Culture / Foodie Events

Seattle’s Wine Guru Stands Up for Merlot, Gives His Emerald City Picks and Dishes on Drink Dates

BY // 11.24.15

I love to talk about wine with people who share my passion for it. We open bottles, and we trade stories about travel and winemakers and terroir and residual sugar, and we talk of taste and food pairings and cost. We recommend wines to one another, and we drink, and we learn a lot. In Wine Talk, I will introduce you to some of my friends and acquaintances — individuals who love wine as much as I do, who live to taste and learn about it. You’ll appreciate their insight, and I hope you’ll learn something from them as well. 

Chris Nishiwaki is a freelance writer with more than 20 years of experience in journalism. He started his career as the tennis beat writer for the Bellevue Journal American and has gone on to cover the food and wine industry, the Washington state legislature and professional and local sports for the Lewiston News Tribune in Idaho and The Kansas City Star.  His writing has also appeared in countless other publications. I was introduced to Chris when I was living in Dubai and planning a trip to Seattle and Portland, a sort of culinary pilgrimage and reunion with some friends.

A mutual friend made sure we got together, and the rest was history. We had dinner at Spinasse, drank some great bottles Chris had brought with him, and discussed the wine world. It was a fine meal, and the conversation was even better, because Chris is engaging and courteous, and we share many interests beyond food and wine, such as farming and politics. We’ve kept in touch since that dinner, and he’ll be one of the first people I’ll notify when I plan my next trip out that way.

I am excited to share his knowledge and opinions with you, because there’s a big world out there, and Chris offers some great dining and ranking suggestions for your next trip to Seattle (or New York or Hong Kong). In fact, I daresay that if you follow his wine and food recommendations for Seattle, you’ll have a grand time.

Tell us about three wines you think are drinking well at the moment. What makes them worthwhile? How about a food pairing for each? There are a few producers in Washington state making tiny amounts of high-quality Grüner Veltliner, including Jeff Lindsay-Thorsen, the winemaker at W.T. Vintners, who doubles as the wine director at Michael Mina’s RN74 in downtown Seattle (there’s also an RN74 in San Francisco, of course). Grüner Veltliner has a natural saline quality to it, and it pairs nicely with our local oysters like Hama Hama Blue Pools or Shigokus by Taylor Shellfish, available on the RN74 menu for $3 a pop. The current vintage of W.T. Vintners Grüner Veltliner, 2014, is available on the RN74 list for $42, directly from the winery for $20, or at McCarthy & Schiering, with locations in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood or the Ravenna location.


Boqueria in Soho (there are locations in Washington, D.C. and Hong Kong, too) has an expansive — but not expensive — wine list. The vast majority of their wines are under $100. Emilio Moro Tinto Fino, Ribera del Duero, sells for $65 at this tapas bar. The wine pairs seamlessly with their albondigas: lamb meatballs served with a tomato sauce and sheep’s milk cheese. It’s a classic pairing.

The Spanish Table, both the Seattle Pike Place Market location and the Berkeley, Calif., store, are reliable sources for anything Spanish. The Basque Market in downtown Boise, Idaho, is also a boutique store specializing in Spanish imports.

Nell’s Restaurant, on the shores of Seattle’s Greenlake, has one of the best Burgundy lists in Washington, second only to the world-famous Canlis wine list. Nell’s chef and owner, Philip Mihalski, a native New Yorker, peacefully perfects his crafts. He’s really involved in the wine program, too, along with GM Shayla Miles.

That level of investment in the wine program from a chef translates to natural pairings between the food and wine programs. The 2010 Domaine François Raveneau Valmur Grand Cru ($375 on the Nell’s list) pairs nicely with chanterelle mushroom risotto. Chanterelles are available during the summer and fall. Alternately, order the tasting menu, which consists of five courses made with what’s in season. It’s only $48 per person, so you can splurge on wine.

A couple of New York retailers, Sokolin on Long Island, and Morrell & Company, are my go-to places for allocated wines. If a wine exists, they will sell it to you.

If cost was no consideration, tell us the one bottle you would add to your personal collection. A 1985 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti La Tâche. The first time I had it, it changed my appreciation of wine. It crystallized for me how location and growing conditions create unique wines. Only Domaine de la Romanée-Conti can make that wine. There are qualities that cannot be reproduced. It’s a masterpiece. It is also magical how the wine evolves over decades.

What is your favorite grape, and why?
I love Merlot. I have to admit that I also like to pull for the underdog. The movie Sideways beating up on Merlot made me more enthusiastic about Merlot. Coincidentally, it’s abundant in Washington. Long Shadows Pedestal, Pepper Bridge, Cadence, Woodward Canyon, Abeja and Walla Walla Vintners are some of my favorite Washington Merlot producers. The range in styles, the pliability of the varietal, the difference in expressions by winemakers is fascinating. It’s a versatile varietal. It can be soft and feminine, or firm, tannic and masculine. I love the plush, silky texture of quality Merlot.

As much as I enjoy Washington Merlot, however, my favorite expressions of Merlot are imports from the Old World: Petrus from the Pomerol appellation in the Bordeaux region and Masseto from the Bolgheri region in Tuscany.

How about a bottle one should buy now to cellar for 10 years to celebrate a birth, anniversary or other red-letter day?
Generally, quality and ageable wines are aged before release. So currently (2015), realistically, you are looking at wines from the 2012 or 2013 vintage at the earliest. Quilceda Creek crafts some of the most ageable wines in Washington. Their 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon is spectacular. The fruit comes from some of the best Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards in the state: Champoux, Wallula, Klipsun, and their estate vineyard on Red Mountain.

What is your go-to place when you want to have a glass or bottle?
Le Caviste, a French-style wine bar at the north edge of downtown Seattle, is the ideal wine bar. Their chalkboard wine list is dotted by about a dozen white wines, a dozen red wines and a few rosés and sparkling wines to boot, all by the glass. It’s a carefully curated selection of small French producers not readily available. Primarily food-friendly wines. Their food is a wide range of cheeses and cold cuts. They also have a daily fish en papillote (cooked with vegetables and herbs in parchment paper). If you want to splurge, all the wines by the glass, plus some from more traditional producers, are available by the bottle for dining in or retail to take home.

What’s the one thing you wish everyone would keep in mind when buying and drinking wine?
Trust your local specialty retailer. Tell them your budget. They won’t judge about how little or how much you spend. All of the speciality retailers I’ve met take a lot of pride in finding that bottle of wine that a customer will love. They are not interested in gouging you. Once you build a relationship with your retailer, they will get to know your tastes, and they will set aside wines for you that they think you will enjoy.


What is your “wine eureka moment” — the incident/taste/encounter that put you and wine on an intimate plane forever?
I was on a first date over brunch at Sazerac at the Hotel Monaco in downtown Seattle, before heading to the Seattle Art Museum. I recall Kevin Davis was the head chef at the time. I paired brunch — rotisserie chicken chilaquiles — with a bottle of 1997 Ken Wright Pinot Noir Guadalupe Vineyard. It had that pleasant earthiness and rose petal aromas, reminding me of my mom’s rose garden. Then I took the first sip, and tasting the layers of fruit (Rainier cherries, black cherries, raspberries), one after the other dovetailing, lifted me off my seat.

The bright acidity extended to the flavors on the finish and rounded out the wine nicely, made it so food-friendly. I knew at that time that it was over, that I was cast under the spell of wine. About my date, the relationship with her didn’t last very long, but my affair with wine has only grown stronger.

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