Winery Profile: Andrew Will

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AWYesterday I attended a tasting with Chris Camarda of Andrew Will Cellars, one of Washington’s top estates. Chris started making wines in a tiny rented space in Seattle before expanding and moving to Vashon Island. In fact, Andrew Will was the first wine producer in Washington state to make single-vineyard varietal wines. Over time Chris has changed his philosophy and now all the wines are blended in a Bordeaux style and are meant to express the uniqueness of the particular site from which they come. All are made with the same methods and the same care.

Chris was quite an engaging fellow with tons of knowledge and experience, and a lot of frank outspoken opinions. I appreciated his candor and directness and I think that comes across in the wines that he makes, which all have a distinct personality and a particular approach.

I started with the 2006 Two Blondes, a blend of 43% Cabernet Franc, 29% Cabernet Sauvignon and 29% Merlot. This was the most expressive of the bunch right now, and had an incredible Cab Franc character to it that you rarely  find in new world wines. The nose was brambly, foresty and had chocolate, mint and dark fruits. With air, some of the funk blew off and the wine exposed itself as incredibly juicy. The palate was great: blue fruits, chocolate, and funky earth. As with nearly all of the wines I tasted this had impressive length and a broad structure, with tons of aging potential. Made from the coolest vineyard sites from the youngest vines (I believe around 7-8 years), this is also the most Bordeaux like of all Andrew Will’s offerings. Excellent. $70 at Marquis.

ciel du chevalUp next was the 2006 Ciel du Cheval Vineyard red blend, made from 40% Merlot, 37% Cabernet Franc, 19% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 4% Petit Verdot. Ciel du Cheval is the hottest site of all the wines, and this is immediately noticeable in the sweetness of the wine. I do not want this to appear as a derisive comment, however, as the wine is impeccably balanced. The nose had sweeter red fruits, chocolate, and sandalwood. The palate was definitely sweeter than the Two Blondes, but was incredibly flavourful with red and blue fruits, chocolate, and a touch of wood. This is more typical in flavour for Washington Bordeaux blends, but it also has amazing structure and fantastic mid-palate density and length. If you like a bigger and sweeter style, this wine is for you. Excellent. $80 at Marquis and BCLDB.

The 2007 Champoux Vineyard stood out as one of the most complex Cabernet Franc based wines I’ve tasted from the United States, with only Lang and Reed and Reverie from California being comparable in quality. This was a blend of 52% Cabernet Franc, 21% Merlot, 19% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 7% Petit Verdot, and was still a bit closed despite showing incredible concentration. The nose had dusty cedar wood, some cab franc forest funk, but was still closed. The palate was very big and had a massive style up front, although it was softer on the finish. Right now the wine drops off quickly on the back end, but I think it simply needs integration to express itself fully. Like many a mountain-fruit based wine, the density can be unnerving and awkward in youth, but usually expands into incredible flavour layering and persistence. The palate had chocolate and blue fruits with tight tannins. I still thought this had great potential. Excellent. $80 at Marquis or BCLDB.

The 2003 Sheridan Vineyard is somewhat of a library wine given that Chris is no longer making this. While the Sheridan Vineyard used to supply Andrew Will with fruit, Chris eventually bought land that became the source of the Two Blonds red blend, and thus gave up the Sheridan Vineyard contract. I did think this was the weakest wine of the bunch, which is not to say it wasn’t very tasty. The nose was nutty and had dusty cocoa, dark red fruits, and a bit of bubble gum. The palate had spice, cocoa, nuts, cranberry and raspberry. This was a bit sweet for my tastes and had a lot less refinenment than the other wines. A blend of 63% Cabernet Sauvignon, 29% Merlot and 8% Cabernet Franc. Very Good+. $65 at Marquis (on sale from $80).

sorellaThe last wine I tasted is Andrew Will’s flagship, ‘reserve’ style wine – the 2006 Sorella “Horse Heaven Hill” – made from the Champoux Vineyards. Chris selects the best barrels for this wine, and unlike the Champoux Vinyeard blend, makes this as a predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon based wine, with 71% Cab Sauv, 17% Merlot, 8% Cab Franc and 4% Petit Verdot comprising the blend. This was very very tight at the tasting and needed either a lot more decanting or a lot more time in the bottle. That said, it was an awesome wine, with blue fruits, black cherry, earth and some clay on the very dense nose. The palate was tight but showed superb concentration and structure: blue and black fruit, hefty tannins, and a bit of confection. The finish is short right now, but this will change. If you pick up a bottle of this, it needs at least 5-6 years in the cellar before you can think of opening it. If you have patience, though, this will probably be the most structured and nuanced of the bunch. Excellent. $90 at Marquis.

