Notes from the Cellar: Still on the road, more or less

by Jeff Cox, Wine and Beer Merchandiser

This article was originally published in August 2008

Truckin’… I’m a goin’ home. Whoa whoa baby, back where I belong,
Back home, sit down and patch my bones, and get back truckin’ on.

— Garcia, Lesh, Weir, Hunter

(Montpellier, France) — Nothing in the world tastes like Visan — or Sablet or Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Vaison la Romaine or Rasteau.

With notes of pepper, sun-warmed river stones, lavender and garrigues (wild herbs) providing a common dialect, the wines of the Côtes du Rhône Villages are a vivid expression of the southern Rhône valley.

Dry-farmed vines sink their roots deep into rocky soil, while leaves and fruit inhale the essence of surrounding flora, infusing grapes and wine with the unmistakable flavors and the special je ne sais quoi of each unique place. And that’s just the Rhône.

Go to Piemonte, where the distinct flavors of nebbiolo, barbera or dolcetto express a spectrum of terra and flora — from brooding notes of tar to hints of forest floor, violets, wild fennel or bitter almonds.

In Tuscany, sangiovese has a repertoire of hundreds of local songs — from the iron–rich soils of Chianti to the white, sandy soils of Bolgheri, from coastal pines to oak, oleander, citrus, thyme, cypress and rosemary.

And so on, wherever your palate takes you. Dusty, dry cherries and spice in Rioja; intense, smoky, minerally wines in Priorat; sleek, racy, slate–tinged Rieslings in the Rheingau. Great wine is more than a pleasantly flavored adult beverage, far more. It’s the essence of local, putting the flavor, character and soul of a place in your glass.

(Mattawa, Wash.) — Satisfied after the ritual visit to the taco truck, I take the back roads, driving east along the Wahluke slope. Windows down in the warm summer air, the aroma of the Columbia Valley fills the car.

Like most good things, it starts with dirt: the smell of dirt after a good rain; dusty, gravelly, glacial dirt; the detritus of thousands of years from floods. Notes of wild grasses and a whiff of sagebrush are the sure sign that you’re either east of the mountains or drinking a glass of quality Washington wine.

Further down the river in the gorge, basalt, wild grasses, oak and ponderosa pine combine to offer a different but no less distinct Washington character. Like its Columbia Valley counterpart, it’s an essence you’ll find in wines raised by committed producers whose vision it is to transform and share that character in their wines.

Then there are the monstrously lavish, hugely extracted, fruit and alcohol monoliths that score well with the critics, wear the words “Walla Walla” like a medal, start at $40 — and taste like they could be from anywhere. But that’s a rant for another day. For now, it tastes good to be home.

Also in this issue

Letters to the editor, August 2008

Supporting safer practices, High fructose corn syrup, Bikes for Education enroute to Togo, and more

News bites, August 2008

Organic shoppers more open-minded, Kellogg boycott, American nurses oppose rBGH, and more

Future of Farming recommendations

It’s been more than 20 years since Washington state’s policy-makers drafted a strategic plan for agriculture. Now, they’ve started the process to develop a strategy for the next 20 years.