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Senior editor Dana Nigro joined Wine Spectator in 1998. She is managing editor of WineSpectator.com.
Dana Nigro

Comparing Cabernets from Washington

Chateau Ste. Michelle Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley 2007 and Amavi Cabernet Sauvignon Walla Walla Valley 2007

Dana Nigro
Posted: January 24, 2011

For a holiday party my now-retired dad threw for his former co-workers, he asked me to help him put together a wine tasting. We decided to showcase Washington (see the Dec. 15, 2010, cover story, “Washington An Open Secret”), for its combination of diversity, great value and exciting evolution. The state offers everything from sparkling wine to fresh, juicy Riesling to balanced Chardonnays to distinctive reds—Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah—all of which can be found for less than $25.

Washington has most consistently succeeded with Cabernet, so we put two into the lineup, both from the exceptional 2007 vintage. The first was from Chateau Ste. Michelle, which is owned by the state’s largest wine company and makes a wide range of varietals priced from less than $15 to single-vineyard and reserve wines that routinely hit outstanding marks. The Columbia Valley bottling, a Smart Buy at only $16, came from a selection of Ste. Michelle’s vineyards across the broad appellation.

The second wine, retailing for $28, was from a small, family-owned winery, Amavi, in the Walla Walla Valley, the state’s easternmost AVA and home to many prominent names. Amavi focuses on Cabernet and Syrah, sourced entirely from estate vineyards, which are certified sustainable by LIVE and Salmon Safe.

The Ste. Michelle—which contains Syrah, Merlot and Malbec in the blend—was the juicier, brighter of the two, with sweet black cherries and berries and supple, subtle tannins. 88 points, non-blind. The Amavi—which had a slightly higher percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon, a touch of Cabernet Franc in place of Malbec in the blend and a little more new oak—was more powerful, showing darker fruit, with earthy, smoky, mocha and mineral notes and more prominent, though polished, tannins. 90 points, non-blind.

Each wine had its partisans, and the contrast triggered plenty of questions. I could see the spark of a new curiosity about wine light in some faces—for me, a true sign of a successful party.

WineSpectator.com members: Read the original blind-tasting reviews for Chateau Ste. Michelle Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley 2007 (89, $16) and Amavi Cabernet Sauvignon Walla Walla Valley 2007 (90, $28).

• Plus, get scores and tasting notes for recently rated Top Values among Washington reds.

John G Lawson
N, CA —  January 24, 2011 2:59pm ET
When are you going to have more ratings on 2008 Napa Cabernets ? I have been buying a lot of them and most have yet to be rated by your magazine. J
James Laube
Napa, CA —  January 24, 2011 3:10pm ET
Most of the 2008 Napa Cabernets will be released later this year, so I'll be reviewing more as they arrive, once winemakers believe they are ready to review.
Ed Lane
Syracuse, NY —  January 25, 2011 10:02am ET
My first exposure to Chateau Ste. Michelle was an April 2010 purchase of quantity 4 of the 'Canoe Ridge' Cabernet Sauvignon 2007. This was purchased online for ~$27, and I found it so delightful, that I went back and bought a case in August. Surprising that no rating from either Parker or WS exists. I was so pleased with that, I recently filled out a case with 4 bottles their Indian Wells Cabernet 2008 @~$14/per with much the same reaction. I guess my point is that I am (somewhat surprisingly to me) discovering super Cabs from Washington, and further, am very impressed with the consistent quality coming from Chateau Ste. Michelle.
Homer Cox
Warrenton, VA —  January 25, 2011 12:38pm ET
We have found that it is hard to beat Ste. Michelle or Columbia Crest cabs and merlot for quality and price. We just bought cases of the 2008 Indian Wells cab and merlot (90 pts.) for $13 a bottle at Wegman's and Costco to go along with our stash of 2007 CC Grand Estates, H3 cab and merlot and 2007 Reserve cab. I was suprised to learn recently that Ste. Michelle Estates was owned by Altria.
Dana Nigro
New York, NY —  January 25, 2011 1:18pm ET
Hi Ed, Homer,

Happy to hear you found some Washington reds you particularly like!

