I Admit It: I’m Biased When I’m Tasting Wine (It’s A Good Thing)


Wrapping up another year’s worth of wine tasting, I had the pleasure of spending several days this past week exploring new releases from Ruby and Winter’s Hill. Both of these wineries have regularly submitted new releases to me over the past decade and that extensive background gives me a lot of confidence in the overall quality of these new wines. For me, as I have noted repeatedly, the idea that a blind tasting is the only (or even the best) way to evaluate wines is simply not true. Do I think my conclusions would be better – more objective – if I just put these wines in a bag and had no idea what they were? I do not.

I strongly believe that the best way to evaluate young wines is to honor them by tasting them (whenever possible) in the context of past experience. Yes different vintages bring different conditions and just because someone’s wine got a 93 last year doesn’t mean it will again. But knowing that a winery has scored well over time tells me that this winemaker, using these grapes, grown on this land probably has a good handle on things.

It is also most fair, even essential, to taste each bottle over an expanded period of time. How often have you heard it said that what matters most is what you yourself like? There’s a lot of truth there, and the more knowledge you bring to bear on any given wine will enhance your overall experience.

More knowledge includes not only prior tasting experience but appreciation for the producer’s track record. The more you know about them, the more you will glean from each bottle. Will that prior knowledge impact your impression? Of course it will! And it should. When you listen to a new song from a favorite artist are you biased because you know their work? Probably. Does that guarantee that you will like their latest? Doubtful. Wine is no different than a book or a song or a movie or any creative expression in that regard. Knowledge of the past may color your impression, but in a good way, not a negative. Let’s be honest – all wine evaluations are subjective. There is no such thing as being purely objective when it comes to sensory experiences.

If you are as fond of wine as I am, you most likely keep a wine cellar. My wine cellar is part library, part time machine. Given that we are at the end of another year, thoughts often turn to holidays past and friends we have lost along the way. For me the holidays are also tied up with my birthday (a few days before Christmas) and now-distant events that suddenly and dramatically changed the course of my life.

During my birthday week I thought fondly of three friends now deceased who each had a profound impact on me. Not only for the wines we shared, but for their generosity, talent and kindness. Dan McCarthy, who passed away last month, was perhaps the most influential wine person (among many) who educated and inspired me. The founder and co-owner of McCarthy & Schiering Wine Merchants in Seattle, Dan was also an excellent writer who collaborated with me on my second Pocket Guide to Northwest Wines. He was a member of a spectacular tasting group that included several winemakers, retailers, distributors and myself. I’ve lost count of the many times we shared wines, dinners and laughs. I will treasure our friendship with each special bottle I drink.

Eric Dunham was one of the first winemakers to welcome me to Walla Walla when I visited the valley shortly after the founding of Dunham Cellars. Once I moved here Eric cooked many a fine meal in my kitchen; we shared wonderful wines and times at his home on Lewis Peak and down in Palm Springs where we both spent some weeks in the winter. Eric was also a friend of Dale Chihuly who provided him with top quality paints. Eric’s canvasses are remarkable testimonials to his energy and enthusiasm, and one was featured on the label of the 2005 Lewis Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon that I opened in his memory this past week.

Doug Roskelley and his wife Jan made many recent holidays extra special by inviting my band to entertain at their annual new release event, and by hosting me and Mrs. G at their extravagant Christmas dinners in the grand lobby of the Marcus Whitman hotel. Doug came to winemaking rather late in life and embraced it with all the gusto of a much younger man. His careful tending to the old vines at his Windrow vineyard was exceptional, but along with his respect for the past he never tired of exploring the future, planting Nebbiolo and other experimental vines right up to his last vintage. In Doug’s memory I opened a Tero 2008 Cabernet Franc and savored every sip. 

Ruby Vineyard 

Ruby was founded just a decade ago, but its roots reach back into the 1970s when the estate vineyard was first planted. Steve Hendricks and his wife Flora Habibi purchased the property in 2012. The oldest block, says Steve, is 100% Wadenswil Pinot Noir originally obtained from Eyrie South Block cuttings in March of 1973. Jason Lett has confirmed that the budwood is UC Davis clone 1, with smaller and more intense clusters, and which is no longer available. These vines comprise most of the very limited production of Flora’s Reserve.

