Many famous wines are produced in Walla Walla, but one of the quickest ways to determine a restaurant's knowledge of Washington wines is if it offers Tamarack Cellars' Firehouse Red.
Year after year, this wide-ranging blend ranks as one of the Northwest's best values. Fortunately, Tamarack Cellars founder Ron Coleman and his winemaker, Danny Gordon, make it their bread-and-butter bottling. They made 12,000 cases of their 2010 edition, accounting for 60 percent of their production. And the Firehouse Red goes for $17 a bottle.
"The way we look at the Firehouse Red is that for a huge majority of the people, it's going to be the first red wine from us they try," Gordon said. "That wine needs to be better than the price, so we try to overdeliver because if they don't like the Firehouse, they are going to remember and probably not try another wine by us."
Tamarack Cellars first made a red table wine in 1999, but it didn't come up with the Firehouse name until the next year. And while the core varieties remain Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, Gordon points to Syrah as the key ingredient.
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"We started using Syrah in '99, and we've been using it ever since, but back in '99, a lot of the vineyards we were dealing with were really young, and we found that adding Syrah brought a real ripeness to the wines," Gordon said. "We continue to get great fruit and great quality from our vineyards, but the percentage of Syrah in the Firehouse has never been less than 25 percent because it's important to the mouth feel. We can be fairly consistent with the flavors, but when you are working with nine different varieties, the flavors won't be exactly the same every year. But you can keep the same feel to the wine, and that's what people perceive as the consistency to the Firehouse. And that's where the Syrah comes into play."
Quality, quantity and price also explain why Firehouse has become a staple at many restaurants, especially as a by-the-glass offering.
"We have really good relations with restaurants," Gordon said. "When they change the vintage, they still feel confident because they know the consistency is going to be there, and year after year, so many people keep that on their wine lists."
We recently tasted through Tamarack's latest releases. Here is our review of the Firehouse Red -- named for the World War II fire department building at the Walla Walla Regional Airport where the winery resides -- and two other blends.
Tamarack Cellars 2010 Firehouse Red, Columbia Valley, $17. This creation includes Cabernet Sauvignon (34 percent), Syrah (32 percent), Merlot (12 percent), Cabernet Franc (10 percent), Malbec (4 percent), Sangiovese (4 percent), Zinfandel (2 percent), Petit Verdot (1 percent) and Carménère. Its robust nose offers a stream of blackberry, black cherry and chocolate, followed by tar, soy sauce and crushed leaf. The influence of Syrah becomes more prominent on the palate, where ripe black fruit of boysenberry, Marionberry and blackberry create tremendous mouth feel and terrific balance. Hints of tobacco and black olive in the finish add food-friendly complexity.
Tamarack Cellars 2007 DuBrul Vineyard Reserve, Rattlesnake Hills, $50. This blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (62 percent), Merlot (31 percent) and Cabernet Franc fans out aromas of chocolate, vanilla, black cherry, pipe tobacco and saddle leather. Its hedonism rears up inside with flavors of sweet plums and blackberry on the entry, followed by tobacco, anise and iron shavings.
Tamarack Cellars 2009 Sagemoor Vineyard Reserve, Columbia Valley, $50. A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (44 percent), Merlot (28 percent) and Cabernet Franc, this is a coffee lovers' delight. There are abundant toasty barrel notes throughout, yet there are gobs of big black fruit to support the oak. Blackberry and Marionberry tones spill out into smoothness in the mouth with delicious notes of vanilla, cola and Aussie black licorice.
*Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman run Great Northwest Wine, a website that provides news and information about the wines of Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Idaho.