Ask the Winemaker - What are you looking for when you taste wine?

I recently started something at the winery that I call "Wine School." It's basically a monthly tasting class for our customers that's designed to be an educational exploration of wines. The first class, titled "How to drink like a winemaker" hoped to answer a question I get a lot in the tasting room...

What are you looking for when you taste wine?

In my view, as a winemaker, it's my job to make the best possible wine from any given fruit. And there are so many variables, that I don't think I could go through them in a class setting, or a blog for that matter. But this is what I told the class.

Primarily, I'm looking to avoid problems/faults. I think/worry a lot about things like volatile acidity (a precursor of spoilage), S02 levels (not too high, not too low)  Brettanomyces in the winery and TCA - the compound that can cause "corked" wine.

All of these problems can be mitigated with proper cleaning and attention, so developing a protocol that works is important.

After that, I'm focusing on this term called "balance." There are many components, but the big five to me are Acidity, Alcohol, Sugar, Tannin, and something I call a wine's "Timeline."

The first four of these components can be controlled for in the cellar or selected for in the vineyard. Acidity and Alcohol levels are best "picked" in the timing of harvest, but can also be nudged if necessary during fermentation. Sugar content is determined by fermentation success. Tannin stems mostly from things like skin contact time, maceration techniques, barrel selection, aging and varietal differences. The idea here is that wines are best when nothing is standing out more than another. This idea of balance is also highly subjective. Some like acidity and tannin more than others, some certainly like higher alcohol wines more than others.

Which leaves us with a wine's "Timeline". A good definition would be: The experience of drinking a wine over time. It can be broken down into Nose, Attack, Mid Palette and Finish. Nose is how fragrant, interesting a wine smells. Attack is the initial flavors that hit your mouth on that first sip. Mid Palette, to me, is the feeling and taste of a wine as it's swirled around in your mouth. Finish is the quality and length of the flavors after spit or swallow.

Some wines have all of these components in spades, some lack one or two. In our class we tasted two young Malbecs out of the barrel from two different vineyards. One was very strong, except it sort of dipped during the Mid Palette. The other wasn't as dynamic, but was more consistent throughout the experience, only to drop off a little at the end. 

This is where blending comes in. We blended the two together and I watched as lightbulbs started going off around the table. Sometimes with wine, I explained, 1+1 can equal 3. Sometimes 1+1= -2. In this case, it was additive. The end result, which I told them will be pretty close to what the final product is like when I blend it this summer, has all the components you want in a wine. And one taster said it was like he was drinking two wines at the same time. 

My hope, of course, is that these flavors mesh into a more consistent final product. And I imagine they will with time. If it does, it'll certainly be what I'm looking for.

Ask the Winemaker - What's new at the winery? White wines and black puppy edition.


It's been a busy few weeks around the winery as we put together and bottled the 2016 white wines and rose' with some help from our A TEAM crew. (Thanks!) We bottled about 80 cases of Semillon and 120 cases of Carte Blanche - this year it's a blend of Rousanne and Marsanne that I think we'll all enjoy. We also bottled about 35 cases of rose' - It's a light, dry rose' made from Mourvedre and Grenache. These wines will be released during the Spring Allocation, coming up in May.

We also have hired a new lab assistant at the winery this year.  He's pretty young,  13 weeks in fact and goes by the name  "Otto."  Not sure how well he can drive a forklift yet, but he looks trainable. 

Ask the Winemaker - Was 2016 a good year for wine?

We just had our 6th anniversary party and a lot of folks wanted to know how crush went. Was 2016 a good year for wine?In a word, YES!

Harvest for Burnt Bridge Cellars began on August 30 (Merlot) and our last pick was October 13 (Cabernet) - so it lasted nearly two-and-a-half months. We made about 15 trips and crushed nearly 35 tons - up a little bit over 2015. We brought in some new fruit too (Malbec, Syrah, Cab) that we haven't had before, so it'll be fun watching these lots evolve over the next two years.

I'm really happy with when we picked the fruit this year too. It's always a challenge to plan picks from a couple hundred miles away from the vineyard. But the team here and our awesome vineyard managers made 2016 as smooth as possible. When you get great fruit, and don't have to meddle with it much in the cellar, you have the recipe for great wine.

Ask the Winemaker - How's harvest this year?

Semillon at Les Collines Vineyard in Walla Walla.

Semillon at Les Collines Vineyard in Walla Walla.

Getting ready to drop the first bins of the season at Seven Hills Vineyard.

Getting ready to drop the first bins of the season at Seven Hills Vineyard.

Harvest is going great this year so far. We've picked our Merlot from Seven Hills and Les Collines as well as some Syrah from Coyote Canyon and a couple of the whites. We'll likely pick another white, some Syrah and maybe some Tempranillo this week. Here are a few pictures I've taken so far this season. The grapes are in great shape! More to come

Punching down some Merlot at Burnt Bridge Cellars.

