Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Visiting Long Shadows Vintners in Walla Walla, Washington State - Where Armin Diel’s Poet’s Leap Riesling is Made, USA

Picture: Christian G.E.Schiller with Gilles Nicault at Long Shadows Vintners in Walla Walla.

Long Shadows in Walla Walla has become, in a short time, one of the premier wineries in Washington State. It is an unusual set up: Former Simson-Lane CEO Allen Shoup works with renowned winemakers from around the world for this venture. Each winemaker produces a single wine using Washington State fruit and resident winemaker Gilles Nicault assists them to shepherd all of the wines along at Long Shadows in Walla Walla.

I visited Long Shadows Vintners in June 2011 and focused with Gilles Nicault on Armin Diel’s Poet’s Leap Riesling, Armin Diel, from the Nahe region, is one of Germany’s most highly regarded Riesling producers. In a way, it is a German-American wine and I have written about Poet's Leap Riesling in my German-American wines series.

Following Long Shadows Vintners, I visited the J. Christopher Winery in Oregon, another German - American project - of Ernst Loosen and Jay Somers. See here.

The Wines of Washington State

About half a century ago, there was basically no wine industry in Washington State. And if wine was made, it was not with the noble European vinifera grapes. But the American wine boom that had its origin in California moved to the north, first to Oregon and then it also reached Washington State.

Picture: The Wine Regions of Washington State

In 1980, four years after Californian wines had out shined the French wines at the famous tasting in Paris, there were about 20 wineries in Washington State that were producing high-quality wines with European vinifera grapes. Today, there are more that 500 wineries.

In the beginning, white wines dominated. As recently as 10 years ago, 70 percent of the grapes planted were white grapes, with Chardonnay the No. 1 grape. But encouraged by the success of Oregon with its Pinot Noirs, the balance between white and red wine has shifted towards red; red wines now account for almost half of the wine production.

In general, if California’s wines are rich and powerful, Washington State’s wines are more crisp and delicate, reflecting its location much more up in the North. They remind me a lot of the wines I know from Germany.

Although a relatively young wine industry, Washington State is now the nation's second largest wine producer and is ranked among the world's top wine regions.

Long Shadows Vintners in Walla Walla

When Allen Shoup retired to create Long Shadows in Walla Walla after twenty years at the helm of the Stimson-Lane wine group (which owns Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Crest and other wineries), his goal was to bring the expertise of renowned winemakers from around the world to Washington State to create wines that would stand shoulder to shoulder with the World’s best. His vision is now unfolding. Long Shadows winemaker-partners are designing world-class wines comparable in stature to those they crafted in their native wine regions. One of them is German star winemaker Armin Diel’s Poets Leap.

Pictures: Long Shadows Vintners in Walla Walla with Annette Schiller and Gilles Nicault

Allan Shoup

Allan Shoup earned his undergraduate degree in business administration from the University of Michigan in 1965. While pursuing a graduate degree in psychology from Eastern Michigan University, he was drafted into the Army and sent to work at the Pentagon as a psychologist. He eventually crossed paths with Ernest Gallo, who gave him his first job in the wine industry. In 1979, he went to work for Chateau Ste. Michelle in Washington, eventually becoming CEO of the parent Stimson Lane Wine Group. It was here that he developed the professional and personal connections that led to the formation of Long Shadows.

Long Shadows Vintners

Tucked away in the rolling hills of Walla Walla in the south-west of Washington State, the Long Shadows winery is an imposing structure set in a stark landscape. Allan Shoup brought some of the world’s finest vintners to this place: Armin Diel of the Schlossgut Diel family, producers of top wines in the Nahe region of Germany; Randy Dunn, legendary winemaker of the eponymous winery on Napa’s Howell Mountain; John Duval, renowned for his 28 years of winemaking at Penfolds in Australia’s Barossa Valley; Ambrogio and Giovanni Folonari, the father-son team now crafting artisanal Chiantis in Italy; Agustin Huneeus Sr., founder of Napa’s Quintessa and Chile’s Veramonte; Philippe Melka, who began his career at such iconic places as Châteaux Haut-Brion and Pétrus and is now becoming increasingly celebrated for his accomplishments in Napa Valley; and globetrotting super-consultant Michel Rolland.

Picture: The Wines of Long Shadows Vintners

Shoup’s concept is that each brand under the Long Shadows umbrella is its own business. Having put up the initial investment, Long Shadows owns 75% of each company, and the winemaker who oversees the product owns 25%.

Armin Diel from Germany

Armin Diel is one of Germany’s most acclaimed Riesling producers. His family has owned the celebrated Estate of Schlossgut Diel in Burg Layen (a 12th century medieval castle) in the Nahe River Valley since 1802. Involved in the Estate from the early years of his childhood, Armin assumed management of the winery in 1987. Schlossgut Diel is internationally renowned for its white wines, predominately Rieslings, across a wide range of styles. Schlossgut Diel is also highly regarded for its rare sweet Eisweins and botrytized noble-sweet wines. The estate is a member of the VDP and Armin is president of the VDP-Nahe section.

Picture: Armin Diel with Hugh Johnson in Berlin in 2010

Armin Diel is also one of Germany’s leading wine writers. Until a few years ago, he was one of the two editors of Germany’s leading wine guide Gault Millau. Armin and his wife Monika live in Burg Layen. Their daughter Caroline just completed her studies in enology in Geisenheim, Germany’s UC Davis equivalent, and is now co-managing the winery.