I was incredibly impressed by the offerings from Andrew Will and they have established a firm place on my radar as one of the best Bordeaux-blend producers in the US right now. Given the insane prices for Napa wines of a similar calibre, I don’t know why more people aren’t buying these wines. Simply put, they are superb, balanced, and thoughtful expressions of great Washington fruit put together by a very talented wine maker. All for 1/2 the price of comparable Napa wines. What more could you ask for?

Comments

  1. Mark
    October 29, 2009

    Chris at AW certainly makes a great wine.. and AW is a great WA brand..
    along with Cayuse, Quilceda, Delille, Betz, Leonetti, and maybe up and coming Corliss and Cadence..

    glad you had a chance to taste it. 🙂
    The sorella was awesome as well when I tasted it.

  2. Shea
    October 30, 2009

    Yes, I’ve had Delille, both the cab blends and the Rhone style wines – they are fantastic as well, although Andrew Will might have the edge on them for me for cab blends right now. Have a bottle of quilceda and leonetti waiting for the right moment. And a couple bottles of betz. I cannot find Cayuse anywhere – is there somewhere in Seattle I can get them? and I need to look out for Corliss and Cadence.

  3. Mark
    October 30, 2009

    If you have a Quilceda Cab, their sweet spot is 10 years.. anything earlier and the oak dominates.

    Cayuse – yah good luck 🙂 I’ve only gotten about 15 bottles from various private sales.. their list is hard to crack and VERY rare they show up in retail (as on consignment). they never show up as regular retail.

    Another brand u should check out (and in fact should taste when you come Nov. it’s free and it’s in Kirkland).. Grand Reve. it’s a good story and it’s got great reviews 🙂

  4. Shea
    October 30, 2009

    Sounds like a plan. I have the 05 quilceda i believe so I guess that’s sitting til 2015 at least. I usually like the 10 year rule for most high end wines.

  5. Matt
    November 4, 2009

    Thanks Shea. Great post.

    Cadence is available at Pike and Western. Just google the store. They rock and have a great program.
    Get on their mailing list (it’s just an e-mail and they’ll put stuff on hold knowing you’re from the Canada. Sorry guys). Not sure if it’s sock blowing stuff though. Solid yes, exciting?

    Same with Quilceda, Leonetti, Betz and Delille et al? unfortunately. Hasn’t Washington underperformed considering the potential and possibility for rad juice. Wasn’t there supposed to be a great coming out? One of those ‘look at all the cool (cool toned) wines’ celebration for decent prices advents? Turns out things are a bit formulaic…and comparing the wines to Napa (which I have previously done, guilty) is also unfortunate. Take the recent Napa tasting here in Van….has there ever been as much boring juice in a room for so much money (exceptions yes, but we are generalizing a bit non?)? And is less expensive but equally boring wine better by default? Washington is trademarking this angle. Take Quilceda Creek (an example, yes, to support and generalize but I would love to know about the Deiss’s and Radikons/Lapierres/Movia’s in Washington etc which support the contrary. No joke, I seriously would. I want to go to there). Back to Quilceda…I’ve had examples from the mid nineties that were good. I’ve also had the last three releases which are near 2% higher in abv (did not hold it) and received scores that dominated those earlier examples, ’04 100pts Jay Miller WA ’05 99 points also JM ’06 100 points same. My personal preferences are absolutely irrelevant when it comes to serious wine money (Money Wine, like Money Ball), I just want the everyone to drink better and this is not helping. And I know there are a tonne of other examples of wineries that have done the points/money etc etc everybody deserves to get paid argument. So? The point is that Washington is not moving in a direction that supports the creation of very good, characterful wine for an honest price. Period. They are living in the shadow of Napa (price and point wise) and are loving the shade. That doesn’t mean it’s cool. The worst part is that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer…the whole thing is trending. Those that can’t afford vineyards because of point driven, escalating bottle prices (thus ever increasing and inflated land values, because you’re wine is now expensive and now my grapes and land is too, everyone gets paid), but make interesting, honest wines will go broke. Washington looks like the good guys right now, and they shouldn’t. And it’s not that I’m angry. On the contrary, I’m sad. I was pumped five years ago. A region, on our doorstep, with fantastic potential that’s just not bringing it. I suppose this is a plea more than a complaint. I just wish it weren’t so.

    Thanks again Shea.

  6. Shea
    November 4, 2009

    These are all very interesting points. I can’t comment on the Quilceda as I have never tasted their wines and only have one bottle waiting for the right moment.

