One hundred and sixty years ago the French government and the Academy of Fine Arts sponsored an art show called the Paris Salon. As noted here it was “an annual showcase of the best academic art. A medal from the Salon was assurance of a successful artistic career; winners were given official commissions by the French government and were sought after for portraits and private commissions. The paintings were classified by genre, following a specific hierarchy; history paintings were ranked first, followed by the portrait, the landscape, the genre scene and finally the still life.”
As you might imagine competition for acceptance into the Salon was fierce, and in 1863 so many works were turned down that protests erupted and ultimately reached the attention of Emperor Napoleon III. He authorized a second showcase, which came to be known as the Salon des Refusés. Although works by such artists as Paul Cézanne, Gustave Courbet, Camille Pissarro, Édouard Manet and James McNeill Whistler were among the refusés on display, the show was largely ridiculed by the press and the public.
Now think about how wines are evaluated today. Most wines are never even tasted by influential reviewers and publications. Wineries often must apply for permission and sometimes pay a fee to make submissions, with no guarantee that their wines will be tasted. Some turn instead to the myriad pay-to-play wine competitions that hand out gold medals like free popcorn at the movies. Notice that highly-rated ‘cult’ wines are virtually never entered into these competitions. There is an unofficial hierarchy as far as who gets reviewed in the mags. Wineries and trade organizations that buy expensive advertising have a leg up. Wines from prestigious regions and grapes (Napa Valley Cabernet, French Champagne, Italian Barolo for example) are almost guaranteed a place at the tasting table. But if you have an especially fine Rogue Valley Carignan? Good luck with that!
Looked at in this way many small and excellent wineries find that their wines are refusés. Perhaps a winery is too small for distributors to work with. Or there is no budget for advertising in the major wine publications; no interest in pay-to-play influencers and wine competitions. Maybe someone’s wines are too original, different, edgy or wild for most palates. Oftentimes wines are released too soon, tasted too quickly and jammed together with a couple dozen other wines in a slam bam “blind” tasting. Even worse, those wineries that hold wines back to give them proper bottle age find that the major publications have already passed that vintage by in the rush to be the first to put numbers on the most recent.
I’m dedicated to searching out and promoting the best of these refusés. After I put out a call for wines that had been overlooked by the mainstream press some absolutely marvelous bottles turned up, exceeding my expectations. I spotlight the best of them here, and welcome future submissions for my next Salon des Vins Refusés.
SIDE NOTE: My friend Tom Wark is working with those who support a bill in Washington state that would legalize wine shipments to consumers from out-of-state retailers. The current laws allow consumers to purchase directly from out-of-state wineries (hence my ability to link recommendations to winery websites). The proposed changes would expand those rights and allow consumers to order wines from out of state retailers, auction houses and wine-of-the-month clubs. Bottom line, you would have access to far more wines than are currently available to Washington residents. For example, you could purchase very limited offerings from Oregon that might only be available from a Portland or Ashland wine shop.
If you favor these changes here is a link that explains the legalities and includes an easy option to send your support to members of the House and Senate committees in charge of upcoming public hearings.
Meanwhile, check out these truly outstanding vins refusés from my recent tastings.
This Portland-based winery makes small lots of Alvarinho, Chardonnay, Riesling, Marsanne, Roussanne, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Mataro/Mourvèdre), Tempranillo, Touriga Nacional, Souzao, Graciano and Port Style wines. I tasted several sourced from well-selected Washington state vineyards. These are big wines, balanced and full-bodied. These 2016s appear to be the most recent (current) releases. They may be purchased here.