Punching down some Merlot at Burnt Bridge Cellars.

Merlot from Les Collines first thing in the morning.

Merlot from Les Collines first thing in the morning.

Ask the Winemaker - Why do you top up the wine barrels?

Q: Why do you top up the wine barrels?

A: If you ever find me climbing around the barrel racks in the cellar with a pitcher of wine in hand, you're probably catching me topping up the wine barrels. It's a pretty simple procedure. You basically fill each barrel to the top with wine. We do this to eliminate headspace in the barrels, which limits oxygen contact to the wine, which keeps the wine in the barrels nice and tasty through the aging process and inhibits any microbial growth that need oxygen to multiply.

The goal is always to keep the barrels full. But as the wine ages, the volume of wine decreases for a couple of reasons. First, the wine thief, (a.k.a. me!) I taste the wine monthly to follow the aging process. And while I am only taking small samples, (i.e. 50 ml or so) it adds up. The second, and bigger contributor to wine losses, is evaporation. Wine loses up to 10% of its volume over the aging process through evaporation, depending on humidity factors and temperature. That's one of the reasons we keep the barrel room cool and have a fog machine to keep the humidity stable - to keep evaporation at a minimum. 

So every month or two, we go through the barrels and add a little bit to top them up. We typically use the same wine in the barrel to top up the barrel. Every time we rack the wine, we tend to have a little left over that we put into a keg and cover with inert gas. We then use the wine in these barrels to top up the wine. 

Have questions about Burnt Bridge Cellars or our winemaking process? Send them to

Ask the Winemaker - What are "Wine Diamonds?"

Q: What are these crystals in the bottom of my glass?

A: Here is a question we get from time-to-time in the tasting room by fans of our white wines at Burnt Bridge Cellars. They'll notice a few crystals in the glass or in the bottom of the bottle and wonder what they are?

The answer is tartrates, also known as "wine diamonds," also known as potassium bitartrate, also known as cream of tartar. They are formed naturally as potassium and tartaric acid in wine bond to form a crystal. And they are completely harmless. They form in both white and red wines, although they are more noticeable in whites because white wines typically contain more acid than reds, are clearer, and are cooled when served, which helps these crystals form. 

At Burnt Bridge Cellars, we see them most often in our Semillon, which typically comes in with higher acid than our Viognier or Marsanne. This year's Carte Blanche, for instance, is a blend of all three, and the crystals are evident at the bottom of most bottles. They don't affect the taste of the wine at all and are safe to consume. 

At larger, mass production wineries, winemakers are trying to make the most uniform product from year to year. When wine is made in large tank farms that are the size of football stadiums, consistency is the key to profits. At some point customers bought this wine, noticed some tartrate crystals in the bottle and thought they were glass shards or a flaw in the wine and complained. So, instead of educating their customers, these large companies decided to get rid of these natural forming and safe little crystals by a process called cold stabilization.

Basically, they take the wine, rack it to a big tank, and chill it down to 30 degrees or so for a couple weeks using a glycol chiller. The tartrates form in this cold environment, fall to the bottom of the tank and the wine is then transferred off of the tartrates. This is a fairly expensive and energy intensive process and doesn't improve the taste or quality of the wine. In fact some believe that stripping these tartrates out negatively affects the wine's flavor and mouthfeel. 

We don't have a glycol chiller at Burnt Bridge Cellars, and don't have plans on getting one anytime soon. If you need your wine to be uniform and crystal free, there are thousands of examples available at most convenient stores. We like our wines as they are, however, wine diamonds and all. And we hope you do too.


Ask the Winemaker - What is a "Family" winery?

Q: What is a "Family" winery

A: You see this term "family" winery or "family-owned" winery a lot in the industry, and, technically, it doesn't mean much with regard to size or quality. Some of the largest wineries in the world are "family-owned" wineries. And they make some good and bad wine. Some of the smallest wineries are mom-and-pop shops that make good and bad wine. And some "family" wineries are actually owned by large holding companies or massive corporations. 

To me, a family winery has more to do with an attitude that is part of the culture of the winery. Do the owners and employees treat each other like family, regardless of relation? Is family life important, culturally, to the winery?

We don't call ourselves a "family" winery at Burnt Bridge Cellars. But, we are. And I think this video, taken by my 9-year-old son, Hudson, during spring break might shed a little light on what family means to us.

Ask the Winemaker - Wine Growlers?

Q: What's the deal with Wine Growlers?

A: They are awesome! 

If you've been to the tasting room this month, you've probably seen our newest addition at Burnt Bridge Cellars. They are these cute mini growlers that we are going to start filling with tasty Burnt Bridge wine in just a couple of weeks.


