I’ve been watching a wonderful Netflix series entitled “Life on Our Planet”. It covers the last four billion years in eight riveting episodes, narrated by Morgan Freeman, whose mellifluous and soothing voice-overs provide a marvelous contrast to the carnage being depicted. The episodes cut from actual footage to AI recreations, as if there were films of ancient times, and deliver a number of important themes. So far, at least (I’m halfway through the series) one of the biggest takeaways is that life on earth is, was, and always will be about the survival of the fittest, but the factors that determine the fittest can abruptly change.
It may seem like a stretch to put that test to work when evaluating wines, but why not? There are different ways to evaluate which wines are the best, and none of them are entirely credible. Based purely on sales, you are going to be navigating the bottom of the ocean floor, where the cheapest bottles compete for attention. Based on scores, you’ll have the opposite problem, having to sift through over-priced wines that are either unavailable or have the same score as that $15 bottle of plonk that some unknown blogger gifted with a high number.
And then there are wine judgings. I’ve lost track of how many of these wine competitions there are, but they have proliferated like plankton. And like plankton (Episode Two if you’re wondering), whose proliferation led to the first great extinction of almost all life on earth, these wine competitions have all but smothered the very conclusions they are theoretically designed to sniff out, which is to find the very best wines and award them with bronze, silver, gold, double gold, platinum and whatever else the organizers can come up with.
In just the past couple of weeks I’ve gotten emails from at least four different judgings, all trumpeting the various medals that they have showered upon the entrants like confetti at a Thanksgiving Day parade. Skipping briefly past everything that’s wrong with these things – the fees, the impossible number of wines tasted, the random judging panels, the pressure to give as many awards as possible, the marginal stemware, the palate fatigue – there is the simple fact that really good wineries never enter their wines in the first place. They don’t need to; they don’t have to; and they don’t want to. So no matter how many wines are entered, the bar is set so low to begin with that the results are essentially meaningless. Any really good wine that may sneak in is likely to be smothered in mediocrity.
Glancing at the medal winners in one recent announcement it was clear that a handful of big production entities had put in a great many entries and came away predictably with more than a few medals. Most of the rest of the winners came from unknown newbies and obscure wineries whose wines you will never find unless you visit their tasting rooms. Should you visit a tasting room whose walls are plastered with medals you can probably bet that the wines are safe and predictable, but not exceptional. Maybe it’s good marketing to line your walls with gold (or platinum or zirconium or whatever) but it doesn’t signify the highest quality by any meaningful standard. You pays your entry fees, you get your medals. That’s how it works.
Here are my notes on current releases from three excellent wineries unlikely to be found among the medal winners, because they are unlikely to ever enter such faux tests of character. These are limited production, high quality wines from family-owned enterprises that are the heart and soul of what I love to write about. I’ve spent several days tasting each of these wines, so as to catch their development once given a chance to breathe. I link to their websites so that you may purchase directly. In some instances the newest vintage may not yet be listed online; I suggest you contact the winery and see if/when the wine will be available. All of these wineries have active wine clubs and that is where some of the most interesting, limited production wines can be found.
When I first began writing my blog in early 2022 the effects of the worst vintage in memory were still being felt in the Willamette Valley. Due to wildfires all through harvest in 2020, many of the valley’s producers (as elsewhere in Oregon) decided to skip the vintage completely. That was both honorable and disastrous financially. But a handful of producers whose track records for quality are unimpeachable did make wines, and very good wines at that.
Josh Bergström and Ken Wright were two who bucked the trend, and both made very good wines. A year and a half later I’ve had the opportunity to taste Bergström’s follow-up vintage, the universally-praised 2021s.
Josh himself is gung-ho on the quality. “One of my favorite vintages ever for purity, succulence, bright, fresh, floral fruity wines” he writes. “All of these wines were picked between September 1 and September 14 and fermented 100% whole cluster in open top stainless steel fermentation tanks; then saw 12 months of élévage before bottling.”
Most of these wines were released last spring and some I’m afraid have already sold out. I always prefer to taste wines early and write about them when you can still purchase them. Since these reached me after most reviewers had already commented, I will note where they are not listed for sale on the website. That said, some of my absolute favorites seem to have slipped by the rest of the press and are well worth grabbing now.