Adega Northwest 2016 Gamache Vineyard – Block 19 Cabernet Sauvignon
This excellent vineyard is in the new White Bluffs AVA. Here the fruit is young and juicy with flavors of salmonberry and a touch of tart rhubarb. The lightest of the three reviewed here, it should be paired with a poultry or pasta dish rather than a thick steak. 125 cases; 14.5%; $40 (Columbia Valley)
Adega Northwest 2016 Two Blondes Vineyard – Block 7 Cabernet Sauvignon
This is a supple, luxurious, palate-soaker of a Cabernet. The vineyard, planted in 2000 by Chris Camarda for Andrew Will, is now in full maturity and this wine shows it beautifully. Cassis, elderberry, dried leaves, dusty earth, coffee grounds and on and on. This is the type of wine you can happily sniff for a long time before you ever take a swallow. But once you swallow, you’re hooked. 125 cases; 14.4%; $40 (Columbia Valley)
Adega Northwest 2016 Weinbau Vineyard – Block 10 Cabernet Sauvignon
This well-made wine from a classic Washington vineyard has benefitted from the additional bottle age. It’s toasty with a café crème character from 21 months in 40% new oak. These Adega Cabs are all fermented in stainless steel and perfectly ripened, with a nice balance. The barrel aging adds subtle layers of toast and almond paste. Hard to pick a favorite from this Cabernet trio, but if I had to this would be it. 125 cases; 14.8%; $40 (Wahluke Slope)
Adega Northwest 2016 Double Canyon Vineyard Malbec
Produced in Portland, this single vineyard, single variety wine is deep, rich and dense, with compelling aromas of cassis, bramble, blackberries and pepper, with following flavors. Though the high alcohol may push this past tolerance for some wine drinkers, it’s very well made, potent and set against balancing acids and ripe tannins. One third of the barrels were new. 100 cases; 15.1%; $32 (Horse Heaven Hills)
This young winery takes its name from a Greek poet who is known for his odes to love and wine.
Here is an excellent map of the estate vineyard with details on individual blocks, clones and rootstock.
These wines may be purchased here: https://www.anacreonwinery.com/shop
Anacréon 2020 Deep End Pinot Noir
This is what the winery calls its “benchmark” (largest production) Pinot Noir. All estate-grown from a low elevation, early-ripening site, it was picked before the smoke hit in 2020, though unfortunately the significant numbers of very fine 2020 Pinots all got tarred with the same smoky brush by the national wine press. Note the alcohol here, which places this firmly in a Burgundy camp stylistically. Tart, lightly savory and elegant, it handles its 40% new French oak well. Give it breathing room and the fruit pops up with that pleasing frame of barrel toast. 125 cases; 12.8%; $65 (Chehalem Mountains)
Anacréon 2020 Mine Yours and Ours Pinot Noir
This is a two-barrel selection from estate-grown Coury and Pommard clone grapes. The goal, says the winery, is “elegance and lightness on the palate”. After 17 months in barrel and another eight in bottle it remains closed up, with the astringent tannins concealing the expected burst of fruit from these clones. A full day after being opened its aromatic notes of berries and bramble, earth and wet bark came out, and the elegant hints of orange peel, cherry pit, plum and chocolate could be sussed out. This seems sure to benefit from further bottle age. 50 cases; 12.7%; $80 (Chehalem Mountains)
Anacréon 2020 Center of Gravity Pinot Noir
Due for an April release, this included 20% whole clusters and got a bit more barrel and bottle age than the other two wines. Though the listed alcohol is the same, this is a bigger, sturdier wine with a more muscular balance. Plum, black cherry and even a hint of cassis roll across the palate, with savory, drying tannins bringing up the rear. Among the three 2020 cuvées from Anacréon, this is the one to tuck away for later enjoyment. 50 cases; 12.7%; $90 (Chehalem Mountains)
Located near Bethel Heights winery and dedicated to the production of sparkling wines, Arabilis (from the Latin for arable) clearly selects its vineyard sources with exceptional care. I was especially taken with the two Chardonnays featured below. These wines may be purchased here: https://arabiliswines.com/purchase/
Arabilis 2020 Chardonnay
Sourced from a pair of Columbia Gorge vineyards, this shows the kind of detail and lightly throttled wildness that comes from judicious handling of native yeasts and hands-off winemaking. “Rigorous field sorting” as the winery notes has also contributed to the finesse and depth of the final product. A mix of wildflower aromatics, citrus rind, sappy acids and penetrating flavors of Meyer lemon, this was aged for a full year in neutral oak and finished in stainless. This is one of a new generation of Oregon Chardonnays that deserve close attention and display previously unsuspected strengths of the grape. 84 cases; 12.8%; $32 (Columbia Gorge)
Arabilis 2021 Dampier Vineyard Chardonnay
All Wente clone from vines more than 30 years old, this reflects many of the same strengths as Chardonnays from the better known Celilo vineyard in the Gorge. A steely core is packed with dense, tangy stone and citrus fruits. Just a light touch of new oak adds notes of popcorn and toast. The wine keeps a nice focus through a lingering finish. 73 cases; 13.8%; $42 (Columbia Gorge)
Arabilis 2018 Pinot Noir
Half Sojeau and half Cristom’s Eileen vineyard fruit, this is a fine evocation of Eola-Amity Hills terroir. In keeping with a modern aesthetic no new barrels were used and the ferment included whole clusters and native yeasts. This fits in nicely with other top wines from the region, mixing tightly wound accents of stem and skin with sleek cherry fruit. It’s been in bottle for two years but could use a bit more time to reach full potential. 152 cases; 13.6%; $50 (Willamette Valley)
Arabilis 2019 Pinot Noir
This vintage offers good structure, upfront phenolic bite and an underlying savory/earthy character that for some tasters may overtake the fruit. Sourced from Sojeau, Zenith and an “undisclosed” Chehalem Mountain vineyard (my guess – Chehalem) this remains pretty compact and unyielding, which is typical for the vintage. Let it breathe and the aromatics bloom, with rose petals and cherry blossoms. Core flavors bring cranberry, white cherry and a touch of caraway. Best drinking window may be the back half of this decade. 132 cases; 13.6%; $50 (Willamette Valley)
Winemaker Mark Lathrop explains “the reason I picked the Syrah is because Wine Spectator reviewed my 2016 vintage (my first) and gave it a 92. It was the highest scored Washington wine in the issue and they put Sarah and I’s picture in the magazine. They reviewed my ’17 and gave it a 91. However, they have refused to accept any of my wines for review since then. It drives me nuts! The Syrah is sourced from Kiona’s Ranch at the End of the Road vineyard and my block is a stones throw from the bottom of WeatherEye which has all the buzz.”
