Wine Tasting for Winos

Think you need to be a connoisseur to attend the Spring Barrel Tasting? Think again.

Young Kwak

Hi, my name is Chris, and I have a problem. I like wine, but I know nothing about it. I have no skill in plucking out the nuances of aroma, flavor and texture. I generally opt for drinking straight out of whatever bottle has the steepest alcohol-to-cost ratio. But I’d love to learn.
The Spring Barrel Tasting this weekend will provide an ideal crash course for all wine-loving winos in this town, as all 16 Spokane wineries will be giving tastings from their latest, fresh out of the barrel. In efforts to simulate this experience, I hit up a few wineries last weekend, to educate my tongue and spite my liver.

The folks at Overbluff Cellars were kind enough to meet me on Friday night and lead me through my first wine tasting. “What do you taste?” asked co-owner John Caudill, as I pondered a sip of Syrah. I smacked my lips, detecting mostly the flavor of red wine. He urged me to taste harder, looking for anything recognizable.

“I taste cherries!”

“And?” he urged.

“…Uhhh, smoke and leather? But, like, in a good way?”

As unpalatable as gustatory allusions to a flight jacket sound, such correlations are encouraged, and apparently these more robust characteristics come from the oak wood that the barrels are made of. Other items he told me to take note of included the aroma, or bouquet, of the wine (released by introducing oxygen via swirling in the glass) and the astringency level (the quality that makes you feel thirsty, a product of the tannins in the grape skins).

He told me I should also take stock of whether or not I actually enjoy what I’m tasting.

“There’s a lot of pomp and circumstance with wine tasting, but the most important thing is that you like it,” Caudill said.

Well, lucky for wine tasting and luckier for me, I like wine. I like wine a lot. I sampled their Vixen Viognier, an excellent white (sweet pear and citrus balance the spice of the 16 percent ABV), and left to go mentally prepare for the next day’s adventure, by drawing up a map and drinking many beers.

Saturday morning, hungover, I begin the day at a convenience store to purchase a bottle of Night Train for later, on the off-chance that I don’t get sufficiently drunk from the day’s tastings. (This wouldn’t be a problem.)

I began at the beautiful Arbor Crest, seated at the top of a big hill overlooking all the nubby trees and houses of Spokane Valley. Highlights were their ’07 Sauvignon Blanc (honey and pineapple, sweet but light) and their Sangiovese, an earthy red that begs for pizza.

On the way back into town I popped into Knipprath Cellars, where I tasted possibly the best wines all day (attributable partially to sobriety, I’m sure): the ’07 Tempranillo, a powerful, dark fruitcake cluster bomb of woody raisins — sweet but serious, like poetry on a Sunday; and the Coffee Port, which was equally mind-blowing, like mocha with a dash of vanilla dessert wine.

I deposited my car and biked to Barrister, where they were so entertained by my bottle of Night Train that they were even willing to offer their own tasting notes: cherry Kool-Aid front, with a cough-syrup finish, and hints of Cherry Spree.

Blood buzzing with the warm, woody, prunish austerity of Barrister’s ’07 Cabernet Sauvignon, I ditch my bike and hitch a ride with the photographer. We bop over to Robert Karl, where passionate co-owner Rebecca Gunselman pours samples from five wines and tells me more information than my wine-stained note-taking ability at the time is able to preserve for future use. Try their ’07 Claret — I don’t remember it clearly, but my notes read, “OOH!”

Swinging over to Lone Canary, I am led through a tour de drunk of the eight wines currently in their rotation. Tenly Bretting, an accountant with Townshend Cellars, was pouring because Lone Canary — one of three wineries owned by Don Townshend — has been put up for sale. Bretting said that if Townshend is unable to find a seller, the wines will find a home at his other winery, Caterina.

My favorites apparently occupied the “Christmas” end of the flavor spectrum, with the tart cranberry notes of the ’07 Barbera, the spicy, mincemeat warmth of the Bird House Blend, and the rich, chocolate ripeness of the Syrah.

We closed the day at Whitestone Winery, where head winemaker Michael Haig poured me some wine and offered me some Jelly Bellys, which he’d had out for people to smell: pear, chocolate, raspberry, blueberry — easy examples of smells and flavors often present in wine. Michael had these out in effort to show that wine tasting doesn’t have to be stuffy. Wine tasting is about having fun, drinking wine, and seeing what you like.

And as I jumped an eight-foot barbed-wire fence to retrieve the bike I’d left earlier in haste, I bled with pride and gratitude for my local vintners, whose love, devotion and skill will be getting so many people drunk this weekend.

With a great swig of Night Train, I reflected that although I will still purchase excessively cheap and sweet wine from convenience stores for all the wrong reasons, at least now I will know better.

The Spring Barrel Tasting takes place Friday-Sunday, May 7-9, from 11 am-5 pm each day, at all 16 local wineries. For a searchable map, go here.

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About The Author

Chris Dreyer

Chris Dreyer is the founder of Chaotique literary journal in Spokane