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American Way Staff
American AirlinesNexos Magazine Staff
Celebrated Living Staff
Thanks to extended summers, an abundance of sunshine, cool autumn nights, and talented winemakers, Washington's turning out some of the nation's best wines.
To the unaware, Washington State is associated more with Starbucks and rain than winemaking. But take a trip to its huge Columbia Valley, and as acre after acre of vineyards comes into view, it becomes crystal clear how the state manages to harvest the second-highest wine-grape yield in the U.S., following only California. In fact, with almost 30,000 vineyard acres, Washington’s dedication to the almighty grape is nearly equal to that of Napa Valley and New Zealand. And its wines are gaining the approval of critics worldwide. Most impressive: Nearly all of this has happened in less than a generation.
Just 20 years ago, Washington had only 19 wineries and was known for its cheaper whites, Riesling and Chenin Blanc primarily. Now, the state’s 240 wineries are producing enviable quantities of really good wine. “In the major press, Washington wines score more 90s versus the percentage of wine produced than any other region,” boasts Tom Hedges, owner of Hedges Cellars, one of the largest winemakers in the state. “We’re known for Merlots, although I think we make as good a Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc as anywhere.”
And people outside the state are beginning to notice. Wine Enthusiast named Washington State the Wine Region of the Year for 2001. “Washington is a unique, high-quality wine-producing region that delivers the goods where it counts — in the bottle,” says Paul Gregutt, a contributing editor for the magazine. “The best Washington wines have a style and flavor profile intrinsic to the region.”
Eight Washington wines made it into Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list for 2002. And highbrow critics have ranked the state’s wines higher than their Napa and Bordeaux competitors in blind tastings. The best part about it for the casual connoisseur is that these wines usually cost much less to put on the table.
“Washington wines are no longer a secret, and the exp
losion in the number of top-rated producers in our state is exciting,” says Ted Baseler, president and CEO of Stimson Lane Vineyards & Estates, owner of Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Crest, and other premium wineries.
According to the New York Daily News, 75 percent of the wine consumed in the U.S. is homegrown — a term usually synonymous with California-grown. Washington, like Oregon and New York and other out-of-mind wine-producing regions, has suffered a lack of public recognition in years past. Why? Well, there are the sheer numbers. While Washington does rank second to California, it’s a distant second. Washington has about a fourth the number of wineries. And the state’s 5.3 million annual cases of wine are but a trickle when compared to California’s 150 million or so cases. Then there’s California’s wine tourism and the collective power of its marketing machine to consider.
The Washington Wine Commission’s mission is to change all that by providing an umbrella for the wineries — big and small — to coordinate marketing and awareness campaigns. “Many people have not had an opportunity to try Washington wines because many of them come from small boutique wineries,” says David Bailey, wine steward for the top-rated Georgian restaurant in Seattle’s Fairmont Olympic Hotel. “I think it has been an educational process that the Washington Wine Commission has led enthusiastically and tirelessly.”
One of the most visible of the commission’s efforts is taking the wine to the people, or, really, to the people who influence wine-buying for the masses. A recent Tokyo wine tasting, coordinated by the commission and involving 60 sommeliers and senior wine journalists, pitted two of the world’s most well-known Cabernet blends — Chateau Lafite-Rothschild 1999 (Pauillac, Bordeaux) and Opus One 1998 (Napa Valley) — against a Leonetti Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2000 from Walla Walla Valley. Leonetti ($80) was voted number one, followed by Opus ($173) and Chateau Lafite ($141).
Washington’s wines also scored big in Chicago at a blind tasting of 1999 vintage wines from Napa Valley, Bordeaux, and Washington. Ranked first in terms of taste and value was the Columbia Crest Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, which retails for $28. L’Ecole No. 41 Apogee from Pepper Bridge Vineyard in Walla Walla Valley ($42) came in second, followed by Kiona Estate Bottled Cabernet Sauvignon ($35) from Red Mountain, the state’s newest appellation — and one to watch. Number four was Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($125); followed by Chateau Palmer Cabernet Sauvignon, Bordeaux ($76); Chateau Ste. Michelle Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley ($34); Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($70); and Chateau Mouton Rothschild, Bordeaux ($145). Do the math: The average price of the Washington wines was $35, and of the California and Bordeaux crowd, $104.
“Washington wines offer the best value of any wines produced in North America,” says John Sarich, culinary director for Stimson Lane Vineyards, which placed five wines on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list for 2002. “Wine critics routinely score our wines higher than those from California that can sell for twice the price. Even our top-tier wines are priced more affordably than their California counterparts. Price is never the only indicator of quality.”
LATITUDE WITH ATTITUDE
“As a generality, Napa can produce more brooding fruit, Bordeaux perhaps more finesse, but Washington fruit and the resulting wines are like a happy marriage of New World exuberance and Old World charm,” says Ron Zimmerman, half of the husband-wife team who own the renowned Herbfarm restaurant in Woodinville, just
But it’s not charm and exuberance alone that get the grape into the glass. Pure sunshine is a critical factor. Washington, which shares latitude with Bordeaux, gets about 17 hours of daylight during its extended summers, two hours more than Napa. Most of the state’s vineyards are in the enormous Columbia Valley in the southeastern part of the state, which is shielded from coastal wetness by the Cascade Mountains. In fact, it’s one of the driest wine regions in the U.S. Another factor is “hang time,” or ripening time — long, sunny days that dip into cool, crisp nights allow growers to leave the grapes on the vine for an unusually long time, well into October is typical, and more than a month past the time Napa growers
That Washington’s growers and winemakers have come to take full advantage of nature’s bounty makes the region’s chefs very happy. “Generally you won’t find big fruit bombs in Washington wine, but well-structured, varietally correct food wines,” says Tom Douglas, chef and owner of Dahlia’s Lounge, Etta’s Seafood, and Palace Kitchen in Seattle.
