It’s past 1AM at the corner of Port Avenue and Cabernet Court, but inside his warehouse Wade Wolfe is wide awake and totally sober. For the vintner, sleep comes second to being here when the residual sugar in his wine hits 11 Brix. When it does, Wolfe will add brandy to his barrels—halting fermentation and converting the red blend to a sweet port.
Most people associate port with a British brand of luxury—a drink to be imbibed fireside after a day spent fox hunting with howling beagles. The English were its first importers: In the seventeenth century, when tensions with France led to a wine shortage at home, they turned to Portuguese vinhos, fortifying them with brandy so they would survive the trip back to Old Blighty. But the beverage is not the exclusive domain of the aristocracy. Today vintners worldwide (and dozens in Washington) are making port-style wines as complex as the real deal—and many are priced to move.
Wolfe traces his love affair with the sweet stuff back to his undergrad days at UC Davis, when some friends from Napa exposed him to the world beyond Carlo Rossi. Moving on to a PhD program in plant genetics, he explored dessert blends with Andy Quady—now one of California’s most celebrated sweet-wine makers. In 1978, Chateau Ste. Michelle approached Wolfe with an offer to test which grape types would grow in Washington. Hello, dream job: He experimented with everything from ruby cabernet to siegerrebe, helping to define what would become our state’s signature varietals. Together with wife Becky, he started Thurston Wolfe winery in 1987 and began playing around with black muscat and, later, port. After five vintages, the muscat grapes became tricky to source, so Wolfe turned his full attention to port.
“People ask me, ‘What defines port in Washington?’ ” says Wolfe. Basically, it is a wine made from red grapes, fortified with spirits, with up to 10 percent residual sugar. When he adds brandy to the blend, the sugar in the grapes remains intact instead of turning to alcohol—creating port’s trademark sweetness. Of course, the brandy more than makes up for any booziness lost; at 18 to 21 percent alcohol, ports are among the strongest wines.
In England, sipping port has become a deeply ingrained way of warding off wintertime blues, and it’s a tradition easily re-created on this side of the pond—countryside manor or no countryside manor. Curl up in front of the fire with a glass of Wade Wolfe’s fruity JTW, and you’ll understand exactly what keeps the Prosser winemaker up at night
Ask for Thurston Wolfe’s 2006 JTW port ($20) at your neighborhood wine shop or order directly from the winery at www.thurstonwolfe.com