Three Noble Reds, One Outstanding Blend: Skagit Crest Railroad Red

Railroad Red Marries Three Noble Reds Together in One Outstanding Blend

March is Washington Wine Month, a month celebrating the state’s abundant delicious wine and a not so subtle way of trying to get you the consumer to buy more coveted grape juice. 😉

As I sit here reflecting on what I love most about Washington wine, two things come to mind: outstanding quality for the value and uniqueness of place. For Washington Wine Month, although I have plenty of great recommendations to share, I want to introduce you to a unique, truly outstanding Washington wine that encapsulates these values.

Like many people, I enjoy certain value wines at the grocery store (there is a time and a place for everything), but there is not always a distinct sense of place in some of those wines, as many are blended from where ever the winemaker could get decent grapes, and many times they are highly modified and manipulated to cover up poor quality grapes or simply to keep a consistent product.

Every once in a while, it’s good to get up and challenge our palates with something on a different level – to go digging for some true Washington treasure.

Ready for something fun? Here you go!

Skagit Crest Vineyard and Winery is one of my all-time favorite Washington wineries, owned and run by Chuck and Donna Jackson in the Puget Sound AVA. They grow and vint Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, and a Rosé of Pinot Noir, on their estate in Sedro Woolley, Washington. They also have a tasting room in La Conner, about a half an hour or so away. I have thoroughly enjoyed all of their wines, and I will definitely be posting on more in the future.

They have a red blend consisting of a rather unusual cast of characters that are not typically cast all together: Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Pinot Noir. These are noble grape varieties, meaning they are among the most popular and widely planted grapes around the world and still largely retain their character even in different growing regions and treatment by winemakers. That’s why a Cabernet Sauvignon from France and a Cabernet Sauvignon from Washington will still both share a lot in common, even though there are various differences in the final product.

If you’re an oenophile (lover of wine) or a Francophile (lover of France) or both (Francoenophile? Ah, how about vin-ophile?), you have probably heard of these famous places. These are three of France’s top winegrowing regions:

  • Bordeaux (famed for blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, etc.)
  • Rhone (famed for blends of Syrah, Grenache, Mourvédre, etc.)
  • Burgundy (famed for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, etc.)

These regions have been growing these particular grapes for centuries, and each region is known for being the absolute best place to grow certain specific varieties. Basically, winemakers from these regions are allowed to make wine only from approved grapes grown in that place and never blend from other regions. French wine laws tend to be very strict in that regard, in order to protect the reputation of their unique wines.

But that’s France, this is America. We go about our winemaking in ways similar and vastly different from France, in part because we are not bound by as many rules and regulations.

Leave it to winemaker Chuck Jackson to shrug at the traditional rulebook on red blends and throw three wonderful reds together in his signature Railroad Red Blend.

I asked Chuck what originally inspired him to create this blend, and this was what he told me:

“In the early planning days of the winery I wanted to offer a Bordeaux blend (likely Cab, Merlot and Cab Franc) and/or a Rhone style blend (likely Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre) to our eventual line up of wines both of which I really love. After our first harvest from our vineyard it quickly became apparent that was a bit of a pipe dream. Making our own wines and adding Cabernet and Syrah from Eastern Washington was logistically a challenge enough. Adding the other varietals would have meant up to 4 more trips over the hill for grapes and stress our winery for space to make and store the wines for aging. So that dream died.

There was still a desire to have a red blend and I puzzled over just how to do that without stretching us too thin. It finally dawned on me that a potential blend was right in front of us. With three red wines in hand, why not try it. Thus with the 2017 reds we put together our “red blend”, one barrel worth. It was delicious and Railroad Red was born.

The name was Donna’s inspiration given we have a Burlington Northern railroad line running by the west side of our property and vineyard going north to Sumas at the Canadian border. I was subsequently tempted to rename it Trifecta being a blend of Burgundy,  Bordeaux and the Rhone wines. Donna was stuck on Railroad Red so it stands.”

Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah both require a different growing climate (lots of warmth and sunshine), so the Syrah is sourced from the Yakima Valley AVA (specifically Crawford Vineyard near Prosser) and the Cabernet Sauvignon is sourced from the Horse Heaven Hills AVA (specifically Martinez Vineyard right across the street from the famed Champoux Vineyards). The Pinot Noir is from their own estate grapes (the Puget Sound AVA). Those of you in the know are aware that Pinot Noir is challenging to grow and make into wine (I call it the “picky princess of the grape family”) and the fact that Chuck can create superb Pinot Noir in Western Washington is a testament to his high knowledge and skill.

Skagit Crest Vineyard & Winery Railroad Red

Railroad Red: a genius blend of Washington reds.

So let’s take a closer look at the  Skagit Crest Vineyard & Winery 2019 Railroad Red. Three distinctly delicious Washington wines from three different locales, happily carousing in one blend:

  • $30/bottle
  • 13.5% ABV
  • 2019 Blend is 50% Pinot Noir/30% Syrah/20% Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Deep ruby color, full body, dry
  • Well-integrated gripping tannins
  • High, mouth-watering acidity
  • Aromas/flavors: cherry, strawberry, dusty plum, red flower (hibiscus or geranium?), vanilla, touch of chocolate, baking spice, earth (clay or rocks)
  • Finish/length: bright finish, but long, warm, complex, unfolding, lovely

The wine description reads, “Bright berry and cherry aromas with light hints of oak. Cherry and plum on the front to mid-palate. Peppery tones with gravelly earthy flavors in the back palate, lingering bright finish.”

The photo above is of the 2018 label. I love the 2018 blend and also enjoyed the 2019 blend, although they are very different. The 2018 was very round and plush and juicy, but still with that great structure and overall balance I love. That year’s blend consisted of 50% Pinot Noir, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 25% Syrah.