Winemaker Andrew Kirkland joined Ruby in 2016 after working at wineries in France, Australia and elsewhere in Oregon. He has continued and expanded the conversion to organic farming practices begun in 2013. “We believe that healthy soil maintains vine health” he explains. “The strong soil biome adds to the vine’s resilience and the combination of attentive, organic grape growing allows us to make better wine.”

I really loved these 2019 releases, most of all the Chardonnay and Flora’s Reserve Pinot Noir featured this week and the Hendricks legacy bottling.

Ruby 2019 Chardonnay

I’ve been banging the drum for Oregon Chardonnay for years and each successive vintage just proves the point. Ruby’s latest release delights from the first sniff. Succulent flavors of mixed citrus are lively and refreshing, with appealing minerality. The wine is focused and deep, with lingering impact for a full minute or more. There’s very little evidence of new oak, but with fruit this good it’s not missed. 446 cases; 13%; $40 (Laurelwood District)

Ruby 2019 Laurelwood Blend Pinot Noir

The Ruby wines are aromatically impressive, always a good start for a grape as ephemeral as Pinot Noir. In the mouth this bursts open with bright flavors of rhubarb, red berries, cola, cinnamon candy and dried leaves. The supporting acids lift it up and suggest that this young wine may be enjoyed immediately or cellared for an occasional re-taste over the rest of the decade. 867 cases; 13.3%; $40 (Laurelwood District)

Ruby 2019 Hendricks Legacy Pinot Noir

This special cuvée honors the owner’s great great grandparents who reached Oregon in 1843 on the first wagon train. Their homestead straddled what is now the Timbale & Thyme vineyard whose grapes made this wine. Now that’s a legacy! It’s an elegant, detailed, expressive wine with a delicate complexity. Rose petals, Bing cherries, light hints of rosemary and thyme, baking spices and modest tannins combine gracefully in a wine that could stand in nicely next to a Premier cru Burgundy. 214 cases; 13.5%; $50 (Yamhill-Carlton)

Ruby 2019 Old Vine Estate Pinot Noir

I’m an unabashed lover of old vine wines. The term is unregulated but almost always used with respect. In the most general terms I would expect it to mean the vines were at least 30 years old, but look for specifics on the back label and you will often find they are much older. These date back some four decades, and fermentation with native yeasts along with a hands-off winemaking approach allows their most subtle details to be expressed. You could spend quite awhile just enjoying the aromatics before even tasting this subtly elegant wine. Black cherry fruit, a dash of mocha, lightly threaded highlights of hazelnuts, almond butter and more take you down a smooth flavor trail through a light but satisfying finish. 615 cases; 13.2%; $60 (Laurelwood District)

Ruby 2019 Steve’s Reserve Pinot Noir

This is a barrel select reserve, and as you might expect it shows extra core fruit concentration. That bigger impact comes at a price, as there is a blocky character that seems to dampen some of the milder nuances found in the winery’s other 2919s. Bold black cherry, cola, clean earth and green tobacco notes abound. This will need decanting and/or more years of bottle age to show its best. 254 cases; 13.5%; $75 (Laurelwood District)

Ruby 2019 Flora’s Reserve Pinot Noir

This highly limited reserve showcases fruit from the original 1973 Wadenswil vines. As is generally true with such old vines, alcohol levels are lowered and aromatic and flavor nuances are amplified. Threads of cinnamon, cumin, cola and caramel weave around a black cherry core. A bedrock minerality anchors the wine, which shows careful balance and perfect proportion. This is a truly special wine that expresses the very best aspects of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. 44 cases; 13%; $125 (Laurelwood District)

Winter’s Hill

Winter’s Hill is another family-owned winery with roots reaching back many decades. Emily and Peter Gladhart inherited a farm from her parents and converted it to vineyard beginning in 1990. Today their son Russell and daughter-in-law Delphine are third gen partners in the business, and Russell does the winemaking. My reviews of these wines go back many years but the past four or five vintages have shown a dramatic improvement.

