Restaurants Blending Their Own Wines

Seattle restaurants and Washington wineries join forces to create signature blends that shine.

At Seattle’s Canlis restaurant, great wine is as essential as great food. With 14 consecutive Grand Awards for its wine list from Wine Spectator, an 18,000-bottle cellar and 2,500 selections on its 100-page wine list, Canlis has a dedication to wine that reaches far beyond that of most fine dining restaurants.

But having the best wine cellar in town just made the passion for wine stronger for the Canlis crew. Third-generation co-owners, Brian and Mark Canlis wanted to have a hand in actually developing special wines that would be served in their world-class restaurant.

This past spring, Brian Canlis traveled with wine director Nelson Daquip and sommelier Kevin Weeks to Austria to meet with owners of another third-generation family business, the Kracher winery.

The three stayed at the winery for several days to do barrel tastings, choose wine from those barrels and create a blend that they thought Canlis guests would love. The resulting wine—a dessert wine called Christopher Alois—is 90 percent Welschriesling and 10 percent Scheurebe.

“It was a great opportunity to work with wines made from different grapes,” says Daquip.

The Austria trip wasn’t Canlis’ first collaboration. In 2005, Brian and Nelson also worked with Walla Walla’s Buty Winery winemaker Caleb Foster to choose the best fruit, make and barrel-age wine, and create a blend that became the 2006 Peter Canlis Syrah. They also have created partnerships with California winemakers Joe Davis of Arcadian Winery and David Hirsch of Hirsch Vineyards for a Canlis Chardonnay and Hirsch Vineyards LuLu Canlis Pinot Noir.

Canlis is riding the crest of a growing trend: More and more chefs are working with Washington wineries to create private-label wines. While many restaurants have long offered private-label wines in their restaurants, more are working with the winemakers to actually blend the wine.

Often the wines are non-vintage (meaning, blended from grapes of different years), so the blend can change from year to year without having to get new labels approved. These wines are a labor of love, custom-matched to a restaurant’s cuisine, and they can be more expensive than other wines.

Danielle Custer, director of Taste Restaurant at the Seattle Art Museum, has been collaborating with Don Townshend of Townshend Cellar in Colbert, Washington, for several years, visiting the winery a few times a year to taste barrel samples of Sangiovese, Sauvignon Blanc and other wines to create a special blend for Taste. She meticulously tastes and writes notes on each barrel sample, then suggests blends, and Townshend puts them together. The results, Masterpiece Red and Masterpiece White, are tasty, food-friendly wines that work with chef Craig Hetherington’s local, primarily organic menu. Each year’s blend is slightly different, featuring grapes from different vineyards. Taste offers these wines by the bottle and the glass, and they’re also available in retail outlets.

Seattle restaurant king Tom Douglas also is passionate about wine, and has worked with Kay Simon and Clay Mackey of Yakima Valley’s Chinook winery to develop wines that pair well with the spicy fare at his Greek-inspired restaurant, Lola.

This fall and winter, they are also releasing a new wine for the Palace Kitchen and Ballroom called Royal Red (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc) and Royal White (Semillon, Chardonnay and usually a bit of Riesling).

“We’ve been working with Tom and his crew to make the Lola Red, White and Rosé since Lola opened,” says Simon. “The process of working with the crew at Lola, and now at the Palace Kitchen—getting their input, tasting the wines together, is great. It makes us feel like a team.”


Shannon’s Picks

Except where noted, these wines are available only at the restaurants listed.

Peter Canlis Syrah

This 100 percent Syrah is made in an Old World style, meaning the fruit is picked at a lower sugar level, ensuring lower alcohol, but still with luscious black plum and dark cherry fruit, licorice, tobacco and smoked-meat aromas, minerality and bright acidity.

Christopher Alois Dessert Wine

This rich, luscious dessert wine is made from the uncommon Welschriesling and Scheurebe grapes, picked late to let the full sweetness of the sugars develop into flavors of orange marmalade, honey and white peach with a long, lush finish. Canlis, Daquip and the Kracher family blended this special wine to pair with cheeses and fruit desserts.

Masterpiece White

A blend of Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc and a bit of Riesling, this fresh and flavorful white has orange blossom, light grassiness and peach on the nose, with bright acidity, gooseberry and melon on the palate, and a bit of fresh coconut and tea on the finish. Available by the bottle or glass at Taste Restaurant, and also in retail outlets ($19).

Masterpiece Red

This blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet Franc has bright red fruit, with sour and ripe cherry aromas, spicy black pepper, coffee and an earthiness on the palate that adds depth. Custer and chef Craig Hetherington, along with winemaker Don Townshend, blend these wines to pair with a variety of foods, from their heirloom tomato salads to poultry and lamb. Available by the bottle, the glass and in retail outlets ($26).

Lola Red
($17/large carafe)

Tom Douglas and winemaker Kay Simon blend this wine each year with one goal in mind: to make a great, everyday food wine, combining Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon and a bit of Lemberger for its dark, soft fruit.

Lola White
($17/large carafe)

A soft, luscious white, this wine is a blend of Semillon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and sometimes Riesling. The white, as well as the red, are bottled in simple bottles for restaurant glass and carafe pours only.