Gilles Nicault

Resident winemaker Gilles Nicault, who showed me around, is the daily overseer of Long Shadows. After learning his craft in the Rhône Valley, Provence, and Champagne, he came to Washington State in 1994. He worked at Staton Hills Winery, Hogue Winery, and Woodward Canyon, where he was head of enology and production from 1999 to 2003, before being hired by Shoup at Long Shadows.

Pictures: Gilles Nicault and Christian G.E.Schiller in Walla Walla

Poet’s Leap Riesling

Armin Diel joined the Long Shadows project in 2003 with his Poet’s Leap Riesling. Poet's Leap is fermented off-dry, offering flavors of freshly peeled grapefruit, appealing minerality and hints of ripe pears. Bright acidity gives the wine its vibrance, and a clean underlying touch of sweetness contributes to its engaging finish.

Armin Diel selects his grapes from a dramatic block of German clones in The Benches. Armin also works with a 1972 planting of Dionysus and fruit from the Yakima valley.

To maximize the grapes’ freshness and lively acidity, Armin asks the vineyard team to maintain an extensive canopy during the growing season. The fruit is hand-picked and whole-cluster-pressed. It is then fermented at cool temperatures in stainless steel tanks to capture the grapes' bright fruit character before selecting the best lots for the final blend.

Earning high ratings starting with their first release, it did not come as a surprise that President Obama served a Poet’s Leap Riesling recently at the State Dinner for the Chinese President. I have written about this here. Armin makes about 3000 cases of Poet’s Leap Riesling each year.

The Benches

The Benches are located 20 minutes southeast of Pasco on the Washington side of the Columbia River. You can see a glimpse of The Benches when you drive from Walla Walla to Portland along the Columbia river. As the name implies, this vineyard has twenty-seven geologically formed benches created twenty-thousand years ago by the Great Missoula Floods (the greatest known documented natural catastrophe in world history). These benches start at an elevation of 1400 feet and step down 1000 feet to the shore of the Columbia River.

Picture: The Benches in Washington State (from the road to Portland, Oregon)

The many benches at different elevations provide for unique micro climates and allow Long Shadows to match the perfect grape variety to the perfect climate. The vineyard consists of 750 acres which are divided into more than 60 blocks producing 15 different grape varieties. At the top are the cooler white varieties like Riesling, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris. Midway are the warmer climate grapes like Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. At the lowest and hottest levels are Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Grenache and Malbec. Other more exotic varieties like Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Mourvedre, Dolcetto, Carignane, Barbera and Marsanne are planted in small quantities on various slopes of the vineyard.

The Wines Nicolas Poured

Pictures: The Poet's Leap Wines

2010 Poet’s Leap, Riesling, Columbia Valley

Nicolas explained that hand-sorted grapes were whole cluster pressed. With the skins kept separate to avoid any bitterness in the finished wine, juice was fermented at a cool 60 Fahrenheit in stainless steel tanks to preserve fresh fruit aromas and flavors. Armin came to Walla Walla in early 2011 to assemble the final blend.

Fresh and pure. With 13 grams RS per liter, this off-dry Riesling is loaded with expressive aromatics and flavors of ripe pear, white nectarine, apricot and wet stone minerality. A welcoming richness and vibrant mouth feel, led by the wine’s lemon-lime acidity, delivers a clean and lengthy finish.

2008 Poet’s Leap, Ice Wine, Columbia Valley

Was harvested at 54 Brix. Fermentation stopped at 33 Brix RS.

2009 Poet’s Leap, Ice Wine, Columbia Valley

Was harvested at 48 Brix. Fermentation stopped at 31.5 Brix RS.

2009 Poet’s Leap, Botrytis Riesling, Columbia Valley

Developing noble rot (botrytis) in Washington is not easy and Gilles Nicault and Armin Diel have only been able to make this wine in one previous vintage (2005). About 80% of the grapes were botrytized. It’s fermented with Sauternes yeasts, and the fermentation is long and cool to maintain freshness and vibrancy. It was harvested at 35 Brix. Fermentation stopped at 160 gram RS.

schiller-wine: Related Postings

A Riesling Guru and a Killer Guitarist cum Cult Winemaker: Ernst Loosen and Jay Somers and their J. Christopher Winery in Newberg, Oregon

President Obama Serves a “German” Riesling at State Dinner for Chinese President Hu Jintao

Wine ratings: Two American/German wines - Eroica and Poet's Leap - on Top 100 Wines from Washington State list for 2009

The Wines of Hightower Cellars in Washington State, US

The Wines of Abeja, Washington State

German American Wines: (1) NV Two Worlds Pinot Noir, (2) Poet's Leap Riesling and (3) Herrmann Wiemer's Finger Lakes Rieslings

The Excellent Wines of Ken Wright Cellars, Oregon

The Jay Somers Wines of Bill Holloran, Oregon

Meeting Joel Waite, Winemaker and Owner of CAVU Cellars in Walla Walla, Washington State


  1. Great blog! A wonderful wine selection and beautiful place!

  2. Dear Christian,

    This is fantastic, great article! Thank you for talking the time to come all the way to Washington State and visit us in Walla Walla. I look forward meeting with you again in the future.


  3. I really enjoy the Poet's Leap Riesling. I first tried it in Vancouver at a Long Shadow's portfolio tasting, then again at the Taste of Tulalip Celebration Dinner.