Five Under Fifteen - April

From the heart of Washington wine country, in tough times, we continue the search for good, inexpensive wines.

For this month’s Five Under Fifteen, I thought I would write a bit about labels. For many, wine is as much about what is on the outside of the bottle as what is inside it. This is especially true for wines in the value category. Wineries look for a variety of ways to catch people’s attention with label design. However, what I am always interested to see is what wineries put on the back label. Many wineries use the back of the bottle to try to express something about the wine or the winery. Here are a few examples of different types of back-of-bottle approaches from this month's wines.

The first wine comes from L’Ecole No. 41. L’Ecole is located in Lowden, Washington, a short distance from Walla Walla. The winery building is iconic, located in a 1915 schoolhouse whose image adorns their labels. The wine sampled here is a 2009 Chenin Blanc from Willard Family Farms in the Rattlesnake Hills. I picked up a bottle of this wine at the winery on the way in to Walla Walla for Spring Release yesterday. This is a delicious wine that offers excellent value at this price point. The back of the 2009 Chenin Blanc reads: “L’Ecole No. 41 has been producing premium varietal wines in the Walla Walla Valley since 1983 in the cellars of the historic Frenchtown School depicted on our label. 'Walla Voila' is a trademark of L’Ecole No. 41 and captures the fresh and frivolous character of this tart, lightly sweet and delightfully fruity Chenin Blanc.”

The next wine comes from the NW Vine Project ( is listed on the bottle, although the website was not active when I checked). This is a collection of value priced wines made for an Oregon distributor by an top-notch group of winemakers including David O'Reilly (Owen Roe), Andrew Rich (Andrew Rich Wines), and James Mantone (Syncline). This wine, the 2008 Red Splendor, is a Mourvedre, Grenache, and Syrah blend. The wine is made by Rich, using fruit from the Horse Heaven Hills although the wine is labeled Columbia Valley.

The Red Splendor bottle contains an elaborate description which runs diagonally along the side of the label. This description reads: “This great jewel, blessed with the wisdom of the ages and the splendors of the Northwest is made from grapes well endowed to the point of obscene. Born from the tumult of volcanic eruptions of the Cascade Range and the great Missoula floods of 15,000 years ago as the last ice age ended, bringing unimaginable walls of water and a largish chunk of Montana to the Pacific Northwest, carving out the Columbia Gorge, and with a massive surge of water and glacier and earth, blanketing the Willamette Valley with microscopic magnificence, and, pacified only by the vastness of the ocean, melted, perhaps with the very concept of what had been done. My Lord, do you know what you hold in your hand?” It goes on to say a “A full-bodied Columbia Valley Red Wine.” Wow!

The next wine comes from Charles Smith who also makes K Vintners and Magnificent Wine Company wines. This wine is part of Smith’s ‘Modernist project.’ The goal is to create wines made for immediate consumption that still show both typicity and location. The 2009 Kung Fu Girl Riesling hails from Evergreen Vineyard, which is located in a region currently seeking American Viticultural Area (AVA) status. The back of the bottle of the Kung Fu Girl Riesling reads simply, “Land to Hand. Vineyard to bottle.” It also contains a picture of a rice bowl with chopsticks. This wine was our April Virtual tasting wine. Several people on Twitter noted very tiny bubbles in the wine. I did not. Overall, I found this to be a very enjoyable wine although not quite as impressive as the previous vintage.

Olsen Estates is a family winery located in Prosser, Washington. Olsen Estates makes a wide variety of wines across a range of price points. Their 2007 Heritage wine was the runner-up in our 2009 Reader Survey Wine of the Year. Their 2007 Chardonnay and Petit Verdot were among my favorite wines from last year. This is Olsen Estates' entry-level red wine. The back of the Olsen Estates bottle reads, “From bud break to bottle, our Vineyard Manager and Winemaker work closely together to produce wines that reflect the terroir of carefully chosen sites our family has planted, best suited for each varietal. Perfect climate and ideal soils combined with sustainable viticulture and careful monitoring in the cellar produce distinctive varietal characters in each of our wines.”

Next is a Haystack Needle wine made by Clubhouse Cellars. The following is on the back label. “Haystack Needle…Treasures lost…and Found! Great overlooked wines at prices you’ll love. It takes a lot of searching…but it’s Worth It!”

While I have enjoyed some of the previous offerings from the Haystack Needle line, I found this wine to be subpar. While not technically flawed, I am unable to give it a dot (‘.’) rating as it is not representative of other solidly made wines in this category. I am therefore listing the wine with a rating of minus (‘-‘) and amending my rating system to include this wine and similar wines as either ‘Flawed’ or ‘Not Recommended.’ Subsequent wines will be listed as ‘Flawed/Not Recommended.’

