Hedges Family Estate

A winemaker, Nicole Walsh of Ser Winery, recently recommended a wine to me. And I thought, “If a winemaker recommends someone else’s product, it must be worth seeking out.” That wine? Hedges Family Estate Red Mountain Syrah.

In June of 1976, Tom Hedges and Anne-Marie Liégeois married in a 12th century church in Champagne, France, the area where Liégeois was born and raised. This melding of New World and Old World experiences and sensibilities would directly inform them once they entered the world of wine years later.

Liégeois was born near the medieval town of Troyes. Her upbringing was “maison bourgeoise,” where three generations of the family lived and worked together. The family was prosperous, and could afford to enjoy traditional home-cooked meals and the best of the local wines.

Hedges was raised as a “traditional” American, in a home of strong work ethics guided by his father, who had a background in apple growing and dairy farming before becoming an engineer. The younger Hedges was born in Richland, Washington, located at the confluence of the Yakima and Columbia Rivers. It was established in 1906 as a small farming community, but in 1943 the U.S. Army turned much of it into a bedroom community for the workers on its Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb at the nearby Hanford Engineering Works (now the Hanford site).  The B Reactor, the first full-scale plutonium production reactor in the world, was built here. Plutonium manufactured at the site was used in the first nuclear bomb, which was tested at the Trinity site in New Mexico, and in Fat Man, the atomic bomb that was detonated over Nagasaki, Japan. Nuclear weapons development continued here throughout the Cold War. Now now-decommissioned, Hanford leaves behind a grim legacy of 60% of the high-level radioactive waste managed by the US Department of Energy, including 53 million US gallons (200,000 m3) of high-level radioactive waste stored within 177 storage tanks, 25 million cubic feet (710,000 m3) of solid radioactive waste, and areas of heavy technetium-99 and uranium contaminated groundwater

Tom Hedges spent the first ten years of the marriage working for large multinational agricultural firms. He was employed by Castle & Cooke foods from 1976 to 1982 where he headed up four international offices. Next, he worked for Pandol Bros., a small Dutch trading company in Seattle, which at the time was importing Chilean produce and exporting fruit to the Far East and India. In 1984 he served as President and CEO of McCain Produce Co. in New Brunswick, Canada, farming potatoes for export. Then, in 1986, the Hedges created an export company called American Wine Trade, Inc., based in Kirkland, Washington (which is also the home of Costco), and began selling wine to foreign importers, primarily in Taiwan. As the company grew, it began to source Washington wines for a larger clientele, leading to the establishment of a negociant-inspired Cabernet/Merlot blend called Hedges Cellars in 1987. This wine was sold to the Swedish government’s wine and spirit monopoly, Vin & Sprit Centralen, which was the company’s first major client.

During this time, the Hedges discovered the developing wine region called Red Mountain, three hours southeast of Seattle. After buying fifty acres here in 1989, they planted forty acres to Bordeaux grape varieties and transformed American Wine Trade from a negociant and wine trader into the classic model of a wine estate. Today, this Biodynimacally-farmed Red Mountain property continues to be the core of the Hedges family wine enterprise. In 1995, they began construction of the Hedges Chateau.

Hedges Chateau. Photo: Jacob Hughey

The Hedges ‘children, Sarah and Christophe, are now involved in the business, and each has a special set of skills for understanding the terroir.

Sarah attended the University of San Diego and graduated with a degree in business and philosophy. She later attended UC Santa Barbara to study chemistry, and at the same time worked for a Santa Barbara winery managing the tasting room and helping with harvest. From 2003 to 2005 she worked for Preston Vineyards in Healdsburg, Sonoma County, doing wine production work. She became assistant winemaker for Hedges in 2006 under the tutelage of her uncle, Pete Hedges (younger brother of Tom). Pete Hedges schooled Sarah in both terroir and chemistry, believing that each works to show a wine the path to exhibit the truth of its place. Sarah ascended to head winemaker in 2015 after her uncle retired.