Ste. Michelle's Canoe Ridge Estate Horse Heaven Hills Cabernet has been a solid performer in most vintages. Harvey Steiman did review the 2007 in our September issue, after your purchase:

Indian Wells is another good value Cab at under $20, and as Homer notes, it earned an outstanding score in the 2008 vintage. As he cited, Columbia Crest is another great source of values you may want to check out.

There are plenty more Washington wines you both may want to explore. I did a quick check in our Wine Ratings Search, and of the past year's releases, Harvey found 65 Washington Cabs that were very good or outstanding and priced at $30 or less.

With no price limit, more than 120 Washington Cabs earned outstanding or classic scores in the past year.

And that's not even getting into the excellent Syrahs and Merlots, one of which I'm featuring in my next post.
Dry Creek Vineyard
Healdsburg —  January 25, 2011 3:12pm ET
Hi Dana,

I have family that live in Eastern Washington and have been fortuate to taste through many of the wines. I have found some real gems. One thing that struck me with many of the wines is the higher levels of acidity to the wines. Many of the Syrah's for example, have a mineral laced blueberry component (that I love) and were exciting to taste.

Hope all is well.


Dana Nigro
New York, NY —  January 25, 2011 3:19pm ET
Hi Bill,

Lucky you to have family there! The Syrahs are the most exciting to me personally, but here on the East Coast, it's been harder for me to find some of those bottlings than to find the Cabs and Merlots.

Homer Cox
Warrenton, VA —  January 25, 2011 4:12pm ET
It is indeed harder to find the Syrahs on the East Coast, therefore we haven't experienced them. Bill's comment on the acidity and blueberry sounds interesting. The test will be to find a WS 88-90 bottle at $13 which has been successful recently with Washington Cabs and Merlot.
John Wilen
Texas —  January 25, 2011 7:49pm ET
To John Lawson: don't get your hopes up for lots of 2008 CA cabernet reviews any time soon. The WS review schedule has been remarkably consistent over the past 5 or more vintages, in fact, even mathematically predictable. Here are some key numbers for you. Expect WS to review about 575-600 CA cabernet and blends for each vintage (less in weaker years like 2003). While a small handful of cabs get released and reviewed early (think Caymus and Lewis -- always!), about 65-70% are rated 3 calendar years after the vintage date, and 20-30% are reviewed in year 4. A couple dozen even drag their feet into year 5. The bulk of the wines rated in year 3 appear in the second half of the calendar, especially Oct and Nov.

What are the implications for 2011 then? I'll do the math for you. Assuming that 2007 is a typical, stellar vintage, I would expect that another 175 reviews of '07 CA cabs and blends will be released on the website this calendar year. Typically they will be front loaded: Q1 and Q2. And remember these are not just those in the monthly magazines, but also the web-only reviews. In a sense, these 175 reviews have to get through the pipeline. As for the 2008 vintage, one would anticipate the WS staff to publish approx. 375 reviews of '08 cabs in 2011, back-loaded in the calendar which is unfortunate if you are trying to make purchase decisions now, but understandable.
Ed Lane
Syracuse, NY —  January 26, 2011 5:49pm ET
Dana, Homer, Bill et al,

This has been a great thread. While I love Napa cabs, I don't love their prices, and have been leaning on South America for value-priced cabs until my recent experiences with Washington.

As for Syrah, I favor the French and domestic Syrahs because they seem better representatives the true grape characteristics than do the Australians, which I find a bit overproduced and jammy. Maybe that's a gross generalization, but that is where I sit. To date, the domestic Syrahs have mostly been from California, so it will be a nice challenge to see if I can source some from Washington. I buy almost everything online, but generaly from NY/NJ houses to keep the shipping costs manageable.

Any specific recommendations on the Washington Syrahs?
Dana Nigro
New York, NY —  January 26, 2011 6:26pm ET
Hi Ed,

Cayuse makes some of Washington's most exciting Syrahs, but those are now priced $65 and up. I've also particularly liked the Syrahs from Gorman, Owen Roe (the 2005 Ex Umbris made our Top 100 in 2007) and K Vintners, all of which I've found in NY/NJ and which are under $50.

You can find under-$25 Syrahs from Ste. Michelle, Columbia Crest, Hogue, Charles Smith's Boom Boom Syrah (which has a striking label) and The Magnificent Wine Company.

