8 am Friday I landed. 6 am Sunday I departed.
46 hours. That’s what I had in Seattle, and boy I made the most of it.
It had been too long, many years, and I returned to enjoy sights, sounds, tastes, views, and new discoveries.
I was flown out for the weekend by the Washington State Wine Commission, who found a couple of dozen sommeliers, retailers, and educators from around the country to bring out for the big Taste Washington food and wine spectacular, plus dinners and seminars with many of the best wine people in the state. Thank you to all who made this possible.
Here’s a summary of the weekend, along with some hints and tips for visiting this great city.
Hint: JUMP BIKES
Jump is owned by Uber, who have done a great job building a competitor to the Lime bikes that descended upon Minneapolis last year. I had never used any bike-sharing services and tried them both out. Not only were the Jump bikes far more comfortable to ride, but they are fifteen cents a minute straight up (Lime bikes are one dollar unlock fee plus fifteen cents a minute). This made for incredibly easy, cheap, and healthy transport in Seattle, even if just for a couple of blocks. Got three blocks to get to my destination? Five minutes plus pocket change later I’m there!
The electric assist on the bikes made all but the steepest hills navigable (though it was fun to note how many bikes ended up closer to the harbor as the day went on).
Destination: THE SPACE NEEDLE
No secret that this is a destination, but I’m writing this for people who are like me and highly sensitive to tourist traps and spending too much money that you’ll regret later.
After hopping off my Jump bike at the base of the Space Needle, I was frustrated to see the $32 per person price tag. I started to walk away, muttering something about rip-off pricing when it struck me: this is why I’m here, to have experienced new things, and it’s a perfect day in Seattle, and it’s only me here and not the whole family, so dammit just do it!
Not only do I have no regrets, but it was also simply one of the coolest things I’ve experienced in years. There are a couple of bars on the top, serving pretty decent Washington wines at (relatively) reasonable prices. The views are of course spectacular. But the highlight is the world’s largest rotating glass floor, making for a spine-tingling experience, to say the least. Thumbs up, five stars, totally worthwhile. See my video on Facebook!
Destination: PIKE AND WESTERN WINE SHOP
It’s always good to know where the great wine shops are in a city. A shop where curation is taken seriously and the customer comes first (as opposed to pushing house brands because they have a big margin). Pike and Western, just off the northern end of the Pike Place Market and down from the original and first Starbucks, is such a shop.
But stopping by there isn’t just about grabbing a great bottle. It’s about seeing a shop where they toss out the verbose and ego-driven shelf-talker and instead have some FUN. This isn’t a new idea. Ax-Man Surplus, the king of the funny shelf-talker, is a good example. But it’s not often done in the wine business, where stuffy attitudes and scores prevail. Note: one local shop that does it well is Zipp’s Liquor, sometimes using pretty dark humor to get a point across (my favorite at that shop: “This wine was served on the Titanic. That went well.”
Dinner: BRIMMER AND HEELTAP
Brimmer and Heeltap, 425 NW Market Street, Seattle WA 98107
I was lucky enough to join the principals of Avennia Winery, Gramercy Cellars (Master Sommelier Greg Harrington), and Hedges Family Estate (Christophe Hedges) for what turned out to be one of the best dinners I’ve had in years, at Brimmer and Heeltap.
The restaurant is off the tourist path, located in a super cool neighborhood about 15 miles north of downtown. The weather was incredible, the private room’s garage door was wide open (facing west, with the sun setting). This is the type of restaurant I love so much: casual yet professional, with an eye on complex dishes and great wine.
A little sidenote (some of you know this about me): I’m pretty cynical when it comes to most restaurants. I find there is a huge amount of simply really good out there and very little exceptional or daring in the dining scene of most cities. Our course there are exceptions but I don’t happen to find them often.
Brimmer and Heeltap, with just one meal, renewed my faith in what a great restaurant can be. Take a look at this menu, imagine each dish is perfect and vibrant and layered and complex, then multiply that emotion.
Across from me was Christophe Hedges of Hedges Winery in Red Mountain. He and I hit it off, with a long and fun discussion on wine, the wine business, salespeople, distributors, direct to consumer sales, trends, and this being Washington, weed.
Those that remember the old Cooper Theater in St. Louis Park know what I’m talking about. The HUGE curved screen that filled your vision, and was the precursor to IMAX. Alas, the Cinerama theatres started to be knocked down during the multiplex boom of the 1990s, leaving only three in the country. Paul Allen of Microsoft bought, restored, and saved this gem in downtown Seattle.
They were showing Dumbo, which I didn’t have interest in seeing (plus it would’ve used up 7% of my time in Seattle) but they did let me into the lobby to see the displays, including the original Adam West Batman costume and the original Christopher Reeve Superman costume.
Distraction: THE PIKE PLACE NEWSSTAND
Growing up in the 1970s in Minneapolis, my father’s office was located in the building on the corner of 8th and Hennepin, and down the street (and eventually across the street) was the original Shinder’s. I spent a huge amount of my childhood there, browsing the world of magazines and newspapers (which sparked my curiosity about geography, which eventually led to wine). In Dinkytown was the famous Dinkytown newsstand (the original on the train bridge). Going to college, that was a hangout for me. The old-school newsstand is a rarity to find today, but luckily you can still find it in the Pike Place Market. Good times.
Dining: SERIOUS PIE
Over ten years ago I happened upon this place, and it was the first of the ‘elevated pizza’ destinations I had ever been to. You have to understand: I don’t just love pizza. I LOVE pizza. It’s a thing for me, much as wine and travel are. I’m happy to report it’s still busy as can be, full of good customers sharing family-style tables, and that the crust is still the best in the country. We’re not going to debate this fact. The best in the country. Sorry, Pizzeria Bianco. Sorry, Pizzeria Lola. Love you guys, but Serious Pie wins.