We've had quite a few questions and a lot of interest about these little guys, so I thought I'd answer the FAQ here.

Q: How much wine fits in there? 

A: 32 oz or 946 ml. -Basically a bottle of wine, plus a healthy glass pour.

Q: Will it taste good?

A: After many, many days of rigorous field testing, I can say, without a doubt, YES! 

Q: How long will the wine last?

A: Several days, but probably less than a week. Very similar to a beer growler in that respect. Although we've put them through the ringer during testing and were surprised with how long the wine still tasted fresh. The picture above in Seaside, so they travel well.

Q: What about bottle shock and oxygen?

A: The bottling process can be rough on wine, which is why we let bottles rest for months before release. The wine for these growlers, however were gently gravity fed directly into kegs and then covered in a layer of inert gas to keep them fresh. We fill the growlers directly from kegs and then seal them with an oxygen absorbing cap. By the time you open the growler, it'll be like pouring a nicely decanted wine into your glass.

Q: Why Wine Growlers?

A: As your local urban winery, we want to become your go-to spot for local wine. In many countries, locals come down to the local winery and fill up jugs of wine for the week. It's a beautiful part of their culture that we'd like to share with you. Plus, statistically, about 95% of all wine is consumed within a week of purchase. Filling up growlers instead of bottling the wine cuts down on waste too, and is less expensive for us to produce (no labels, no corks, no bottles, etc.) which means we can sell it cheaper to you! Plus they look cool at parties and will impress your friends. 

Q: How much?

A: Cheaper than a bottle of the same wine. So you get more wine, for less money and we save money and time on bottling. Win, Win!

Q: How do I clean them?

A: The most important thing to do is rinse them with hot water soon after they are empty. Problems occur when small amounts of wine sits exposed to oxygen for long periods of time. Other than that, wash them like you would your wine glasses, and they should be fine. When you bring them back for refills, we will check to see if they are clean. We're not going to pour good wine into a dirty growler.

Q: When can I get my hands on one?

A: Wednesday, May 4! Just two weeks away now. We will be open on Wednesdays from 4-7ish to buy and fill growlers. We also plan on having a secret midweek special on a bottle of our choice.

Q: What wines will be available?

A: We are starting with the 2013 Merlot and the 2015 Carte Blanche white blend (both will get released in bottle form on May 13). We only have 70 or so growlers, so get them before they are gone!

Q: I can't make it Wednesday. Can I fill them up at other times?

A: Yes! I'm happy to fill your growler anytime I'm around the shop during the week, which is most of the time. Just come down to the tasting room, ask for my card, and text the number on it and we'll try and coordinate. 

Ask the Winemaker - What is "Racking?"

By Ben Stuart, Winemaker, Burnt Bridge Cellars

Q: What is "Racking?"

A: The most simplistic definition of "racking" is the transfer of wine from one vessel to another. Or, as in our case at our small winery, moving wine from barrel to barrel. This week, we are racking all of the 2015 vintage wines. The process is fairly simple. We use something called a "bulldog" that pumps inert gas into the barrel to push the clear wine out and into a tank. We then drain all of the lees out of the barrel, clean the barrel with water, and gravity feed the wine back into the barrel. This is just about as gentle a way to rack as you can get.

Lees are all of the dead yeast cells and solids that settle out of the wine during the aging process. Sometimes, these solids can cause cloudiness and off flavors if the wine is aged on them for long periods of time. Sometimes, these solids can add beneficial flavor components to the finished wine. And this is why you see many different racking techniques at different wineries. Some places rack the wine up to five times during the aging process, and some don't rack at all.

I like to rack once, about 8 months after harvest, and then taste every barrel every month to keep tabs on the aging process over the next 14 months before bottling. At our size, at roughly 50 barrels of red wine per year, this is a good way to keep tabs on the wine. And I think it gives us the flexibility to make the best wine possible.

if you have a question you’d like answered on this blog, send me an email at If we use your question, you might even win a prize!

Ask the Winemaker - What is an "Urban" Winery?

By Ben Stuart, Winemaker, Burnt Bridge Cellars

Q: What is an "Urban" Winery?

We are located in Downtown Vancouver Washington on the corner of 15th and Broadway.

We are located in Downtown Vancouver Washington on the corner of 15th and Broadway.

A: The short answer is that an "Urban" winery is a wine producer located in an urban setting. But there is sometimes some confusion about the concept. Typically, an urban winery like Burnt Bridge Cellars (and most others) sources grapes from multiple vineyards, and ferments, bottles and sells the wine at their facility located in a more densely populated area. It's becoming more and more popular these days, and while we are the only urban winery in Vancouver, Washington, there are several in towns like Portland, Seattle, San Diego and Vancouver, BC. 

