Flight of the ONYX at Terra Blanca

On our recent trip to the Yakima Valley, Gwynne and I decided to venture out to Red Mountain and the Terra Blanca facilities, which had come highly recommended. Josh emailed ahead and let owner and winemaker Keith Pilgrim know we were coming.

At Terra Blanca, we introduced ourselves and owner and winemaker Keith and marketing genius Heather gave us a rundown of the history of Terra Blanca and a sneak preview into some of their upcoming changes. They're good ones, for sure. We also met Casey the Weimaraner, Heather's arch nemesis at Terra Blanca.

Keith and Heather gave us a tour of the facility. It's magnificent - from caves (caves!) to enormous doors to beautiful views from the terrace. The caves are naturally climate controlled and are hidden behind some serious doors.

As we were wrapping up the tour and our visit, ReNae Pilgrim asked if had a schedule and if we were at all interested in sticking around. The staff was having a lunch meeting in preparation for the 2006 Onyx release that was coming up that weekend. Gwynne and I said that we'd be thrilled to be their guests. (We had no idea just how thrilled we'd be.)

We walked around the corner and before us sat two pizzas and the entire vertical flight of ONYX; nine years worth of their signature Bordeaux blend. Keith, who got his start as geologist, named this wine for the deep dark gem. The ONYX is built to last, and Heather cited a Wine Spectator article that recently named three or four places in the world that turned out wines that were grown for the long haul. Red Mountain Cabernet and Merlot were on that list.

Terra Blanca describes ONYX as a "family portrait" of the Terra Blanca vineyards, and that portrait includes Cabernet, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec. The blend varies from year to year because the fruit is different every year, and the variation allows the character of the vineyards for that year be expressed in the wine.

We started with the 1999, still a big bold wine. A wine that Keith described as "wearing boxing gloves." The grapes had a long hang time in 1999, with a very long growing season, making the vintage of the wine a unique one.

From there we moved to the 2000, which Keith feels is nearly at its peak. The 1998, which we drank immediately afterward, was the first wine to really come into it's own. Both wines are the product of hot seasons and are therefore maturing more quickly. The '98 blend saw 50% Merlot which resulted in soft tannins and a lot of chocolate.

We went next to 1997 which Keith thinks will peak in 8-10 years. It's 90% Cabernet, and is still bright. This was the first year of ONYX, with the estates planted in 1993. The vines were relatively young, in their fifth leaf, and Keith expects this wine will really come into it's own.

2001 was the next wine we tasted; it was very similar to the 97. The label looked like a Francis Bacon painting. This particular vintage used a higher percentage of new oak and the wine has a smoothness and elegance that stood out from its peers.

2002 was another warm growing season, similar to the '98 and 2000. It will likely mature faster than some of the older wines. Keith though prefers the more even temperature years. The fruit is more predictable and you have a good sense of what you can do with it. The 2003, which we tasted next, was likened to the 1997 wines because of the similar structure in the wines. This vintage, however, will take a few years to reveal itself. 2004 was a freeze year, and so only about one third of the crop was available.

The 2005 wine was my favorite, and brought out what is perhaps a first (in my hearing, at any rate): Heather called it crunked. Keith cited an change in oak that broadened the wine and gave it an elegance. The 2005 also introduced a new clone of Petit Verdot that fares a bit better in the Washington climate. He was pleased that I liked it the most as his goal was "to get better at what I'm doing."

The new release, the 2006 was also very good, and Keith turned up the Cab Franc and Petit Verdot ratios on this wine. His goal is to make a wine that's more approachable early. While ONYX is a reflection of the vintage, of that family portrait, it's also a reflection of Keith's maturation as a winemaker. He compared the wines to lego sets; the more sets you have, and the more experience, the more intricate things you can create. Keith talked about his process, of "thinking about this and trying to do something with a goal in mind. We're trying to get better with the choices we're making." When I asked Keith what he thought about the entire flight, and how they were maturing he revealed that he's so caught up in what he has going on in the current vintages that he doesn't give it so much thought.

My favorite thought Keith shared was "Wine is supposed to be fun. If you can figure out how to get the cork out of the bottle, you should be able to enjoy it." Well, we certainly had fun on this day. Being able to taste through the entire history of Terra Blanca, and spend some time with Keith, ReNae, Heather, and the staff was a fantastic experience and showed me a lot about how a wine and a winemaker can change and evolve. We certainly enjoyed it, and we'll be back to visit soon.