Wednesday, March 6, 2013

FoodTrek: In Search of the Elusive Golden Grape

Patience, Grasshopper... one food/wine event at a time. While I adhered to only 50% of the title at the Seattle Wine and Food Experience last weekend by sticking to food vs wine (blame a weak constitution that day), I made sure to make up for it this past Sunday at the 3rd Annual Golden Grape Awards at Willows Lodge, over in the wood-'hood of Woodinville. Plenty of local Washington wines to sip, with an award ceremony -- kind of like the Oscars... but way more fun.

Pour it on - sipping some winning wines at Golden Grape Awards - Photo by Wasabi Prime

I'm feeling a bit like Punxsutawney Phil, that sleepy ol' groundhog that pops his head up when winter is on the wane. Minus being hijacked by Bill Murray, of course. I decided to venture out of the Batcave for what turned into a beautiful (but chilly) sunny Sunday afternoon. Willows Lodge in Woodinville has been organizing the Golden Grape Awards for the last couple of years as a way to give winemakers a chance to weigh in on their fellow vintners' creations. Fifty Woodinville wineries were invited by Barking Frog Wine Director Matt Davis, who organized the event, to put their wines to the test, judged by fellow winemakers and winemaking staff to determine the favored sips in 6 grape categories and one best-in-show, Kings Cup Winner. The judging had already occurred over February, in three private events, so the Golden Grape Awards was to announce the winners. The judging was based on appearance, aroma, flavor, body, balance, and overall impression, and it was a blind tasting, to ensure it was the wine that spoke for itself.

Early sips before the crowds! Lauren Ashton Cellars and DeLille Cellars - Photos by Wasabi Prime
The winning wine announcements were saved for last -- of course -- while the event was set up for guests to taste the competing wines. Most of the wineries were in attendance to pour for Golden Grape, which was held in a ballroom in the Willows Lodge hotel. I was fortunate to get in a little early, to take some photos before the room got too crowded. The event was sold out, anticipating over a hundred guests. Maybe the idea was that people would meander in throughout the tasting, but oh no, Washington wine drinkers are a hearty lot -- when the event officially kicked off, it was like an instant party and the room was filled. Let the tasting...begin.

Sips from Baer, Darby, Pondera, Michael Florentino  - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I stuck to red wines -- the sun was out, but it was still a cold day and the comfort of a hearty red wine was calling my name. I indulged in sips from old favorites -- Efeste, Matthews, Gorman, and DeLille. I lean more towards Syrahs if I have my druthers -- Efeste's Ceidleigh is one of my favorites -- but hearty and robust blends like DeLille's D2 (they weren't pouring that one, but it's still worth mentioning) and Gorman's Evil Twin and Bully are wines I always crave, especially on a brisk Northwest day. Matthews was pouring their Tenor and Claret -- I know Tenor is the more high profile wine, which was a nice treat, but their Claret remains my personal favorite, for its more juicy notes.

Talking wine and gettin' silly - Gorman Winery and Efeste - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I also had sips from wineries that I like and just hadn't had in a while -- Darby Winery, Brian Carter Cellars, William Church, Elsom Cellars and Baer Winery, being just a few. As I said before, I'm a sucker for Syrah, so I went straight for William Church's lovely Syrah, the 2010 Jennifer's Vintage. I made sure not to miss a sip of Darby's Chaos -- a balanced beauty if you like Merlot-forward blends. Baer has some of the prettiest wine names, all star-themed, like Arctos and Maia. They were pouring their Callisto, a Cabernet Sauvignon-heavy blend, very full-bodied and one of the few wines they have that aren't already sold out! I also gravitate towards the strong flavors of Elsom Cellars' blends -- friends I was with hadn't tried them before and I'm glad to say Elsom got some new fans!