When a lot of people think about wineries, they imagine large buildings and verandas overlooking acres of vines. It's what the old French and Italian wineries look like. These types of wineries are called Estate wineries, and, as you can imagine, require a significant investment to get up and running. In Washington State, these types of wineries are actually becoming the minority. 

According to, there are more than 890 wineries in the state and 350 growers. So the total number of wineries would be much smaller if they were all tied physically to a specific vineyard. In fact, even in wine country hot spots such as Walla Walla, the majority of wineries are not Estate wineries. They do what we do, source grapes from vineyards all over the state. The only difference is that we make the wine in Vancouver, while they make the wine out there in a more rural setting. 

There are many advantages to sourcing grapes like we do an producing the wine where we do. First and foremost is diversity of wines. We can find which vineyards grow the best of a certain varietal and then produce a wide array of top quality wines that you couldn't make if you were sourcing just one vineyard. And, because of the weather and geology of our state, we couldn't grow the grapes for the wines we like to make here in Clark County. Second, we make the wine where the majority of our customers are located. In wine country, the customers go to the winery. We bring the winery to our customers. In that respect, the concept of Urban Wineries is not that much different than just about every brewery in the country. The wheat, barley and hops that they use to make their beer is grown primarily in rural areas. And the beer is produced in the city.  The third advantage is that we get to live in a place we consider home. I like our rural communities out east, but as someone who grew up on the west side of the Cascades, I feel at home here and I think you will too. 

Are there drawbacks? Sure. We drive our truck and trailer back and forth to vineyards a lot during harvest season. In 2015, in fact, we drove the equivalent miles of a trip from Vancouver, Washington to New York city and back. But we think it's worth it, and hope you do to.

So if you haven't experienced what an Urban Winery has to offer, come check us out. We have new art in the tasting room and will have food and music playing for First Friday beginning at 4 p.m.

And if you have a question you’d like answered on this blog, send me an email at If we use your question, you might even win a prize!

Ask the Winemaker - Bordeaux vs. Rhone Blends?

By Ben Stuart, Winemaker, Burnt Bridge Cellars

Q: What’s the difference between Bordeaux and Rhone style blends?

A: We get this question a lot at Burnt Bridge Cellars because we make (and love!) both. And our blends tend to be some of our most popular wines. At Burnt Bridge, Pont Brûlé is our Rhone style blend and Blend X is our Bordeaux style. I like to say “style” because the only way to make a “true” Bordeaux or Rhone blend is to get the grapes from France and make it in France. And while we like those wines, we are happy to be making wine right here in Washington state. To me,  the cool thing is that we can make some pretty amazing wines with local grapes that rival those in France. Plus, we’re not constrained by a lot of archaic French restrictions on what can be planted where, and what can be blended with what. We are free, as American winemakers, to explore different combinations of grapes in our wines, from vineyards in different parts of the state. In France, this sort of experimentation is prohibited. (This may be a topic for another blog post…)

Anyway, back to the differences. As you can imagine these two styles blends were developed in two separate wine-growing regions in France, The Bordeaux and Rhone Valley.

Bordeaux is located in Western France while the Rhone Valley is located in the Southeast. Check out for this map and a bunch of other great information. 

Bordeaux is located in Western France while the Rhone Valley is located in the Southeast. Check out for this map and a bunch of other great information. 

Bordeaux wines are dominated by grape varietals such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec and a few white varietals such as Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc.

Red Rhone wines typically consist of Grenache, Mourvedre and Syrah while white Rhones contain Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne and others.

Bordeaux style bottle

Bordeaux style bottle

In France, you pretty much have to plant Bordeaux grapes in Bordeaux and Rhone grapes in the Rhone. And you can’t mix the two and call your wine a Bordeaux or Rhone blend. They even use different shaped bottles to signify where the wine comes from. We follow some of these traditions ourselves.

Rhone style bottle

Rhone style bottle

Here in Washington, however, we can plant whatever we want, wherever we want it. And it’s pretty normal to see Rhone and Bordeaux varietals planted right next to each other. We can also mix and match varietals to make wines that we like. For instance, our Couve Cuvee is a CSM blend - meaning it is made up of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. And in the spring we are going to release a white wine that is a mix of Rhone and Bordeaux varietals - called Carte Blanche.

There are a ton of differences in how wines are made in these two regions and how we make these styles at Burnt Bridge Cellars. Typically, Bordeaux red wines are more heavily oaked, have bigger tannins and consist of flavors ranging from dark plum, to black currant and tobacco. Rhone style wines are made using less new oak. Stems are often included in the ferment to add structure and character to the wine, and flavors run the gambit from red cherries to dark blackberries, bacon fat and wild game.

This is just an overall guideline, as there are differences within these regions that we’ll explore later on. But for now, come on down and try our Bordeaux and Rhone style blends and taste the differences for yourself.

And if you have a question you’d like answered on this blog, send me an email at If we use your question, you might even win a prize!