Liberty Lake 2019 Reserve Syrah
This luscious Syrah was sourced from Kiona’s Ranch at the End of the Road vineyard on Red Mountain. It entices immediately with a rich, fruity fragrance. Loaded with blackberries, black cherries and cassis, this stellar effort adds varietally-specific streaks of bacon fat, espresso and cigar tobacco. The balance and depth are impressive, and suggest that this will develop nicely over the next half decade. 193 cases; 14%; $45 (Red Mountain)
Long Walk Vineyard
Long Walk Vineyard 2020 Carignan
One of the great pleasures of doing this website is the opportunity to see more deeply into any one region’s wines. Sometimes it’s the small, off-the-radar producers who are doing some of the most interesting, cutting edge work. I can count on one hand the number of Oregon Carignans I’ve ever had, so this is an especially fun discovery. Aromatic, ruby red, replete with scents of marionberry pie, this is a mouth filling wine that absolutely charms from start to finish. It’s pure varietal from organically grown fruit, nicely balanced with sassy acids, ripe tannins and moderate alcohol. 71 cases; 13.6%; $38 (Rogue Valley)
Long Walk Vineyard 2020 Grenache
Grenache does well in southern Oregon. This pure varietal example captures the red berry essence of the grape, from cranberry to raspberry and a hint of cherry. Tannins are drying, astringent, and set up your mouth for a juicy burger, slice of pizza or thick steak. No new barrels were used, the winery says, “to preserve the rustic yet delicate tannins.” Bravo! Decant this wine to bring out its best. 68 cases; 13.6%; $35 (Rogue Valley)
From the winery: “Our Benchrock Pinot Noir is produced only in extraordinary vintages, highlighting exceptional blocks of our star estate vineyard, Jacob Hart. The 2017 is the first bottling in this series and is comprised of the last of the originally planted, own-rooted vines from the only spot in the vineyard with abundant clay and no rocks. Block 1 produces lighter tannins and more elegant wines than the concentrated, structured fruit resulting from the rockier blocks above it, and is Executive Winemaker Michael Davies’ personal favorite.”
Rex Hill 2017 Benchrock Pinot Noir
The winery’s Jacob Hart estate vineyard has a special clay block that was the source of this wine; apparently the last vintage from the original (1983) planting. Biodynamically-farmed, it comes with a moderate amount of composty/earthy highlights, set against blood orange and pie cherry fruit. There’s an appealing elegance, a delicate frame that yet persists through a long, clean, detailed finish. Currently in a very fine drinking window, but built to age another decade or more. (Sold out) 93 cases; 13.9%; $100 (Chehalem Mountains)
Soter 2015 Mineral Springs Blanc de Noirs
This is the first Blanc de Noirs from Soter and it’s a beauty. A lovely straw hue, with tiny bead and effusive nose, this bottle commemorates the late Michelle Soter. Pure, elegant and expressive, it gathers itself in a concentrated palate replete with passion fruit, ginger, currant and raspberry, finishing with a creamy hint of chocolate. Tasted several times over many days, it held together and lost not a bit of complexity. Drink now and over the next 20 years. 160 cases; 12.8%; $100 (Yamhill-Carlton)