Bergström 2021 Old Stones Chardonnay – I’m convinced that this is as reliably great as any Chardonnay made in Oregon, year in and year out. Though prices have risen, it remains an excellent value given the quality. Succulent, sexy, ripe and rich with a broad seam of butterscotch, this is the sort of wine you’d hand out on Halloween (if you were to hand out wine instead of candy). Not to imply it’s sweet – it is dry, even tart – but loaded with tangy citrus and apple fruit, with buttery highlights and a smooth finish. This gorgeous wine should not be missed. 13.5%; $47 (Willamette Valley) 94/100
Bergström 2021 Sigrid Chardonnay – A barrel selection from estate vineyards, this is built along sturdy lines with an eye to ageability. Flavors are tight and firm, compacting citrus, light tropical and tree fruits, too many to call out. The barrel time adds subtle notes of spice and vanilla. Even upon tasting a second day this wine refused to budge open, hence the scoring uncertainty. It definitely has the stuffing, but needs more time. 13.3%; $122 (Willamette Valley) 95-96/100
Bergström 2021 Cumberland Reserve Pinot Noir – In a very fine vintage such as 2021 this wine shines brightly with ripe fruit, a filled-out mid-palate, medium concentration and a clean, minty finish. Strawberry, Bing cherry and white chocolate flavors jump out, buoyed with ample acids. Balanced and flavorful, this trails out with hints of wintergreen. Not currently listed on the website, so maybe sold out. 4500 cases; 12.7%; $50 (Willamette Valley) 91/100
Bergström 2021 Silice Pinot Noir – Young, sharp and spicy, this is the lightest wine among the half dozen 2021 Pinots reviewed here. Its lemony acids prevail over lightly candied cherry fruit, trailed by a streak of wintergreen. Balanced, elegant and nicely persistent, this might be compared to a Village Burgundy in style and weight. This got a Top 100 shout-out from the Spectator and is already sold out. For me it’s a good wine, but the 2020 is comparable and still available. 1100 cases; 13%; $92 (Chehalem Mountains) 92/100
Bergström 2020 Silice Pinot Noir – This back vintage is still listed for sale. The vineyard sees all-day sun exposure along with strong winds that toughen the skins and give the Pinot Noirs powerful spicy accents including ginger bread, cola and sassafras. Black cherry fruit and dusty tannins are featured in this balanced wine but in a lighter style given the low alcohol. Drink this now and over the next five years. 736 cases; 12.2%; $80 (Chehalem Mountains) 91/100
Bergström 2021 La Spirale Vineyard Pinot Noir – Forward fruit flavors of berry and blood orange are highlighted with a wash of cola and sparkling mineral water. The wine has a lovely texture and freshness that elevates the palate. It’s balanced, light, accessible, nicely constructed and just right to accompany a simple roast chicken dinner. 1100 cases; 13%; $92 (Ribbon Ridge) 93/100
Bergström 2021 Winery Block Pinot Noir – This cuvée has the smallest production in the lineup. It’s a block selection with the sort of focus and precision that is to be expected in such wines. It’s young and fresh, with pretty, tangy flavors of raspberries and juicy acids. I would bet on this wine to add weight and depth over the years. Not currently listed on the website, so maybe sold out. 160 cases; 12.8%; $130 (Chehalem Mountains) 93/100
Bergström 2021 Le Pré du Col Vineyard Pinot Noir – What typifies the 2021 Bergström Pinots is their overriding elegance and balance. There’s a sense of restraint, holding back rather than instantly blooming open. Alcohol levels are moderate and the use of new oak is carefully managed so as not to obscure the lightly-ripened fruit. A lovely streak of butterscotch runs through a number of these wines, probably from the barrel choices, and adds a welcome warmth to the finish. Gentle, detailed and ageworthy, this is a wine that may be enjoyed now or cellared for a decade or longer. 1000 cases; 12.7%; $92 (Ribbon Ridge) 94/100
Bergström 2021 Bergström Vineyard Pinot Noir – This starts off with concentrated raspberry and black cherry fruit and a touch of tobacco. It’s deep, dense and delicious, with wet stone minerality underscoring the finish. The concentration and layering of terroir-specific nuances continues into the finish. This wine will require decanting and/or more bottle age to fully unwrap all the flavors. 600 cases; 12.7%; $130 (Dundee Hills) 95/100
Liminal (meaning “at the threshold”) is the project of Chris Peterson and his business partner Marty Taucher. It resulted from an ongoing search for new vineyards to grow their Avennia winery. “Avennia had been growing nicely,” Taucher explains, “and we were pleased with how the wines were being received. But we wanted to consider adding some new fruit to the portfolio. In the summer of 2018 we started looking in Walla Walla but didn’t see anything that was ready for us in the near term. On the way back to Seattle, we started talking about what my Microsoft friend Cam Myhrvold had been planning for his land on the top of Red Mountain. We knew he had brought in Ryan Johnson to manage it so no harm in checking it out to see the progress that had been made. Chris texted Ryan and he invited us for a tour.”
They loved what they saw and quickly decided to introduce the Liminal wines as a separate entity beginning with the 2020 vintage. “Cam and Ryan appreciated that we were going to put the focus completely on this vineyard” notes Taucher. “The focus is 100% on the fruit from WeatherEye.”
Liminal 2021 Vineyard Series The Barbarous Heart WeatherEye Vineyard GSM – A stunning display of power and balance, this mix of Grenache (42%), Syrah (30%) and Mourvèdre (28%) underscores deep flavors of mountain berries with a dense and defining minerality. It’s further accented with streaks of smoked meat, graphite and black tea. And perfectly balanced – a Cirque du Soleil of a blend – filling the mouth with flavors of fruit and rock and tannin and barrel. It’s hard to believe this is such a young vineyard and still delivering fruit with this density, character and depth. 182 cases; 15.4%; $60 (Columbia Valley) 97/100
Liminal 2021 High Canyon Series WeatherEye Vineyard Grenache – If any vineyard can single-handedly vault this all-but-abandoned (here in Washington) variety to superstardom it’s WeatherEye. The handful of examples I’ve tasted have elevated the quality in the same way that the wines of the Rocks District have done for Syrah. This generous wine takes off with a burst of brambly blackberry and black cherry fruit. The texture speaks of rocks and minerals, but there’s a unique flavor of dried straw woven through also. This is one of those wines that keeps changing and adding layers as it sails down through the palate, never quitting. 75 cases; 15%; $85 (Red Mountain) 96/100
Liminal 2021 High Canyon Series WeatherEye Vineyard Syrah – This is a supple, savory, sexy wine that adds yet another style to the panoply of Washington Syrahs. It’s clear that Syrah should be one of this state’s signature grapes, but that would require a strong marketing effort and some coordination with Oregon, which is where the Rocks District resides. From a unique site atop Red Mountain comes this perfectly balanced, lightly savory wine, with delicate annotations of dried herbs and cured meats around a dense mix of red berries and currants. This was selected as a Wine Enthusiast ‘Top 100’ wine. 97 cases; 15.1%; $85 (Red Mountain) 95/100