The elder of the two, Christophe, is a graduate of the University of San Diego with a Business Degree and minor in Theatre Arts.  In addition to being the general manager at Hedges, he farms his own property using modern Biodynamic techniques, executed by John Gomez, the Hedges Family Estate vineyard manager.  He has been long opposed to the numerical point scores used by several wine critics, and he urges consumers to rely on their own knowledge about a specific varietal or the region from which it came. (I’m with you there, Christophe!)  Ten years ago he created scorevolution.com, an online petition promoting the elimination of 100-point rating scales from wine reviews altogether. “The final decision about a wine is personal, and it belongs to the wine drinker alone,” he explained. (As of this writing, the site is still online, but seems to be closed to any further activity.  I.E. you can’t even read the manifesto, much less endorse it, which I would have been happy to do.  Regardless of where you stand,  you can read a criticism and defense of the point-score system here.)  Christophe is also responsible for the very European-style Hedges bottle labels.

Hedges Cellars eventually transitioned to Hedges Family Estate, and farming practices have become more focused towards being organic and vegan.  Rather than commercial strains, only wild yeast is used, and the wines are neither fined nor filtered.  They are also gluten free.  The Hedges estate vineyard is certified organic by CCOF, nonprofit organization that advances organic agriculture for a healthy world through organic certification, education, advocacy, and promotion. It is certified Biodynamic by Demeter, the only certifier for Biodynamic farms and products in America. While all of the organic requirements for certification under the National Organic Program are required for Biodynamic certification, the Demeter standard is much more extensive.  The vineyard is also rated by Salmon Safe, which works with West Coast farmers, developers, and other environmentally innovative landowners to reduce watershed impacts through rigorous third-party verified certification.

Hedges estate vineyard.  Photo: Jacob Hughey

Hedges Family Estates Red Mountain Hedges Vineyard Syrah 2017

The grapes are from the Hedges Estate Biodynamic vineyard.  After being harvested they were crushed into bins where they underwent indigenous yeast fermentation. After pressing, the wine was aged in barrel where it underwent indigenous malolactic fermentation. The wine was aged in 56% new oak (65% French and 35% American) for 22 months before bottling.

This Syrah pours a nearly opaque dark purple into the glass.  There are full aromas of dark stone fruits accompanied by earth.  On the palate, those flavors are rather recessive, in the European style, but primarily pomegranate, and  blueberry.  Or it might just be that they are being masked by the big, black-tea tannins.  These come with good supportive acidity.  259 cases were made, and the ABV is 13.5%.

Hedges Family Estates C.M.S Cabernet Sauvignon 2018

The grapes were sourced from the Sagemoor, Wooded Island, and Bacchus vineyards in the Columbia Valley AVA and Hedges Estate, Jolet and Les Gosses vineyards in the Red Mountain AVA. The must was pumped-over for eight days and pressed to tank, where it underwent malolactic fermentation. The Columbia Valley portion of this wine (59%) was fermented to dryness in 100% American oak and aged in 100% French oak. It was then barrel aged for five months in 100% neutral oak. The Red Mountain AVA wines (41%)were barrel aged in 100% neutral American and French oak for 11 months.

C.M.S (named for its blend of 76% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Merlot, and 16% Syrah) is a semi-transparent but deep red.  The rich aromatics feature blueberry, blackberry, and black cherry, with support from dark cocoa and vanilla.  These deploy in the mouth as the same flavors.  Both the acidity and tannins are excellent and harmoniously balanced.  5976 cases were produced, and the ABV comes in at 14.0%.

Descendants Liegeois Dupont 2011

This Syrah is an homage to both sides of Anne-Marie Hedges’ French families.  the Liegeoises and Duponts.  The fruit was sourced from the Les Gosses vineyard in the center of the Red Mountain AVA. The juice was pumped over on skins for eight days before pressing to barrel and undergoing malolactic fermentation. The wine was  barrel aged for an average of  12 months in 52% new oak and 48% older oak( 62% American, 31% French, and 7% Hungarian).

