Ben with Ernie Loosen at Riesling RendezvousI recently attended the fourth annual Riesling Rendezvous (RR), jointly sponsored by Chateau Ste. Michelle (CSM) and Dr. Loosen, after which I spent a few days in Eastern Washington’s wine country around the city of Walla Walla.  Most of my travel and logistical support was provided by CSM and it was a tremendous opportunity to see what was new with this top-notch wine region and iconic, terroir-driven, food-friendly, white wine grape.

RR was held at CSM’s headquarters in Woodinville and also the Bell Harbor International Conference Center in Seattle from July 14th through the 16th.  There were all sorts of seminars and tasting sessions, some of which were held blind.  So many wines were tasted that, rather than review them all, I’ve decided to list the best ones (according to my palate) at the end of this article.

Chihuly sculptureOne non-wine item I want to mention concerns the final event of RR, a farewell reception at Chihuly Garden and Glass.  This is a dazzling collection of Northwest glass-master Dale Chihuly’s most eclectic sculptures in a custom-built space at the Seattle Center in the shadow of the iconic Space Needle.  A good tip is to get both day and night passes — lighting is the key to the exhibitions and can be very different at various times.

After RR I headed out to Walla Walla.  My first stop was at Col Solare, where I visited with Darel Allwine, the newly minted head winemaker who has been with this CSM property since 1996.  Col Solare only makes one wine for broad distribution, a red blend.  It uses six commercial yeasts and is matured in 100 percent French oak (starting with the 2010 vintage, in which the wine also becomes entirely Red Mountain-derived).

Vista at Col SolareI tasted a vertical that encompassed four years, from 2008 through 2011, and my favorite was the 2009, which is available at the winery now and will be on the general market in 2014.  Deeply purple in tone, this nosed black tea and blueberry while tasting of black licorice, cranberry, and red cherry.  The finish was bright and moderate in length, suggesting good drinkability upon release as well as in the future.

Milbrandt barrel roomI then headed over to Milbrandt Vineyards in Mattawa, where my good friend Butch Milbrandt showed me around his new barrel room that basically doubles the amount of wine he can produce in a given year.  We mostly tasted from barrel, and my favorite was the 2012 Malbec Northridge, a purple-rimmed concoction with aromas of lilac and wet stone.  The taste focused more on white pepper, cola, and black cherry.  This lasted long on the palate and finished very clean.

Another tremendous barrel sample from a project produced by Butch’s winemaker was the 2012 Ryan Patrick Cabernet Sauvignon Clifton Hill.  As red as fresh-spilled blood, on the nose this promoted chalk and herbs while the tongue showed mulberry, quince, and mocha.

Beautiful eastern WashingtonAfter driving from Mattawa to Walla Walla (just love the place names in Eastern WA) my next tour was at Spring Valley Vineyard, where family scion Kate Derby Raymond allowed me to tag along with a group of distributor representatives, even to the extent of providing a box lunch and a place to eat it.  Spring Valley has recently been absorbed into CSM’s empire but that doesn’t seem to have appreciably changed the wine’s quality or style.  In fact, Kate was careful to let me know that this new status has not resulted in any changes to the winery’s philosophy or even the level of her family’s stewardship.

Here my top pick was the flagship Uriah Red Blend, 2010 vintage to be exact.  This was an excellent expression of Spring Valley terroir, with its elegant nose of marzipan, allspice and lilac.  In the mouth this was quite rich, with flavors of black cherry, red currant, and blackberry.  Sweet, dusty tannins lingered during a long, complex finish.

Barrels at NorthstarNext up was North Star Winery, another CSM project ably headed by legendary Washington winemaker David “Merf” Merfeld.  I’ve written about North Star and Merf before, but it was a great pleasure to have a leisurely dinner with him in the town of Walla Walla.

As for the wine, again I’ve written about this cuvee before but I have to mention my most recent tasting of the inaugural vintage of the 190-case 2009 Northstar Premier Merlot.  This extremely aromatic wine bursts from the glass with red cherry, black raspberry, vanilla, brioche, and cinnamon.  This mélange leads into final notes of red flower, black plum, and dark chocolate.  Bright, balanced, and food-friendly, this is a wine that can be enjoyed now and will age gracefully for many years.

