Allen Shoup left the position of President and CEO position at Washington State’s largest wine maker, Chateau Ste. Michelle, in 2000 but he had no intention of retiring. After three years ‘gardening leave’ (presumably to serve out a non-compete) he founded a new and very unusual winery. Long Shadows Vintners has not one winemaker, but one winemaker for each wine. Furthermore, that wine maker is not an employee but an acknowledged worldwide leader in that genre. For example, the Long Shadows Cabernet Sauvignon is made by Napa legend Randy Dunn. The Merlot, by French legend and Pomerol native, Michel Rolland. There are actually seven superstar winemakers making seven Long Shadows wines.
At a tasting this week at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse, at which I was an invited guest, I questioned Shoup about the stars involvement with the wines. It is important, in a week in which Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have apparently produced a Provence Rosé wine, to clarify how involved the stars were in the production of the product. Pitt and Jolie’s involvement seems as plausible as Kim Kardashian getting a Ph.D. from Cal. Tech. Did Brad Pitt choose the date when picking started? When asked what type of barrels to age the wine in, did Angelina Jolie respond ‘pink’? This is obviously nothing more than vapid marketing.
But what about Long Shadows? Shoup stresses that each guest winemaker is in the game for the long haul. They will be the maker of their assigned wine for their whole life or until they choose to relinquish it. They own 25% of the brand, earn no fees and pay no expenses. The only way to make it successful is to make it a valuable asset. With that background on the incentives, each of the guest winemakers chooses their level of involvement. Much of it consists of directions to Long Shadows resident winemaker Gilles Nicault. He and his team report to the guest winemaker as frequently as the latter desires. The guest wine maker is most likely to be on site during the harvest, de-stemming, crush and maybe through fermentation, but to call in remotely while the wine ages.
Nicault, a Frenchman from Provence, was originally hired to be a reliable steward of the others’ wines. However, he emerged over time as a talent in his own right and now produces one of the wines, a Cabernet Sauvignon-Syrah blend named Chester-Kidder.
Shoup’s only stipulation on the origins of the grapes is that they be from Washington State. In practice, all the winemakers have gone with his suggestion of his own massive “The Benches” vineyard in Horse Heaven Hills or six independent vineyards that Shoup has worked with since his time at Chateau Ste. Michelle.
Ten years after its founding, Long Shadows has emerged as a quality leader in Washington State and is getting national attention. In Dallas, Pappas sommelier Barbara Werley, M.S. and Mansion on Turtle Creek Sommelier Michael Flynn have both directed me to this producer. At the Pappas tasting we had a chance to taste some (but regrettably not all) of the current offerings.
We started with the 2011 “Poet’s Leap”, Riesling, Columbia Valley from winemaker Armen Diel of Germany, served as an aperitif and with a first course of charcuterie. The later seems to have had some Alsatian inspiration as it included a torchon of duck foie gras. Diel’s creation was a hybrid between Teutonic petrol notes and New World fruit. This is a dry, but fruity, take on Riesling ideal for our Chardonnay sodden palates. At $20 it was the bargain of the night (especially given its 93 score from Wine & Spirits magazine).
Next up was execuchef James Johnson’s tour de force for the night Rabbit Ragout, the perfect foil to the tornadoes swirling outside around north Texas. Bad light prevents a good picture but this was a hearty toothsome stew that would not have been out of place in northern Italy. Shoup himself complimented the chef on the strength of the match.
Appropriately, the wine was 2009 Long Shadows “Saggi”, Sangiovese, Columbia Valley from winemakers Ambrogio and Giovanni Folonari. A bit of background here: Sangiovese (the ‘blood of Jupiter’) is the backbone of Tuscan winemaking. Its transfer to California, a state where “everything” that grew flourished, was a disaster. Tuscan character was missing from the grapes and consumers shunned in. Now it is being torn out.
Washington State, under sensitive Italian tutelage, may be a new frontier for the grape. All the Italian hot points are there in the grape in this example: high acid, raspberry and earthy flavors. If only this example were about seven years older. The fruit is starting to be integrated and there are hints of aging, but it threatens only to improve.
Medallion of veal with sauce Zingara and pearl cous cous ‘carbonara’ was served with 2009 “Sequel”, Syrah, Columbia Valley. The ‘sequel ‘ reference is due to the guest winemaker being John Duval, formerly winemaker of the legendary Grange from Australia. As with Grange he is working with Syrah, but now from a selection of Washington State vineyards, rather than Australia’s Barossa. The nose is pronounced raspberry but in the mouth the tannins are still quite hard. This wine needs several years aging to be at its best. At the moment it needs work to appreciate – you are tasting potential.
Our Achiote Basted Antelope Chop with jalapeño corn spoon bread was served with the 2008 “Feather”, Cabernet Sauvingon, Columbia Valley. This is Randy Dunn’s wine and pause here for jokes about how his previous work is still coming around. That is the common credit/criticism/comment about his Howell Mountain monsters. However, the ironic choice of ‘feather’ for the name of his Washington State offering is actually appropriate because this is such an approachable wine. The nose is redolent of old world cabernets with cedar notes. In the mouth the acid level is high followed by dark fruit and a long complex finish. All jokes about Randy Dunn being a one-trick pony producing unapproachable wines are henceforth formerly withdrawn.
Lastly, a dessert of orange chiffon cake with blackberries was served with 2010 Late Harvest Riesling, Columbia Valley, a dessert wine infused with botrytis and worthy of long sipping. It doesn’t figure in the rock star winemakers wines, but it sure is a great wine to finish a meal.
A final word: The red wines all sell for an MSRP of $50-$55. This is a bargain when you consider the quality. Compare with your favorite $100 Napa Cabernet. I don’t think these prices will last. Shoup is on a jihad to tell the world about these wines and I expect restaurants and smart collectors to corner the limited production in the next two years. As a result, retail prices will rise, probably more than 50%.