The wine pours a semi-transparent dark purple color. It shows full aromas of dark stone fruit, especially plum, bordering on prunes, with hints of maple bacon. leather, and smoked cedar.  The plums plus blueberry are revealed on the palate.  The ABV is 14%, but seems higher due to the wine’s richness.  It’s all supported by strapping tannins and plenty of tart acidity.  1202 cases were made.

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Ozeki Karatamba

Let’s be clear about this right away: Saké, the national alcoholic beverage of Japan, is often called rice wine, but this is a misnomer.  While it is a beverage made by fermentation, the production process more closely resembles that of beer, and it is made from grain (rice, of course), not fruit.

To make saké, the starch of freshly steamed glutinous rice is converted to sugar and then fermented to alcohol.  Once fermented, the liquid is filtered and usually pasteurized.  Sakés can range from dry to sweet, but even the driest retain a hint of sweetness.

In 1711, the Manryo brewery, was established by the first Chobei Osakaya of the Osabe family in Imazu, Nishinomiya City, Hyogo Prefecture.  This is a significant saké production region , and  the head office is still located there.  The famous water found here is known as Miyamizu, groundwater originating in the Rokko mountain system. The region is also ideal for rice production, including Yamada-nishiki, a renowned saké rice.

In 1810 the fifth-generation owner of Manryo built a lighthouse to help guide home the ships that had delivered Manryo’s products to Edo, as Tokyo was then known.  The  Imazu lighthose has been an important cultural edifice in Nishinomiya ever since.  In 1984 it underwent an extensive restoration.

The Imazu lighthouse.

In 1884 the company was rebranded from Manryo to Ozeki.  The name originates from the world of sumo wrestling, where the grand champion was originally known as the Ozeki (now the second highest rank).  Additionally, odeki is Japanese for ‘good job.’  Because it sounds similar to ozeki, this was intended to motivate the production of good saké.  As sumo was becoming popular in the late 19th century,  it exemplified many of the ideas that were considered  important for success, including strenuous hard work and technical skill.  Ozeki aimed to build the brand through these concepts, just like winning sumo wrestlers try to do.

Ozeki’s facilities were destroyed by fire due to a WWII air raid in 1945, but were rebuilt following the end of the war.  In 1966, Ozeki introduced a saké vending machine, something we will never see in the United States!  They entered the U.S. market in 1979 by establishing Ozeki San Benito Inc. in Hollister, California.  The company celebrated 300 years in business in Japan in 2011,

Ozeki Karatamba

Like my wines, I prefer my sakés to be dry.  Karatamba is one of the driest I have found, with a Sake Meter Value* of +7.  The ABV is 15.5%, and the polish rate** is 70%.

Karatamba (Dry Wave) is brewed and bottled in Japan.  It is a honjozo saké.  This classification, one level up from the most basic, is made with better-quality rice, and a higher proportion of the alcohol is produced during fermentation rather than being added (a characteristic of honjozo).  Also, Karatamba attains its dryness level by the added alcohol; it would be difficult to do so without it.

Predictably, this saké is crystal clear.  The nose offers up melon and lychee.  These continue on the palate (without the tartness) plus some caramel richness and perhaps a hint of maple syrup.  It has a round smooth mouthfeel ending in a pleasant soft finish.

*An important gauge of saké  is the SMV (Saké Meter Value).  This measures the density of saké relative to water, and is the method for determining the dryness or sweetness of saké. The higher the SMV, the drier the saké. The range is -15 to +15.

**The rice used in saké is called “saka mai” in Japanese, and it is not the same type of rice used for eating.  The grains are larger than food rice,  contain more starch, and less protein and fat.  The rice is first milled, aka “polished,” to remove the outer layer that could cause off-flavors in the finished product.  Typically, this will be 25 to 70%, but I have heard of exotic sakés with 99% starch removal!  Not surprisingly, the more the rice is milled, the more expensive the saké becomes.


