Last fall, Tenor Wines, a new super-premium brand created by the winemaker for Woodinville’s Matthews Estate to focus on top-quality reds, set up quite a challenge. It put its very first releases—2007 Malbec, 2007 Merlot and 2007 1:1 (One of One) red blend—into a double-blind tasting against three world-class wines of similar styles. The small, in-house tasting—a winemaker dinner I attended that was open to the ultimate critics, everyday wine drinkers—was overseen by Matthews winemaker Aryn Morell. After working as a consultant in Napa for a company that helps wineries fix flaws in their wine, Morell returned to Washington in 2007 and became winemaker at Matthews. He felt the Washington fruit he was working with could stand in the same class as the best of the wines he was tasting in Napa. “I thought we should be willing to put our wines up against the best,” he says.
Morell created Tenor in the 2007 vintage, when Cliff Otis and Jim Rubstello took ownership of the winery from Matt Loso, who now makes wine for Walla Faces Winery. “Our goal for Tenor is to produce single-varietal wines of exceptional quality every year,” says Morell. “But if a vintage doesn’t produce the quality or style of wine we hope for, we won’t produce a wine that year. We want people to get a pure sense of a varietal. We want these wines to be absolutely complete in nose, texture and refinement of tannins, not just sheer power.”
Morell—now the winemaker for both Matthews and Tenor—believes great wines are made in the vineyard. While some winemakers leave the vineyard work to the vineyard manager, Morell visits the grapes about 30 times a year. “We control the pruning, crop load, watering, canopy and everything else…in order to start out with great fruit,” he says. “Then we try to stay out of the way in the winery, not over-extracting the fruit, but taking just as much color and flavor as you need to create a powerfully elegant wine.”
At the tasting last fall, each wine was served in blind flights of three (Malbecs, Merlots and red blends), and none of the 24 tasters—including Morell—knew which wine was which. At the end of each flight, the wines’ identities and prices were revealed. The Tenor Malbec was served alongside two Argentinian Malbecs, the 2007 Achaval Ferrer Cinca Altamira and the Viña Cobos Marchiori (both about $175 per bottle). The Merlot flight included the 2007 Tenor Merlot, 2007 Pride Merlot from Napa/Sonoma (about $60) and the 2007 Pahlmeyer Merlot from Napa (about $75). The final Tenor wine, the 1:1 red blend, stood next to a 2007 Peter Michael Les Pavots from Napa Valley and a 2007 Tenuta dell’Ornellaia, a “super Tuscan” from Italy (both about $175).
What ensued was a discussion among guests about aroma, taste, texture—and a vote. With the Malbecs and the red blends, each of the three guest tables had a different favorite. In the case of the Merlots, however, the favorite across the board was the Tenor from Washington, over the California heavy hitters. It was further evidence that what the world press is saying is true: Washington wineries provide an amazing showcase of what a Merlot can be.
If Tenor and other local winemakers continue to hold their product up to similar wines from around the globe, Washington truly has a place on the world stage—and in the world’s glass.