Cheers, indeed, to Brian Carter Cellars - Photo by Wasabi Prime
Wine tasting events are a good opportunity to explore a bit and try some new wines -- or new-to-me wines, I should say. I have yet to try every winery, there's so many in the Woodinville area, and it's an ongoing exploration since new tasting rooms seem to be opening with every blink of an eye. Which is a good thing for me, maybe not so much for my liver. But I remain undaunted, especially as I tried some new-to-me wines like Florentino's Cab Franc, Vortex Cellars' CM2 blend, and Kaella's Syrah. It's a bit like meeting several people at a big party, it's a lot to take in at once, but everything made a good impression and it just makes me more interested in having one-on-one time with them. Golden Grape is a good reminder that a lot of the wineries are located in the Warehouse District, which is like a wine tasting hidden gem, since it's a bunch of wineries/breweries/distilleries nestled, quite literally, in a warehouse district. It's not like going wine tasting in Napa Valley, with the rolling hills and picturesque surroundings, likely underwritten by larger corporations -- wine tasting and exploring the smaller Woodinville-area winemakers is the straight-dope, fo'-reals winemaking experience, where you're sipping wine next to the huge equipment used to make what you're sipping. Not that I don't appreciate gorgeous, big wineries that can present a beautiful environment to present their wines, I also have a special place in my heart for the Warehouse District wineries, which always make you feel like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Wine when you're sipping new vintages, or in my case, new-to-me vintages.

Wine favorites, old and new, William Church, Kaella, Vortex and Matthews - Photos by Wasabi Prime
There was more wine than I could ever hope to sample in one day. And still be lucid enough to write this post a day later. But I think that's the point of any festival like this -- it's celebrating the home team talent and a good reminder to continue your palate's exploration. I met up with a group of friends who are way more wine-smart than me, and they enjoyed themselves at the event. It becomes like a browsing expedition, seeking out new wine clubs to join, which pretty much makes this the coolest shopping day, like, ever. My friends are more wine-worldly, but I tend to be more of a homebody Pacific Northwest wine drinker -- this is the place where I developed a taste for wine (that didn't come in a box or an oversized jug), so my palate is just more attuned to the popular flavor profiles of the area, which tend towards bold, juicy reds. I wouldn't say anything is better/greater/more awesomesauce than any other wine or region because I'm no expert, but even beyond expertise, it always just comes down to personal taste. Events like Golden Grape just feel friendly and casual, making wine more approachable.

Delicious food break in between sips - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Amid an afternoon of wine, women (and men), and song, there were, of course the Golden Grape Awards themselves that were presented. I waited until the end of the post to list the winners, just because -- as cornball as it sounds -- everyone's a winner. These are all very respectable wineries; they're known for putting out quality vintages and the winemakers know their business, so an award occasion really is just a cherry on an already delectable sundae. Everyone wins, from the wineries to the guests tasting around the room. However, the folks that walked away with a nifty new statue were:

King's Cup Winner: Pondera Winery, SVS Number One, 2009
Sauvignon Blanc: Di Stefano, 2011
Chardonnay: Array Cellars, Columbia Valley bottling 2010
Cabernet Sauvignon: William Church, 2009
Bordeaux Style Blends: Pondera Winery, SVS Number One, 2009
Syrah: Guardian Cellars, Informant, 2010
Rhone Style Red Varieties: Darby Winery, Flipside, 2011

Award ceremony with Wine Director Matt Smith - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I didn't stay long enough to find out if the winners get to toast their statues, but I'd like to believe it's what they do when the crowds have dispersed. All those other famous award statues are nowhere near as practical, so take that, anatomically-correct Screen Actor's Guild Award! This was my first time attending Golden Grape; Willows Lodge did a beautiful job putting everything together and making it a more intimate tasting experience. I get a little overwhelmed at large expo-style events, there's a greater urgency to somehow fit everything into the hours of the day, but this was just my speed, especially on a lazy, sunny Sunday. Toodles for now, I'm off to crawl back into my hermit-like existence, but I should be popping my head up like Phil the groundhog in time for Woodinville RESERVE and Passport in April!

The sun was out, the wine was poured and the band played on - Photos by Wasabi Prime

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