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Cape Red Red Blend 2020

When I profile a wine, I like to start with the story of the producer, and then get into the wine itself.  I couldn’t find much about this offering, which is just as well as it is low-quality plonk.

It is sourced from Zidela Worldwide Wines.  Their website states, “Our Company aims to be the prime South African supplier of value-for-money wines in the international private label market.  [We have} the capability to offer a wide range of bulk wines from all the wine regions in South Africa. Our long-standing working relationship with various wineries enables us to get involved in the wine-making process to meet our clients’ specific needs.”  So, no need to look for a winemaker’s personal approach or vision here.

The wine is exclusively distributed in the United States by splashwines.com, where I bought it through a Groupon offer for a mixed case of two bottles each of nine different wines.  The per-bottle price came to $5, much more than this particular wine is worth.

Cape Red Red Blend 2020

The color and clarity of this wine is fine, but then the wheels fall off.  It has thin aromas and a recessive palate of weird, unidentifiable fruit.  The acidity is totally out of balance, plus bitter tannins and an odd funk on the finish.  The only way I was able to get through it with dinner (a delightful grilled pork roast) was by refrigerating the hell out of it.  The packaging is nice; too bad they didn’t put half as much effort into the wine.  I don’t know how many cases were made, but, frankly, any was too much.  ABV is 13%.


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The Story of Saké

L to R: Sensei, Karatamba, Momokawa Heart and Soul, Kiku-Masamune Taru.

Let’s be clear about this right away: Saké, the national alcoholic beverage of Japan, is often called rice wine, but this is a misnomer.  While it is a beverage made by fermentation, the production process more closely resembles that of beer, and it is made from grain (rice, of course), not fruit.  To make saké, the starch of freshly steamed glutinous rice is converted to sugar and then fermented to alcohol.  Once fermented, the liquid is filtered and usually pasteurized.  Sakés can range from dry to sweet, but even the driest retain a hint of sweetness.

Saké is an ancient drink, so much so that its origin has been lost in the mists of time. Ironically, the earliest reference to the use of alcohol in Japan is recorded in a third-century Chinese text, the Book of Wei in the Records of the Three Kingdoms which wrote of Japanese party habits.  The Kojiki, Japan’s first written history, compiled in 712, is the earliest to mention alcoholic beverages in Japanese itself. Historians place the probable origin of true saké (which is made from rice, water, yeast, and kōji mold (aspergillus oryzae) in the Nara period (710–794).

Saké  production was a government monopoly until the 10th century, when temples and shrines began to brew saké  as an essential part of religious ceremonies, evolving into the main centers of production for the next 500 years. That being said, the saké of antiquity was not the same as the clear beverage we know today.  It was reserved for nobles and priests, and was thick and milky or yellow in color, with a low alcohol content.

In the 16th century, the technique of distillation was introduced into the Kyushu district from Ryukyu. This led to shōchū (literally, fiery spirits), a beverage typically distilled from rice (kome), barley (mugi), sweet potatoes (satsuma-imo), buckwheat (soba), or brown sugar (kokutō), though it is sometimes produced from other ingredients such as chestnut, sesame seeds, potatoes, or even carrots.  It usually contains 25% alcohol by volume, and is most often used as a beverage outside of meals.

During the Meiji Restoration, laws were written that allowed anybody with the money and know-how to construct and operate their own sake breweries. Around 30,000 breweries sprang up around the country. As time passed, the government levied increasing taxes on the saké industry and the number of breweries eventually dwindled to 8,000.

Once  the 20th century arrived, saké-brewing technology advanced beyond the centuries-old traditions. The government opened a saké-brewing research institute in 1904, and in 1907 the first government-run saké-tasting competition was held. Yeast strains specifically selected for use in brewing were isolated, and enamel-coated steel tanks came into use, which were easier to clean than the traditional wooden barrels, lasted forever, and were devoid of bacterial problems.

During the Russo-Japanese War in 1904–1905, the government banned the home brewing of saké. At the time, saké comprised 30% of Japan’s tax revenue. Home-brewed saké was not taxed, so the thinking was that by banning it sales and tax revenue would increase. This ban ended home-brewed saké, and the law remains in effect even today.

