Marty Clubb remembers questioning his Ferguson Vineyard’s ability to produce cabernet sauvignon. When he planted the Walla Walla Valley site about 12 years ago, the L’Ecole No. 41 winery owner thought its elevation (1,500 feet) might keep it too cool for the heat-loving grapes. But ripen they did. In fact, one of the earliest vintages of L’Ecole’s cab sauv–dominant Ferguson red blend was named best Bordeaux varietal at the 2014 Decanter World Wine Awards. The prize holds a special place in the timeline of great moments in Northwest wine. But the vineyard’s origin story seems even more dramatic. Especially when you hear about it directly from Clubb, while sampling the current release of the same wine. And this was just one of the highlights from the debut of Auction of Washington Wines’ Live Virtual Tastings on Zoom, with Karen MacNeil.

L'Ecole 41's Marty Clubb shared Washington wine stories with Karen MacNeil

The series continues on alternating Thursdays through Aug. 20. For the premier, dubbed “Washington Wine Trail Blazers,” Allen Shoup (Long Shadows) and Rick Small (Woodward Canyon) joined Clubb (above). And the next segment (July 2) features Rob Mercer (Mercer Family Estates), Andrew Januik (Januik Winery), and John Bookwalter and Caleb Foster (J. Bookwalter Winery) for a session called “From Generation to Generation.” With future themes including “Women in Wine” and “Red Mountain and Bordeaux-Style Wine,” the series explores Washington wine from a variety of perspectives. And thanks Auction’s arrangement with Seattle’s Esquin Wine & Spirits, viewers can order each session’s featured wines ahead of time to sip along at home. (Esquin ships to just about anywhere.)

The chair has the floor

Karen MacNeil leads virtual tastings of Washington wine

MacNeil (above) is the über-accomplished wine educator and writer best known for authoring The Wine Bible. Back when she lived in New York, she hosted TV and radio programs on wine and food, including an Emmy–winning PBS series. She’s the former wine correspondent for the Today Show. And she’s been honored by the James Beard Foundation (Wine and Spirits Professional of the Year) and the International Wine and Spirits Association (Wine Communicator of the Year). This past March, Auction named her its Honorary Chair for 2020.

Of course, the world was a much different place back then. But neither Auction nor MacNeil have skipped a beat in shifting to virtual programming. Auction replaced its spring events with an online auction in May that raised about $20,000 for its charity partners, which include Seattle Children’s and the Viticulture and Enology Program at Washington State University. And the organization’s main August events have been transformed into another online auction (Aug. 11–15) and Virtual Live Gala (Aug. 15).

MacNeil describes her own shift to live virtual tastings, or LVTs, as a “bit of self-preservation.” She now lives in Saint Helena, California. And her business enterprises include leading wine seminars around the world. (She also publishes WIneSpeed, an e-newsletter containing loads of consumer friendly wine info.) After the pandemic wiped out her appearance schedule, she started hosting LVTs. And it has not taken long for her #TasteWithKaren series to catch on. Her lineup for the rest of this week alone includes separate virtual sessions with two Napa Valley winemakers, another showcasing a Tuscan winery, and the first segment in a three-part series on Champagne.

Hearing from the pros

As is the case for most of MacNeil’s other LVTs, there is no cost to join her Washington sessions. You can purchase as many or as few of the featured wines as you want. And, as the initial episode proved, you’re bound to learn something new about your favorite Washington wineries.

Allen Shoup talked Washington wine with Karen MacNeil

As the audience sipped on Long Shadows’ 2017 Dance chardonnay, for example, Shoup (above) described the process he and winemaker Gilles Nicault went through to create a chardonnay they both liked. (Shoup was the longtime CEO of Chateau Ste. Michelle before he established Long Shadows Vintners in 2002.) After several trials, they turned to unconventional-for-chardonnay techniques. These included extending barrel aging to about 18 months. Because the goal was to give the wine some heft, without robbing it of its citrus nose and crisp mouthfeel. Mission accomplished.

Rick Small was among the guests for Auction's virtual tastings with Karen MacNeil

Small (above) explained the meticulous process for creating Woodward Canyon’s Estate Reserve Red Wine. The Bordeaux-inspired blend has been receiving high marks for years. As the audience admired the acidity and mineral notes in the 2017 incarnation, Small said it reflects his winery’s new approach.

“Since about 2016, we’ve been working to try to get our winemaking style a little bit more restrained and not go into the über-ripe zone,” he explained. “This is really where I’d like to think that we are going as Woodward Canyon moves forward.”

Find recordings of MacNeil’s Washington wine tastings on FacebookAuction officials recommend purchasing wines for each tasting far enough in advance to ensure shipments reach you in time.