Rendezvous In Seattle
Paul’s text message read, “do you think you could write a blog about it?”
It was 7:30 on the evening of Tuesday, July 16, at the Chihuly Garden and Glass, beneath the Space Needle in Seattle, Washington. I had just joined a farewell toast to a successful event. Surrounded by the spectacular blown glass creations of artist Dale Chihuly, I thought, blog, sure. I had spent the previous three hours mingling, chatting, consuming the Northwest’s finest microbrews (because you have to) and reflecting on the dense experience of the last three days with producers, winemakers, sommeliers, and writers from around the world, all of whom shared a single focus: Riesling.
I should back up. Five hours earlier, at an experimental session entitled “The Electric Riesling Acid Test,” I was tasting a dry Riesling from Austria, a dry Riesling from Oregon, a medium dry Riesling from Germany, a medium sweet Riesling from Germany, and an Ice Wine (Riesling) from Canada, pairing each with an array of antipasti including fresh and candied lemons, beets, Burrata, Coppa, and pickled vegetables with olive oils, honey, vinaigrettes and various spices, all of which was conceived and moderated by two wine writers, an executive chef and a wine director & sommelier.
Although I had appreciated my lunch at the time, but I now had a much greater understanding of it.
I should back up. Two hours before that I was having a lunch engineered from top to bottom to pair with Riesling, the centerpiece of which was seared Columbia River steelhead with ginger peach chutney. Alongside my plate, six beautiful Rieslings, ranging from absolutely bone dry to dessert sweet, and from one year to 14 years old, from Australian producers Frankland Estate, Pikes, and Jim Barry Wines. Icons of Australian Riesling, indeed.
I should back up. At 9am that morning I was seated in an auditorium of some three hundred people, each with 20 Riedel glasses, blind tasting 20 medium dry to sweet Rieslings from around the world. On the auditorium stage, a panel of five of the preeminent Riesling winemakers, wine writers and sommeliers in the world, moderated by arguably the most respected wine journalist in the world. The moderator would pick a panel member to give his or her tasting notes on the wine, then open the discussion to the rest of the panel; then, he would press the initial panelist to guess the origin of the wine. At that point, the wine and its information would be revealed on a screen behind the stage; if the winemaker or a representative from the winery were present (which in every case they were), they would be asked to speak about the wine, the vineyards, the region, their philosophy. Twenty exquisite wines, from Germany, Austria, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Slovakia, and the US; each wine, start to finish, ten minutes or less. Among many, the 2012 Trisaetum Ribbon Ridge Medium Dry Riesling knocked me out. I could imagine how well it would go with smoked salmon…
I should back up. Sometime around 4pm the previous day I attended a “walk around session”, comprising the following stations and/or activities:
Riesling paired with several preparations of smoked salmon; rating dryness/sweetness of flights of Riesling using the International Riesling Foundation’s Riesling Tasting Profile (an incremental scale of dry to medium dry to medium sweet to sweet using residual sugar to acid ratios, weighted by ph and total acidity), Riesling paired with smoked salmon, Michigan Riesling flight, Riesling paired with smoked salmon, cheese pairing, Riesling paired with smoked salmon, Idaho Riesling flight, and Riesling paired with smoked salmon.…there was actually only one station of Riesling paired with smoked salmon. In my defense, It was kind of in the middle, and I had to pass by it to get to all of the other stations.
I should back up. At one o’clock I attended a seminar entitled, “Proving That Terroir Matters.” Terroir is a simple yet somewhat elusive concept.
Essentially, it is the expression of place; a character of soil, climate, surrounding flora, within the wine, that is identifiable through blind tasting. Unfortunately, there is an extremely narrow “window of terroir” in which the ripeness is perfect for the expression of those factors, and all of those factors can be overridden through aggressive (or sloppy) winemaking techniques. It was an impressive presentation, but the conclusion seemed to be that much, much more research needs to be done to quantify terroir. I had trouble wrapping my head around the concept, but…
I should back up. At 9am that morning I was seated in an auditorium of some three hundred people, each with 20 Riedel glasses, blind tasting 20 bone dry Rieslings from around the world along with a panel on stage of six of the preeminent Riesling winemakers in the world, moderated by a wine writer & historian. (You can guess the format)…around 11am, I noticed that I was missing the top of my head. It had blown off, near as I can tell somewhere between the Domane Wachau 2009 Riesling Smargd Achleiten and the 2009 Robert Weil Keidrich Grafenberg Erstes Gewacht. It may have been the 2008 Tantalus, come to think of it.
I should back up. Around three o’clock the previous day (Sunday) I was setting up my table on the lawn of the grounds at Chateau Ste Michelle winery in Woodinville, Washington. I was representing Madroña, among 75 wineries from seven countries and seven states participating in the Grand Tasting. At our table was the only other California winery participating in the Rendezvous, Trefethen Family Vineyards, and several wineries from the Finger Lakes region of New York. (Because New York and California, logically, go together…) For the next four hours I would be pouring our 2011 Hillside Collection Medium Dry Riesling and our 2010 & 2011 Signature Collection Dry Riesling, talking about Madroña’s terroir, philosophy, history, for as many of the 650 consumers, producers, trade and media as deigned to give a Riesling from California a chance. (It was a shock to see people look up at the tent sign, see the word “California”…and walk away. There is a notion, outside California, that California is too hot for good Riesling!)
As disheartening as watching active avoidance was, it was even more satisfying to defy those expectations. Seeing people’s faces transform as their nose enters the glass, watching as their attention and focus suddenly lock in, and then, upon tasting, hearing the naked surprise in their voice as they talk excitedly about acidity, complexity of fruit and spice, and balance, following up with questions, questions that they hadn’t prepared, comments that weren’t the trite polite platitudes they had had at the ready.
Very satisfying. One of the most influential Riesling writers kept bringing his colleagues over to our table. He said, “I never thought I would be writing about a Riesling from the Sierra Foothills of California.”
Still, as the tasting concluded and I hastily packed my wine and gear for the bus ride to the Seattle Waterfront (where the rest of the event would be held), I felt a twinge of regret that I hadn’t been able to get away to taste but a couple of other Rieslings. I hoped that I’d be able to taste at least a few more Rieslings during the event…
I should back up…The event I had the pleasure of attending was the 2013 Riesling Rendezvous. In 1999, Ernst Loosen, whose family estate (Dr. Loosen) has been making Riesling in Germany’s Mosel Valley for over 200 years, conceived an old world-new world collaboration between Dr. Loosen Estate and major Riesling producer Chateau Ste. Michelle. Born out of that collaboration, the Riesling Rendezvous has grown to become the premier international Riesling event. It is conference, tasting, symposium, workshops, discussion, celebration, collegial gathering. This is the fourth Riesling Rendezvous. They only happen every three years. In the world of Riesling, this is the big event. But why, you may ask, is there a need for a Riesling Rendezvous?
I should back up…