I don't want to leave out a number of other excellent producers. You can see a whole list of Harvey's Washington Syrah ratings from the past year here by using the Wine Ratings Search advanced options and picking variety, region and the Tasting Date.

Richard Lee
Napa —  January 26, 2011 9:01pm ET
If I remember correctly, Amavi is owned by Pepper Bridge and is their second label. Amavi is just across the way from Pepper Bridge. Jean-Francois Pellet is the winemaker for both labels.
Dana Nigro
New York, NY —  January 27, 2011 1:12pm ET
Hi Richard,

Yes, both wineries are run by by the Goff, McKibben and Pellet families, and Jean-Francois is the winemaker for both.

They share a tasting room in Woodinville, but I believe Amavi now has its own new tasting room in Walla Walla.

Richard Lee
Napa —  January 27, 2011 2:15pm ET

You are correct. Amavi is about a five minute drive (pour to pour)from Pepper Bridge. You are able to see either one from the tasting room.
Homer Cox
Warrenton, VA —  January 27, 2011 5:39pm ET

We are drinking our Australian Syrahs down because like you we feel they are getting too jammy. I'm going to take Dana's list including CSM, CC and Hogue and look around here in Northern Virginia for some.

Ed Lane
Syracuse, NY —  January 28, 2011 12:55pm ET

Copy that. I have had that impression for a few years, and then I read a similar summary in the WS magazine. I felt a little bit vindicated. What I love about the Syrah grape in its natural state, is the spicy, peppery characteristc. Although I love huge reds (Have a large stockpile of Barolos, Barbarescos and Amarones), what I enjoy about a good Syrah is their ability to provide nice structure without big tannins. To me, the Aussies make them very fruit forward, which masks these qualities.

This has been a great board. Except for my wallet, just spent another $500 today on 2 cases of all Washington wines. Ha-ha
Scott Burum
ID —  January 28, 2011 7:43pm ET
Love the Amavi Cab, and I'm also a big fan of Abeja, Dusted Valley and L'Ecole from that area.
Joshua Hull
Lancaster, Pennsylvania —  January 31, 2011 1:40pm ET
I am a young wine lover in the not so wine friendly state of Pennsylvania (I actually work at the Wine and Spirits stores!). Washington has been the best source of value, in my opinion, for Cabernet, Syrah, Merlot, Riesling, and Chardonnay. In fact, on my strict budget, I couldn't pass up buying a case of the Castle Rock 2007 Syrah Columbia Valley (88 WS) at just $7.49 a bottle under the Chairman's Selection program. The Ste. Michelle and Columbia Crest bottles we carry are easily the best values for many varietals. I love Harvey's reviews and count on them for recommendations and my own wine collection!
Eric Ohlsen
Alexandria, VA —  February 3, 2011 8:53am ET
I just wanted to chime in on the mention of Cayuse. While they start at about $65 from the mailing list, getting on the list takes months on the waiting list. They're starting at about $80/bottle on auction, and a Bionic Frog was at $190 yesterday on winebid.


Christophe Baron is helping his neighbors, Reynvaan Family Winery, in their first few vintages; my understanding is that the vineyards are nearly adjacent. Not only is he advising, he's also allowing them to use the Cayuse facilities. I haven't tasted any yet, but the 2008s (their second vintage) has received some pretty astounding reviews. The Reynvaan list is open, and you can order their wines online in the $35-$50 price range.
Dana Nigro
New York, NY —  February 3, 2011 12:56pm ET
Thanks for the tip, Eric!
Wodinville, WA —  February 22, 2011 1:32pm ET
I have to smile reading the chain of comments on WA wines. I have the fortune of living in Woodinville, now with 50 wineries and 20 tasting rooms - with not a grape grown within 250 miles. Almost every weekend there are 2-3 new releases.

Last weekend it was J. Bookwalter, DeLille, and Dustered Valley. This weekend it Woodhouse. Next weekend is Grand Reve,and then Betz is March 12. The fun never stops.

Regarding Cayuse, I too am on the waiting list with with no idea when I get to buy their highly rated syrahs.

For those interested in Woodinville wines, check out the website woodinvillewinecountry.com
Dana Nigro
New York, NY —  February 22, 2011 1:42pm ET
You're a lucky man, Peter!

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