Special moment: LISTENING TO THE WINE GREATS
The Saturday morning seminar I attended was a look back at the founding of the fine wine industry in Washington. Just like in Willamette Valley, we are blessed to still have many of the first generation, the founders, with us today. On the panel were none other than Gary Figgins of Leonetti Cellar (the very first to plant vines in Walla Walla), and Rick Small of Woodward Canyon (who made the show-stopping 1987 Cabernet that we recently poured in our History of Washington Wine class with Chad Johnson). Also on the panel were Ted Baesler of Chateau Ste. Michelle, and Betsy Wittick of Bainbridge Vineyards on Bainbridge Island, with the conversation led by Bob Betz MW, of Betz Family Winery.
The main takeaway was how young the industry still is. For the first ten years or so, Leonetti and Woodward Canyon were basically bumbling around: no sense of the best terroir, the best spacing, and the best clonal material for top-level wines. They emphasized how slow the process of terroir discovery can be, with years between planting vines and finally making wine. But both humbly said, “We are making progress.”
And are they ever. In the lineup of the tasting, a couple of superstar wines were included. Leonetti Reserve 2010 from Walla Walla Valley was a 100 point Parker wine, roughly $250 a bottle. Woodward Canyon Dedication Series Cabernet Sauvignon 1986 proved the beauty of an aged Washington gem.
Ted Baseler of Chateau Ste. Michelle said that what Washington is missing is “our Judgement of Paris moment. There is no doubt we are making some of the best wines in the world. We are getting the scores.” As he continued, he said they are getting the attention from the wine press but what they are missing is the breakthrough moment with the consumer, where the consumer seeks out Washington wines above others.
During the question and answer section, one astute attendee asked a zinger: what up and coming wineries or winemakers should we keep an eye on? They hemmed and hawed a bit (it’s political hot potato: who do you vocalize support for?) but finally, it was either Rick Small that mentioned one. What did he say? Resonance? Resistance? Renovation? I didn’t quite catch it, but I remembered what it kinda sounded like.
Event: THE BIG TASTING
NAVIGATING ‘TASTE WASHINGTON’
I’m not one for crowds. But in terms of a big show, this was the best I’ve ever been to. Clean, well organized, tons of food, and very good wineries. Because there are so many great Washington wineries, the show was dominated by them rather than faceless distributors or big retailers (though Total Wine did have a booth there, pouring their “Winery Direct” wines to the very few people that walked up to them). The amount of variety was incredible, with easily 95% of the wineries being new to me. Plus, since I don’t know the Seattle dining scene, I didn’t know who was the hot shit chef of the moment vs. a chain burger place.
So with great fun, I got to be a consumer, not a wine insider.
Walking up to wineries, I didn’t know them and they didn’t know me. It was fascinating to see how they presented themselves. I love studying marketing and sales techniques, and this was a perfect place to do some experiments. What happens if I act ignorant? What happens if I act snobbish? How about if I say I love Napa Valley wines? Some handled the questions well, others did not.
The event also gave me a chance to say hi to friends and winery favorites: Dusted Valley Vineyards, Tamarack Cellars, Two Mountain, Treveri, and many more. But shows like this are difficult for the wineries, having to be on-point and engaged with everyone all day, so I mainly said a quick hello and got out of their way.
After many many tastes and bites, it was time for the next part of the day: a ballgame (with a special discovery).
Take me out to the wine game: Mariners vs. Red Sox
The Washington Wine Commission arranged for a private suite for the Mariners vs. Red Sox game, with some great food (sushi!) and special guests. One was James Mantone of Syncline Wine Cellars, a fantastic winery that has been on my radar but I hadn’t yet tried. They are a small operation, available in Minnesota via the distributor Bourget Imports, and James is the real deal: humble as can be, human and thoughtful, but with some clear ideas on his wines and what he wants to make for the world. Well worth seeking out.
Then there was another winery there. One I didn’t recognize. Four wines were open so I thought I’d give them a shot.
The first sip of the first wine was like hearing an incredible guitar solo for the first time in your life. This was serious juice, something very special, and I looked at the label. Reynvaan Family Vineyards. Reynvaan … that was the winery mentioned in the earlier seminar with the legends of the business
Mike Reynvaan was there, and we had a tremendous discussion about what fine wine really means, marketing wines when there isn’t enough to go around but the scores keep rising, and how to sustain a business model where a balance between direct to consumer, restaurant placements, and select retailers are all they really need. Reynvaan is a serious wine and a highlight of the weekend.
For wine geeks like myself, the closing of the original RN74 in San Francisco was tragic. A breakup of sorts, full of pain and despair. The saving grace was that the Seattle RN74 was not only staying open but would inherit the leftovers from the San Francisco location.
A wine lover’s trip to Seattle is not complete without a visit to RN74.
Sitting at the bar I devoured the Red Burgundy flight, which was comprised of 2012 Domaine Rapet Beaune “Bressanes” 1er Cru, 2011 Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey “Ceps Centenaires” 1er Cru Santenay, and 2014 Lignier-Michelot Vielle Vignes Chambolle-Musigny. Service, of course, was top notch and it didn’t hurt that the somm recognized me from a trip to Walla Walla two years ago.
TIME TO SLEEP AND RECOVER!
By the time I was done with the flight of Burgundy I was spent. I knew I had to wake up in four hours to catch an early flight. Adieu, Seattle. Thank you for a wonderful visit!