Bottle tree at Long ShadowsMy final full day in the Walla Walla area was spent at two wineries.  Long Shadows, a project by Washington wine pioneer Allen Shoup, brings highly acclaimed vintners from the world’s major wine regions to Washington State.  Each winemaker is an owner-partner in this unique winery, dedicated to producing Columbia Valley wines that showcase the best this region has to offer.

In addition to the 2012 Riesling Poet’s Leap (included in the RR section of recommended wines), I also loved the 2009 Sequel Syrah, created by another friend, legendary Aussie winemaker John Duval.  Dark red and smelling of black pepper and bacon fat, this red currant-dominated beauty also brought forth tons of blueberries on a long, smooth finish.

Where will Ben report from next?My final visit came at Three Rivers Winery, just down the road from Long Shadows, where the 2009 Cabernet Franc Weinbau Vineyard stole the show.  An edge of vanilla, cherry, and pomegranate led to dark chocolate and black plum that bled through an intense, dusty palate.

There are so many tremendous wine regions in the world and it’s hard to know all of them.  Try a few of these recommendations and let me know what you think of Washington State.  Coming up in the next few weeks — trips to Sonoma, Napa, and Italy, where I’ll be reporting on a Sagrantino festival in Umbria.  Ciao bella!



Wine On The RoadWith Wine On The Road (, my wine-focused touring company, you can enjoy the ultimate wine country excursion with special access to top winemakers and their incomparable wines.  Wine On The Road offers intimate wine country tours that combine award-winning wines and exquisite dining and lodging with uniquely local flair and flavor.  We lodge at excellent and luxurious wine country estates (in 2011 we occupied an ancient castle in Piedmont, Italy, that had been completely restored and upgraded with all of the modern amenities).  We eat at authentic local restaurants and visit wineries that embody the best expressions of local wine grapes.

Planned excursions include a visit to Mendoza and Buenos Aires, Argentina, scheduled for March 16 – 25, 2014 ( and trips to Piedmont, Italy (Wine, Food, Bees and Cheese), Burgundy and Bordeaux in France, and Oregon’s wine country (all in May and June of 2014, email for more details on these tours).  You can learn more about these trips, book private groups in wine country world-wide and request more information on any of these extraordinary travel experiences by emailing me at




Trefethen Dry Riesling 2012 (Napa Valley, California) $19

Fox Run Dry Riesling 2012 (Finger Lakes, U.S.) $18

Koenig Riesling 2012 (Idaho, U.S.) $16

Milbrandt Vineyards Riesling Traditions 2011 (Columbia Valley, Washington) $11

Long Shadows Riesling Poet’s Leap 2012 (Columbia Valley, Washington) $20

Frankland Estate Riesling Smith Cullam Vineyard 2011 (Western Australia, Australia) $64

Greywacke Riesling 2011 (Marlborough, New Zealand) $25

Robert Weil Riesling Trocken Kiedrich Grafenberg Erstes Gewachs (Mosel, Germany) 2011 $54

Domaine Wachau Riesling Auchleiten Smaragd 2008 (Wachau, Austria) $30


Col Solare Red Wine 2009 (Columbia Valley, Washington) $75

Milbrandt Vineyards Malbec Northridge 2012 (Columbia Valley, Washington) $N/A

Ryan Patrick Cabernet Sauvignon Clifton Hill 2012 (Columbia Valley, Washington) $N/A

Spring Valley Uriah Red Wine 2010 (Columbia Valley, Washington) $50

North Star Merlot Premier 2009 (Columbia Valley, Washington) $85

Long Shadows Syrah Sequel 2009 (Columbia Valley, Washington) $50

Three Rivers Winery Cabernet Franc Weinbau Vineyard 2009 (Columbia Valley, Washington) $39


Mission Hill Family Estate Ice Wine Reserve 2011 (British Columbia, Canada) $26/375mL

Long Shadows Riesling Ice Wine 2009 (Columbia Valley, Washington) $85/375mL (only available at winery)

Weinrieder Riesling Eiswein Schneiderberg 2008 (Burgenland, Austria) $45/375mL