    However, I’m not sure I agree with all of your positions.

    1. I disagree that most Napa wines are boring or ‘dishonest’. Certainly many are boring and overpriced. However, even when I approach the Napa wines with a very skeptical palate, I come out finding great examples of many different styles. It’s all about the right producer, and the right style of consumption. Big tastings are bad for Napa wines because the wines are often very fruity and larger, and tend to overwhelm the palate when consumed in massive quantities. I also think even some of the big names are making killer wines. For Example, Kapscandy’s cabs, while very expensive, are also some of the best and most nuanced I’ve had from California. Staglin is insanely expensive, but the wines ARE good. Phinney’s wines (Orin Swift, Beau Vigne, Caliban) are great and not at all over priced. Same goes for Neyers, Brown Estate, and pretty much any producer in the Chiles Valley. I am also a fan of nickel and nickel despite their Far Niente Pedigree (which, while over the top as a brand, still produce solid wine). And what about Dominus (which I remember you speaking of favourably)? Sure, if you go for the Cakebread wines (which used to be better) et. al., then you will be disappointed.

    I also believe many people like this style of wine for valid reasons. If, however, one consumes such things for reputation alone or out of habit then I agree it is a huge shame that they will not experience the massive variety of wines and wine styles from around the world, and often for very reasonable prices (as the Loire tasting proved).

    2. I do not think all of Washington is operating in the shadow of Napa and I do think there is a distinctive regional style. There are definitely wineries that are pumping up the big heavy cabs as their dominant brand, but there are also cool projects out there like the Poet’s Leap riesling and Delille’s Rhone style project Doyenne (who make an awesome co-fermented Syrah/Viognier).

    I do think Jay Miller is pumping up wines that are over the top and not that great. As an example, I have tried several K Vintners wines (massive scores to boot), and while I can ‘enjoy’ them, they are for my palate way too sweet and way too alcoholic. I do think his wine making style removes character from the wine in favour of hedonistic ripeness.

    However, Andrew Will’s wines prove that this doesn’t have to be the case. While wines made with fruit from the Ciel vineyard are often bigger and sweeter (due to the hotter site), the Champoux wines are nothing like big extracted ‘Napa-esque’ cabs. They are unique, and even Bordeaux like, and certainly well worth the money in my opinion. You cannot get Bordeaux style blends with that level of depth, concentration, structure and length of finish for much less in my opinion. And Andrew Will has a style that is not easily replicated.

    However, where I do agree with you is as follows:

    1. The point system is driving up prices so the ‘rich get richer’. This means the best wines from Washington are being made by those who were lucky enough to be first movers (like AW). It certainly discourages experimentation. The recession is pushing prices back down though and wineries are not selling nearly as much. This might make some space. But, the fault is less with the wineries and more with the American Consumer’s dogmatic acceptance of the points system, and the unfortunate happenstance that Jay Miller reviews WA wines for the Advocate since his palate is probably the worst of that magazine’s. Luckily people like Paul Greuget (sp?) are keeping it real and supporting a variety of styles and approaches.

    2. There are a few big name wineries in WA that have gone way downhill (Leonetti and Spring Valley come to mind). But that’s likely for any region. The most unfortunate thing is the economics don’t support the kind of diversity you find in regions with a lot more history (where many wineries exist with ineffective or out of date business models and where tradition and family money has allowed certain wineries to keep going).

    3. I also agree that WA isn’t as exciting as I wished it was, but I do think there are some great wines coming out of the state and that it is no worse than Oregon and its massive push towards over-ripe pinot for $70. I think it’s a symptom of the US market.

  7. Matt
    November 4, 2009

    Shea,

    I did not call Napa wines ‘dishonest’. I asked if there had ever been a room so full of wines that were expensive and boring and even then qualified that statement with “exceptions yes, but we are generalizing a bit non?” and like you tried many good to excellent wines at that tasting. Even if there were 100 wineries that were awesome if there are a 1000 right behind them that aren’t it still means that there are a lot. When I was making pinot in Sonoma last fall I found many fantastic producers (many of which were from Napa) who are fighting the good fight. Like you did when you lived down there. I certainly dont this that in any given region everyone is doing everything the same all the time. That would be ludicrous, there are always some examples to the contrary (Diamond Creek, Grgich et al in Napa). There are many examples which I am more than aware of and happy to promote and support.