The Watershed Pinot Noir is a very fine value; my other favorite is the 2021 Chardonnay. 

Winter’s Hill 2021 Reserve Pinot Gris

Estate-grown, pure varietal, this is a clean and fresh expression of Oregon-style Pinot Gris. The fruit mixes citrus and apple, melon and green berry, with balancing acids. Some aging in French oak adds touches of toast and helps to round out the palate. More solid than distinctive, it’s a good template for an uncomplicated take on the grape. 144 cases; 13.3%; $29 (Dundee Hills) 

Winter’s Hill 2021 Reserve Pinot Blanc

This drinks like a more elegant version of the winery’s excellent 2021 Chardonnay. Details of apple skin, citrus, almonds and a suggestion of mint put it squarely in the same space, but with less intensity. It’s more focused, less broad across the palate. With ample breathing it fills out and adds a touch of malolactic butter to the trailing finish. 224 cases; 13.3%; $29 (Dundee Hills)

Winter’s Hill 2021 Chardonnay

A complex weave of lemon candy, wintergreen, toasted almonds and bitter greens kicks off this dense and detailed wine. It’s more than a showcase for the exceptional quality of Oregon Chardonnays; it’s also a display of aspects of the Chardonnay grape all too often concealed by too much sugar, too much new oak, or overcropping. This may not ring every critic’s bell but it sure got my attention. 152 cases; 13.4%; $44 (Dundee Hills) 

Winter’s Hill 2021 Pinot Noir Blanc

This is a white wine made by taking a red grape and pressing it immediately – before the skins can color the juice. Pinot Noir is a light colored grape to begin with so it lends itself to the process. That said, don’t look for any real hint of Pinot Noir flavor. It’s a white wine with modest tannins and here a bread-like yeastiness, along with buttery tree fruits. What I like here is it doesn’t taste like any other white wine in the group; as a stand-alone the jury is out. Drink this at room temperature, not colder, and the flavors meld and get richer. 96 cases; 13.5%/ $44 (Dundee Hills) 

Winter’s Hill 2021 Watershed Pinot Noir

This is a well-made Oregon Pinot Noir at an affordable price. It’s an earthy style that offers fresh Pinot flavors from an iconic AVA. Watermelon, strawberry, lingenberry and plum are augmented with accents of salty greens and clean earth. With ample aeration the aromas open up and seduce! This smelled and drank much better on the second day. 270 cases; 13.7%; $29 (Dundee Hills) 

Winter’s Hill 2019 Pinot Noir

This well-structured wine pulls together savory herbs, stem tannins, wild berry fruit, lemony acids and a touch of compost. All in proportion, detailed and compact. The low abv suggests that these grapes were picked at low brix, and the flavors echo that. 273 cases; 13.1%; $44 (Dundee Hills)

NOTE:  The wines I recommend have been tasted over many hours and days in peer groups and are selected for excellence. I have chosen to eliminate numerical scores from this website. Only recommended wines are shown, no negative reviews. My notes are posted with minimum delays and links to the winery website, so you may purchase recommended wines directly from the producer before they are sold out. I take no commission, accept no advertising, and charge no fees for wines reviewed.

Paul Gregutt
Paul Gregutt
Paul Gregutt has been covering the wines and wineries of the Pacific Northwest since the mid-1980s. From 2002 to 2012 he wrote a weekly wine column for the Seattle Times and authored two critically-acclaimed editions of ‘Washington Wines & Wineries – The Essential Guide’ (UC Berkeley Press). He served as the Northwest editor for Wine Enthusiast magazine from 1998 until 2022. Early on he was an original staff member of both the Seattle Weekly and KZAM-FM. He lives with his wife Karen and his rescue dog Cookie in Waitsburg (pop. 1204), a farm community about 20 miles NE of Walla Walla. When not tasting and writing about wine he writes songs, plays guitar and sings in his band the DavePaul5 (davepaul5.com) Follow his writing at PaulG on Wine, paulgregutt.substack.com, and in the Waitsburg Times.


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