L’Ecole No. 41 Chenin Blanc Columbia Valley 2009 $14
Rating: * (Excellent) Light lemon yellow in color. A very pretty, aromatic nose with honeysuckle, mineral, straw, and floral notes. The palate brings a lot of fruit while remaining very crisp with a slight citric tinge and a touch of sweetness toward the finish. 100% Chenin Blanc. Willard Family Farms, Rattlesnake Hills. 13.5% alcohol. 1% Residual Sugar. 2,536 cases produced.

NW Vine Project Red Splendor Columbia Valley 2008 $13

Rating: + (Good) A fun, appealing nose with some funk (in a good way), lots of white pepper, blueberries, and light floral notes. On the palate, flows evenly with restrained, tart fruit. Finish has a slight bite on an otherwise enjoyable wine with a great nose. A bit lean by itself but pairs well with food. 44% Mourvedre, 36% Syrah, and 20% Grenache. 14.1% alcohol.

Charles Smith Kung Fu Girl Riesling Washington State 2009 $13
Rating: + (Good) Very pale lemon yellow. A pleasing nose with a cornucopia of fruit including apple, melon, and pear. As the wine opens up peaches also emerge. On the palate, a lot of fruit, especially lime, while remaining very dry with a puckering zing of acidity. Finish comes up a bit short on an otherwise very enjoyable wine. Needs food to balance out the acidity. 100% Riesling. Evergreen Vineyard. Aged in stainless steel. 1.41% Residual Sugar. 12.5% alcohol.

Olsen Estates Red Wine Yakima Valley 2007 $10

Rating: . (Decent) Lots of black cherry aromas along with spice, mocha, and wood. Shows a lot of sweet components on the nose as well. Taste is straightforward and pleasant but gets a bit sharp in the middle. 14.2% alcohol.

Clubhouse Cellars Haystack Needle Syrah Columbia Valley NV
Rating: - (Flawed/Not Recommended) Volatile aromas, licorice, green notes, and lemon juice along with oak aromas on an off-putting nose. Taste is considerably better but lacks balance. Not flawed but far enough down the scale that I can’t list it higher. 13.9% alcohol.

Sean P. Sullivan


  1. But Sean!, how can you contradict what Esquin is promoting, using another's weak wine blog that gave it a glistening "92 Points" with "the finish timed a lazy 28 seconds"?
    So many readers expect you to "kiss up the rectum" of wineries that "pay to play" like what goes on with other old-boy wine writer.
    Was the coffee that bad? Took a bath in the Yakima River at Mabton? Still holding a grudge against Cayuse's release-date change?
    What gives? :P ~Wawineman

  2. Sean, I've tasted three of these and have a fourth on the way from Paul Z. I thought Olsen's Red Table Wine was a more than decent everyday drinker, maybe I drank it at a different temperature :). They recently were running a sale on cases for $90 (i think); if my cellar wasn't already out of control I would have bought a full case. As it was we tricked them into breaking a case and selling us just a few.

    BTW, when was the last time a wine was so bad you changed your rating scale to cover it?

  3. Chris, thanks for the comment. I enjoyed Olsen's Estate Red Wine for $10. I had it on a previous occasion when it show a bit less wood but overall a very solidly made, enjoyable value priced wine. I'd buy it again.

    Suffice to say I've used my rating scale for more than seven years without change.

  4. Hi Sean, I picked up the Haystack Needle Syrah from Esquin and found the wine flawed. Obvious VA aromas and undrinkable. I found your review afterward (rats!) and realized it was not just a bad bottle.

    I did mention it to Esquin and they indicated they saw your note, retasted and did not find any flaws.

    So anyway, there appears to be significant bottle variation here and your note was very helpful.


  5. Hi Tom, Indeed, it looks like there is some significant bottle variation afoot with this wine. I tried two separate bottles from different locations before posting my review. However, a number of people have had good things to say about this wine as well. Very strange. Thanks for the comment and glad to hear the review was helpful.

  6. Back for a revisit to one of my favorite reviews...
    On occasion, it is imperative that a wine blogger expose a gross underperformer as a public service to steer readers who are comfortable with the author's palate, AWAY FROM a questionable wine that he PAID FOR (twice!).
    Those of you who defend that syrah...your palate must suck.
    And btw, I don't see you closet-critics blogging regularly about Washington wines, probably cuz your palate really must suck.

  7. I drank the Haystack Needle and found it to smell of Turpentine and with off flavors ,,,I would say more than flawed...when trying it the next day it was even worse...

    BTW,,,did you know the Blog writer at the PI online that gave it the high rating...wait for involved with the wine making and is a partial owner....waht better way to make a profit but by lying about your wine!

  8. Anon 1/25/11, was very sad to learn that Olsen Estates was closing. Great people making great wines. I would definitely keep an eye out for the wines as they wind down as they are of very high quality.