World War II brought rice shortages, and the saké-brewing industry was hampered as the government discouraged the use of this essential food for brewing.  Postwar, breweries slowly recovered, and the quality of saké gradually increased. Even so, beer, wine, and spirits became increasingly popular in Japan, and in the 1960s beer consumption surpassed saké for the first time.

While the rest of the world may be drinking more saké and the quality of saké has been increasing, production in Japan has been declining since the mid-1970s. Predictably, the number of saké breweries is also declining; there were 3,229 Japanese breweries nationwide in 1975, but the number had fallen to 1,845 by 2007.

Courtesy of Ozeke Saké

As noted earlier, saké is made from just four ingredients: rice, water, koji, and yeast.  With so few components, the quality of each is crucial.  Akita is known for its high-quality rice.  Some of the best water is found In Nada near Kobe, where rivers course through granite canyons, or Fushimi with its pure spring water.

Although saké breweries often pride themselves on the quality of the rice and local spring water that they use, unlike wine this does not translate into terroir, as the brewing process effectively cooks out any such nuances.

Rice Polishing, Washing, and Soaking
The rice used in saké is called “saka mai” in Japanese, and it is not the same type of rice as food rice.  The grains are larger, contain more starch, and have less protein and fat.  The rice is first milled, aka “polished,” to remove the outer layer that could cause off-flavors in the finished product.  Typically, this milling will be 25 to 70%, but I have heard of exotic sakés with 99% starch removal!  Not surprisingly, the more the rice is milled, the more expensive the saké becomes.  As an example, it takes 800 grams (28 ounces) of polished rice to make 720 mL (the size most like a wine bottle) of Ginjo saké.  (Ginjo designates that at least 40% of the rice has been polished away.)

After polishing, the rice is soaked, either by machine for simple sakés, or by hand for higher-quality ones.  Next the rice is steamed.  Unlike rice for the dinner table, which is typically simmered in hot water either in a pot or automatic rice cooker, saké rice is prepared by steaming, which allows the rice to maintain a firm outer texture and soft center, thereby helping the brewing process.  It is this heating step that more closely aligns saké with beer, which also requires heating, rather than wine, which must not be heated.

Rice Cooling
The rice must be cooled after it has been steamed to the desired degree.  Large breweries use a refrigerated conveyor system to lower the temperature, while craft brewers rely on traditional methods of tossing and kneading to adjust the temperature, giving the brewmaster more precise control.

Koji Making
The heart of a saké brewery is its “koji muro”, the cedar-lined room in which koji is made.  It is kept at 86 to 90 degrees F. (30 to 32 degrees C.), making it much like a sauna, so you have to enjoy warm weather to work there!  Cedar has natural anti-bacterial resins which help to create a clean environment conducive to efficient koji production.

Koji requires 48 hours to prepare, during which the rice is  inoculated with koji mold spores, and carefully kneaded in controlled temperature and humidity.  The mold converts the starch in the steamed rice to glucose, and microorganisms multiply to create a snow-white fuzz with a strong, sweet fragrance. The finished koji will be about 20 to 35% of the rice used in the production of the saké, depending on the recipe.

Once the koji is ready, it is mixed into chilled spring water and yeast in a fermentation tank, and then the steamed rice is added.  The tank is filled gradually, in three stages over a four-day period.  This allows the yeast to retain its strength to keep consuming sugar and producing alcohol throughout the fermentation period, which typically continues for 21 days.  The temperature is maintained at 46 to 64 degrees F. (8 to 18 degrees C.).  The brew, called “moromi,” is stirred on a daily basis to ensure consistent fermentation.  Each day, tests are performed to check specific gravity, acidity, and alcohol content.

