 at all, had my own tastes changed? Would the grace and casual excellence and (although I freakin’ HATE this word, as applied to wine) the elegance (however self-conscious and deliberate) of DeLille’s wines just ding right off my 2019 tastes like a BB off a battleship?
Honestly…while several of the wines weren’t what I think of as My Kinda Juice, and while everything I tasted at DeLille was excellent and still, yes, elegant and nuanced subtle and more reserved than those many of their Washington colleagues put out, they do, for a fact, reflect this era we live in NOW, a judicious marriage of that French restraint and the emphatic verve and fruit splendor of this state’s rapidly-coming-of-age vineyards.
D2 is…undeniable. D2 is, without hyperbole, close to perfect. When I started splurging on D2, in 1994, I was a little hesitant about paying all that money for a bottle of wine.
It was $28.
For this tasting, DeLille was offering two vintages (the 2016 and 2017) of it at just $35 apiece. Even a skinflint like me thinks that a good deal and we left with two of each, despite the fact that we’d already spent about $1,000 on wine in the past two months. We had to have at least those two each. If we hadn’t already blown out our wine budget, that four would have been a case. And I wish it was.
When I sat down with Judye and my one ounce of the 2017 D2, we were in a smallish pool of sunlight, amid a dense mass of Washington’s wine fanatics, none of whom had my bumpy history with DeLille. These folks were absolutely glowing, albeit in that studiously cool, “Seattle Freeze-y” way that suggests they’re carefully bottling up any gauche signs of Excessive Enthusiasm.
I raised the glass, swirled it, and brought it up to my nose…
…and the world tilted off its axis.
When you taste as much wine is I do, 99% of it for work purposes – swirl, sniff, sip, spit – a creeping sameness can set in. Honestly, the aroma of better than 95% of the stuff I’ve tasted in the past five to eight years was just okay. I came to expect nothing and generally got little more than that. Back when I first came to the Northwest, I spent literal hours with my nose stuck down into wine glasses, marveling at the complexity and effusive variety of scents and sensations. I remember it well. I miss it.
This 2017 D2 instantly revived that sense of wonder and discovery; brought that excitement of New Things roaring back like a hurricane. “This,” I immediately thought, “Is what made me love wine, in the first place.”
I had not had that thought in at least fifteen years…
I actually got teary, for a few uncomfortable moments. Hard to hide your eyes when your nose is about 3″ down a Riedel Bordeaux balloon. I have no idea if my wife was as similarly moved because I was pointedly not looking at her. I wanted, more than anything else, to just erase the background chatter and the good acoustic music duo playing just behind us, and Go Away, just me and those scents of blackberry liqueur, raspberries, warm plum jam, vanilla cookies, baking spices, faint coffee, wildflowers, heather, and cocoa. Immediately gone was the habitual necessity of noting the wine’s nose, registering it in a purely functional way, and moving on to the next wine. This wine compelled lingering, savoring, pondering. I must have swirled and sniffed that glass at least 18-20 times. My wife noticed.
“Are you thinking of, maybe, tasting that, any time today?” she smiled.
“Maybe,” I chuckled, “I’m just enjoying this, right now. This smells...”
I, who make my living with words, suddenly had none.
In the mouth, D2 fulfills the promise of that swoon-inducing nose and then some. Fresh red and black berries float atop a solid base of wet wood, vanilla, pie crust, blueberry compote, cassis, warm cocoa, sweet minerals, and a toasty intimation, a faint hint, of woodsmoke. It is an absolutely bewitching wine and I’m not extolling these virtues as some sort of wine-weenie analysis, proceeding from an analytical basis of wine erudition. At pure, hedonistic gut-level reaction, this wine reaches down into your memories and instincts and urges and grabs you, just as surely as any monumental Napa Cab from Chateau de Three-Hundred and Fifty Dollars ever will.
On the DeLille website, the 2016 D2 is listed at $45. The 2017 goes for $48. Both, for an upper-tier American blend, are well and comfortably into the value-priced end of the cost spectrum. They will, for wine geeks like me, be considered bargains. And there is enough of both that you have some reasonable hopes of getting hold of some, if you get it in gear and order it. Your better local wine shop may have either or both vintages but, here just before Christmas, is going to be a hard time to find it.
DeLille also poured a lovely Grand Ciel Vineyard Cabernet and it was a dead-solid, classic Red Mountain (WA’s most sought-after appellation) Cab and I enjoyed every drop. The same is true of their other Cabernet, a blend of four vineyard sources called “Four Flags”, all from that magical speed-bump of the Cascade Mountain foothills, Red Mountain. Everything we tasted, in fact, was superb and beautifully realized…and might have been even more impressive if they had not had to share the stage with D2.
How many bottles of D2 did I buy, back there in the very loose 90s? I have no idea. But my “splurges” were far more frequent and extravagant then – as a single man with a great job, living on my own in downtown Seattle – and at least 80% of those luxury purchases involved D2. On one memorable occasion, with the revenues from a journalism prize, I bought four bottles of D2, one each of Screaming Eagle Cab and Sassacaia, and one of the classic Teofilo Reyes Ribera del Duero 1994. It was like Christmas, my birthday, and losing my virginity, all at the same time. And the star of that show?
This wine is an American classic; a wine that DeLille originally intended to be a second label, the gainful use of second barrels and unused primary lots. Instead, it has become a true Pacific Northwest and, indeed, an American icon. D2 is a wine that perfectly encapsulates what it is meant to be: an homage to and restatement of the hallmark, Right-Bank, Merlot-dominant Bordeaux blends. I cannot say how much pure pleasure and how many dusty, long-unused buttons just the aroma of this stuff pushed, all before the flavors hammered home the basic fact that I do not want, for the rest of my life, to ever go without drinking and enjoying D2 for even one vintage again.
YOU…shouldn’t either, if you love wine at all. 98 Points