The 2019 blend is wonderful. Because of the high acidity, the 2019 could age a few more years and become really interesting and “gentler” but it’s great to drink now, too. Give your bottle a day or so after opening and that will soften the acid a bit and open up more flavors.

I cannot recommend this blend enough. Make haste and visit their tasting room in La Conner or arrange for a private tasting and tour at their Sedro Woolley Vineyard and Winery (available by appointment only). I’ve done both and suggest you do the same!

Hint hint! April is the month of the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival – so make your plans now to see the gorgeous tulips and sip the gorgeous Skagit Crest wines.

Cheers! 🙂

Skagit Valley Tulip Festival bloom

You have to see it to believe it. A bloom I snapped at the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival in 2022.

A special thank you to Chuck and Donna Jackson for answering my questions. 🙂 

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How to Survive (and Thrive!) at a Wine Festival

I love wine festivals. I love the excitement of a gigantic room filled with a dazzling array of wines waiting to be tasted and interesting and fun people to talk to about wine. I love strolling around, perusing the tables with their bottles all lined up, many flanked with medals for various wine awards, being loaded up with pours, swirling my glass, downing divine liquids. Heaven!

But I don’t love the toll the higher than normal amount of alcohol takes on my body. Personally, two big glasses of wine (no, not this kind), spread out over the course of an evening, is my limit. And I have zero desire to try and break personal records here.

So how do you enjoy a wine festival without going overboard and waking up the next day with a raging headache, empty wallet, or other ill fates? In short, regret?

McMinnville Wine + Food Classic March 2019

McMinnville Wine + Food Classic, taken March 2019 at the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon. No, they didn’t let us climb in the planes.

Fear not, it’s not impossible; you can have your wine and drink it, too! Remember you are not here to compete; you are here to do as many tastings as your body will allow you to do comfortably. A wine festival is kind of a weird amalgam of speed dating and a trade show. But done with balance and moderation in mind, it’s great fun. 

I lay before you my wine festival wisdom! In no particular order…

1. Have a designated driver. Non-negotiable, and probably the most important consideration. Even if you don’t “plan on drinking that much” – it’s just best practice to have someone assume this responsibility.

2. Go with friends. Obviously if you have a DD the assumption is that you are going with friends. It’s hard to see people in person these days (life, busy), so it’s almost a superhuman feat when we do get ourselves together. Make this experience worthwhile and enjoy this time with your friends.

3. Make friends. Get chatty (that won’t be hard after a few sips). 😛 Don’t be obnoxious, but you’re in a room with a bunch of fellow wine lovers – swap stories. Make more friends!

4. Hydrate. Alcohol dehydrates you. The rule is at least one glass of water for each 5 oz. glass of wine. Take it seriously. Bring that water bottle and use it. Keep refilling it.

5. Take away the pain. Bring an OTC pain reliever in case wine headache sets it.

6. Take notes! Since I’m on my phone enough already I prefer to take wine tasting notes with a pen and basic cheap spiral notebook. That works for me. Do what works for you. Snap photos with your camera, use your favorite app, etc. 

7. Set a budget and stick with it. Also take into account your wine storage situation at home. You might not have room right now for a whole extra case of wine.

8. Mind your blood sugar. Go with a fairly full stomach, but not so full you don’t have room for wine. Bring bland crackers like water crackers to clear your palate and some salted nuts & dried fruit to elevate your blood sugar should the need arise (and it will!). Bring funds for meals and snacks, depending how long you are there.

9. Pace yourself. This is not a race! Relax. Easy does it, tiger.

10. Don’t just swallow your wine. Those of you wine tasting pros, keep reading. Those of you less familiar with proper wine tasting form, a quick lesson:

Take a sip, keep it in your mouth while you swish it and swirl it around, letting all the details of the wine register on your tongue and through your retronasal olfaction (your sense of smell that comes up to your nose from your mouth). Trill the wine, sucking some air into your mouth while you have wine in your mouth to aerate the wine. The air will actually help encourage the release of more of the wine’s aroma molecules. Then swallow. Exhale through your nose with your mouth closed for even more aromas.

For Olympian-level trilling action (and also plenty of talking), check out WineLibrary TV for endless examples of trilling and expectorating. 🙂

11. Don’t be afraid to spit out your wine (“expectorate”). Ask your wine server for a dump bucket. You can try a lot more wines without getting buzzed if you do this. It lets you get 90% of the picture of a wine, although you do miss out on the finish a little, since you are not swallowing in this instance (“finish” is how a wine concludes after swallowing, or the end experience of a sip of wine). BUT you still get all the information you need about the wine’s body, structure, and flavors. So it’s a win-win (wine-win?).

If you are really digging the wine you’re tasting, swallow; if not, spit.

You can also just take a small sip, savor, and swallow your wine, then dump the rest of your pour into the bucket to save your alcohol bandwidth for other wines.

12. Know and own your personal limit and practice acceptance. Remember, you absolutely cannot sample every single wine from every last winery here, and you won’t. Enjoy the ones you pick and remember that just leaves more for another time. Don’t be afraid to throw in the towel when you are truly done tasting for the day. Stop before your body starts complaining loudly!

And remember, palate fatigue is real. Our palates start to tire after tasting a high number of wines. This is when everything starts to taste AMAZING and when you frequently decide to purchase wine (naturally!), so just remember that when you bring home that bottle and it doesn’t taste quite as AMAZING as you remember it tasting at your beloved wine festival. This is why it really is better to only do so many tastes at one time, because you truly can’t enjoy the wines to their fullest with a muddled palate.

How about you? Have you been to any wine festivals? Love ’em? Hate ’em? Fun stories to share? Comment!