    However, the reason I generalize – and it might come across as bit harsh – is that the average consumer is a Generalizer, this is how the majority of people are exposed to wine. Trends in wine sales are unfortunately driven not only by points/writing etc but by distributors in the States and agents here in Canada. The people who are literally bring in the wines and making them available control the big trends (private retailers are legally unable to do that)along with the BCLDB’s 200 plus stores. Therefore, what makes it into the consumers hands will very rarely be an example of honest, interesting, well priced, characterful wine unless those wines become the ‘norm’ for a region and thus get representation, almost by default, like the Loire (‘because we better carry at least one wine from the Loire’ type mentality).

    At the average consumer level (the $15-$30 range) there are very few wines like that from Washington, not to mention Napa (for all of the reasons I stated above). The $15-$30 range is dominated by commercial (cookie cutter wine making/machine harvesting/flat fertile soils/heavy reliance on pesticides) wines that have wide distribution and which distributors and agents view as safe. We are talking high volumes here, marketing support, promo budget type stuff.

    You mentioned the Loire is a great example to the contrary (the Loire is hardly exported here though things are slowly changing) In the Loire you can throw a stone and hit something awesome. Something representative, hand picked, biodynamically grown. A wine that could come from nowhere else (because isnt that the magic really? that wine can transport us and tell us something very specific) Throw a stone. Not so in Washington and we shouldn’t make excuses for them, that’s all I’m saying. And that it’s too bad. And not even to me or to you or those in the industry but to the average guy or gal who buys wine, who just kinda picks it off the shelf. The only way they will try something real is if they just pick it up off the shelf by accident. This is how most people buy wine. Most people don’t shop at thoughtful private retailers or read your blog for example. Some do and we are grateful but most don’t. And if that real wine’s not on the shelf in the first place they’re going to have a hard time accidentally picking it up. The average consumer deserves better and it’s too bad WA didn’t step up and fill that role. Where do we go now in North America? Finger lakes, Idaho? We’re running out of vinous Terra Firma. Y
    You are right that much of this is merely symptomatic of North American wine market trends.

    A few other points:

    I do not think nor did I say that Napa is incapable of making honest wines of character. They exist.

    Heavily extracted, high abv wines can still be honest and real. I don’t have to like them personally but I will buy them professionally and happily appreciate their quality.

    If everyone made wine in a style I liked we would be back to square one anyways. Don’t want that.

    I find the sweeter, higher abv wines in those tasting (like Napa) show poorly, especially when they are in the majority. They become very boring and damned by a ‘sameness’ which may or may not be true – they can get lumped together. The brighter fresher wines seem like a reprieve by contrast and often show better – by default and maybe not in a good way – to me.

    ‘Honesty’ often has very little to do with a wines style.

    Wines that are acidified, mega purpled, commercially yeasted etc come in all price points and can be found in many incarnations/styles. Problems arise when these wines become the norm and are completely acceptable.

    I dont have a problem with AW’s wines.

    Cant talk about Oregon here. We’ll need beers for any new topics.

    My complaining has taken up far too much of your comments section. Again, just want people to drink better.

    Thanks agian Shea

  8. Shea
    November 4, 2009

    Again interesting points. I apologize for any mischaracterizations of your position.

    I don’t have time to go into this in great detail right now, but I am very curious to further investigate and, hopefully, elucidate the meaning of ‘honesty’ in wine, the validity of that concept, and the ideological positions that inform the many perspectives on what constitutes good wine, or what are valid techniques and valid reasons to use certain techniques in wine production.

    Perhaps the topic of another post.

  9. Sean Sullivan
    November 4, 2009

    Shea, a very well written post on one of Washington’s best winemakers. I am editor of a blog dedicated to Washington wine called Washington Wine Report. I think one of the main issues for Washington wine is that many of the best producers are making very, very small numbers of wines that don’t get that far out of the state if they make it out at all. So it’s difficult for people to get a sense of many of the excellent wines that are out there. The high scoring cult wines (Cayuse, Quilceda, Leonetti, etc) obviously get a lot of attention, but there are many, many excellent producers (the state has over 650 wineries at this point). Regarding Cadence, Ben Smith the winemaker is Seattle-based so if you don’t see his wines in the shop you can always ping him. They are typically open the second Saturday of the month along with other South Seattle wineries. That said, check the websites on this as it is somewhat seasonal. Keep up the good work!

  10. Shea
    November 4, 2009

    Thanks Sean, I will certainly check them out. And, if you can recommend any other small WA producers to look for please let me know for my next trip down to Seattle!

  11. Matt
    November 4, 2009

    Good one Sean. Hope I’m not insulting anyone. And great website.

    Roger that Shea. All is well and now I’m devoted to reading everything you post – blurg. In a good way.

    Thanks again

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