Pressing And Racking
Once the moromi reaches maturity as determined by the brewmaster, in a craft brewery it is drained into cloth bags which are placed in the traditional “fune” press which works with gravity and hand-applied mechanical pressure. The first run of saké starts emerging from a spout at one end of the press under the natural weight of the filled bags, resulting in a light-and-fruity first-pressed sake known “arabashiri.”

In a large commercial brewery the moromi is machine-pumped into a large accordion like hydraulic press called a “yabuta.”  Activated charcoal is usually added to the pressed saké  and then filtered out.

Once pressed and racked the saké may either be bottled immediately or temporarily tank-stored at close to 32 degrees F. (0 degrees C,). “Go” is the measurement unit traditionally for saké. One go is about 180 mL. Saké bottle sizes are also based on these units, with the most common sizes being: 180 mL (1 go; about 6 ounces); 360 ml (2 go); 720 mL (4 go); and 1800 mL (10 go, the magnum-like bottle you often see in izakayas, informal Japanese bars that serve alcoholic drinks and snacks. The glass may be either green, brown, or clear.   After bottling, most sakés are pasteurized.

Storage and Consumption
The entire saké production process takes about 45 to 60 days from start to finish.  There are no vintage years, and the product is best consumed within the year it is bottled, as aging does not enhance its flavor in any way, and indeed may degrade it.   Once a bottle is opened, it should be refrigerated and drunk fairly quickly.

Grades of Saké
Saké is divided into two main categories.  Jozo-shu is made with added alcohol, and junmai-shu is not.

Futsu-shu is ordinary table saké and the most widely consumed grade.  It is best served warm, and is suitable for use in cooking.
Honjozo-shu is made with better-quality rice, and a higher proportion of the alcohol is produced during fermentation rather than being added.
Honjozo-ginjoshu and honjozo-dai-ginjoshu are the highest grades of alcohol-added saké.  They are made with more care from top-quality rice.  They should be served cold.

Junmai-shu is similar to honjozo-shu, but relies on all of its alcohol from the fermentation.  It is more likely than jozo-shu to be found in the U.S., and can be served warm (not hot) or cold.
Junmai-ginjoshu and Junmai-daiginjoshu are the highest grades of junmai-shu.  Like the highest grades of jozo-shu, they are made with more care from top-quality rice.  50 to 70% of the rice is polished away, respectively.  They should be served cold.

Serving Saké

L to R: glass carafe and cup, masu, and two tokkuri with matching ochoko.

The glass carafe above is used for serving cold saké.  The blue cavity is filled with ice to keep the saké cool.  The wooden box is a “masu.”  In addition to being a drinking vessel, it was also traditionally used for measuring  rice, appropriately.  In traditional restaurant service, the masu is placed on a small saucer and filled until the saké overflows, thus ensuring an honest pour.  Some people, particularly native Japanese, will add a small pinch of salt to the corner of the masu before drinking, but I don’t recommend doing so.

In Japan, the process of heating saké is called “okan suru” and the resulting warm saké is called “kanzake.”  The ceramic pots used for the heating are “tokkuri,” and the accompanying cups are “ochoko.”  These are usually sold as sets, and are available in a very wide variety of styles.  And, “warm” is the operative word here.  Most heated sakés, both at home and in restaurants here in the U.S., are made too hot.  Warm saké  should be about 108 degrees F. (42 degrees C.).  If you like it a bit hotter, the limit is around 122 degrees F. (50 degrees C.).  Heating releases saké’s bright rice aroma, and causes the alcohol to be quickly absorbed into the blood.

In addition to it being a beverage, saké is also used as one of the principal seasonings in Japanese cooking, the other three being dashi stock, fermented bean paste (miso), and soy sauce.  Saké acts as a food tenderizer due to the amino acids it contains.  It also can suppress saltiness, eliminate fishy tastes, and take away strong odors.  It is used sparingly in cooking, and as with wine, only use saké that you would drink on its own.

An important gauge of saké  is the SMV (Saké Meter Value).  This measures the density of saké relative to water, and is the method for determining the dryness or sweetness of saké. The higher the SMV, the drier the saké. The range is -15 to +15.

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