Gavin Stephenson, chef at The Georgian, agrees: “The emphasis on, and abundance of, local seafood that is naturally somewhat salty plays beautifully off of light, sweet, crisp white wines like Washington Riesling, Pinot Gris, and Gewürztraminer. Our locally grown lamb in eastern Washington goes beautifully with our Merlots and Cabernets. The simplistic and lighter style of cuisine — not a lot of butter and creams, but pan-reduction sauces and local mushrooms — is very synergistic with wines like those Quilceda Creek and DeLille Cellars offer. Winemakers make wines to complement what’s happening in the region. In France, for instance, wines are bolder with heavier tannins to offset heavier fare like foie gras and sauces of butter and cream. Lighter food in the Northwest, softer tannins.”
And, while the region’s chefs take the good news to their patrons, the Washington Wine Commission’s around to make sure the message keeps getting heard outside state lines. Steve
Burns, the commission’s executive director, credits an all-for-one, one-for-all spirit as the backbone of the state’s growth as a recognized force in winemaking. And, he says that while it’s the larger players who are putting Washington on the map with their
deeper marketing budgets, distribution channels, and research departments, the boutique wineries are also basking in their share of the spotlight.
“Cadence in Seattle began with home-based winemaker Ben Smith, who learned how to make wines through the Boeing Wine Club,” says Burns. “They produce maybe 400 cases per year, focusing on the ultimate quality wines. Kerry Norton, a winemaker for Covey Run, is one of the reasons that Syrah is so hot here in Washington. There’s a real diversity of varietal. Washington is the land of opportunity for winemaking — Cabernet Franc, Semillon, Chardonnay, Riesling — no matter what dream winemakers have, they can fulfill it here.”
buty winery roza bergé vineyard chardonnay 2002 ($25) “the crisp and lean style of this chardonnay is a great match for my razor clam chowder.”
k vintners red hills pinot noir 2002 ($22) “this somewhat richer, yet balanced pinot noir is perfect with my copper river salmon with creamy lentils and smoked bacon. the acids and tannins help to balance the richness and fattiness of the salmon and bacon.”
isenhower cellars columbia valley syrah 2001 ($25) “bret and denise isenhower’s syrahs would be a great fit with liberty duck breast and leg confit with cherries. i usually start a sauce with syrah and a few dried cherries, and a concentrated duck stock, and then finish the sauce with fresh, pitted bing or rainier cherries. the crisp, salty, meaty duck breast paired with sweet, tart cherry sauce and a glass of isenhower syrah is heaven on a plate.”
chef, the georgian at the fairmont olympic hotel, seattle
“any of the reds can be paired with steak and game dishes (like the georgian’s oregon kobe beef and willamette lamb), as well as richer seafood such as copper river salmon. because of their soft tannins, reds go well with morel mushrooms and rich sauces. riesling goes great with seafood dishes like the crispy squid and crab on the georgian menu, as well as salty and spicy dishes.”
chateau ste. michelle eroica riesling by dr. loosen 2001 ($23)
“crisp, light, delicate fruit, flavors of green apple and bosc pears with a bit of frizzante (sparkle).”
delille cellars d2 merlot 1998 ($35)
“a rich bordeaux blend boasting earthen terroir with bright, rich fruit produced in washington’s yakima valley.”
pepper bridge merlot 1999 ($45)
“the new superstar of the washington wine industry; structured, intense, black cherries, plums, and firmer tannin base that lends well to aging, but still drinkable now.”
founder,the herbfarm, woodinville
“we very much love the wines of the andrew will winery on vashon island. [its winemaker] chris camarda crafts luscious and balanced wines that make you yearn for more. in particular, his sorella (1997 or 1998, $60), a bordeaux-blend, is just outstanding. also, the 2001 andrew will sangiovese, ciel du cheval, cuvee lucia ($29), is the best sangiovese i have ever tasted from outside of italy.
“all of the wines from l’ecole no. 41 in walla walla are outstanding. [winemaker] marty clubb makes a great syrah, a terrific 7 hills vineyard merlot ($35), outstanding cabernet sauvignon ($30), and, to my mind, the best semillon in america [with grapes sourced] from the fries vineyard (2001, $20).
“mike januik, former chief winemaker for chateau ste. michelle, now has his own winery. in particular, his 1999 januik winery cabernet sauvignon, klipsun vineyard ($40) will make your toes wiggle.”
chef/owner of dahlia’s lounge, etta’s seafood, and palace kitchen, seattle
2001 ($40) “served with the chinese 12-spice duck at dahlia’s lounge. this is not a spicy dish, but the flavors match up nicely with the duck.”
columbia crest grand estates chardonnay 2001($9) “served with wood- or charcoal-grilled king salmon with sea salt and lemon.”
januik cabernet sauvignon 2000 ($30)
“served with salt-and-pepper seared flat-iron steak on a chanterelle-morel mushroom pan roast.”