WASHINGTON'S REVOLUTION

Apples, cherries and onions are giving way to grapes in this state, where red wines rule and a new winery is opening every 13 days.


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With new vineyards and wineries popping up faster than you can say "I cannot tell a lie," cherry trees are yielding to grapevines producing prime Northwest wines.

It's summertime in Washington's Yakima Valley, and the lipstick-red Rainier cherries are weighing down the orchards. Dick Boushey, a self-described "apple, cherry and grape guy," plucks a perfectly fat and ripe Rainier from a low-hanging bough and notes that his cherries, once they're hand-picked, hand-sorted and plopped into clear plastic pouches, will command premium prices in Japan. Still, they're a niche market at best, a little income on the side. It's wine grapes that bring a smile to his face these days.

Last year in Washington state, a new winery opened every 13 days, and that pace hasn't slowed. With more than 150 wineries statewide, the demand for winegrapes, particularly top-quality red grapes, is skyrocketing. A wicked freeze in 1996 decimated the state's vineyards, but the past three vintages have delivered good-to-record quantities of virtually perfect fruit. Total vineyard acreage has shot up from 11,000 acres to almost 25,000 in just six years, with red grapes accounting for three-quarters of that growth.

When Boushey planted his first vineyard 20 years ago, winegrapes were a long-shot gamble, a wild-card attempt at agricultural diversification. Today, with 25 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and another 25 of Syrah and Sangiovese, Boushey is sitting in the catbird's seat. "It's worked out," he adds with a grin.

Jeff Gordon (not the Nascar driver) farms 95 acres of mostly Cabernet, Merlot, and Syrah on a steep, south-facing slope overlooking the Snake River not too far from Pasco. He, too, remembers planting his first vines in 1980. "Everybody was telling us don't plant red grapes, plant Riesling. But my brother and I decided to plant red grapes, because, knowing farmers' logic, if there's any bright spot on the horizon they'll produce the hell out of it until they kill it. Everybody was growing Riesling. We just decided that wasn't where we wanted to go."

Gordon, Boushey, and dozens of other growers who came into the wine business from farming backgrounds are the unsung heroes of the Washington wine success story. Today, thanks largely to their efforts, Washington has shed its early image as a marginal wine-growing region known chiefly for its cheap, sweet white wines. The "new" Washington has become renowned mostly for Bordeaux varietal wines and blends that showcase vivid, muscular fruit, crisp acids, velveteen tannins, and layers of smoky oak, coffee, chocolate and spice.

The start of this red-wine revolution dates back about 15 years, when a Hogue Cellars 1983 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (the first ever made) won "Best of Show" over a multitude of California bottlings at the prestigious Atlanta Wine Festival. At about the same time, both Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia Winery began promoting their own vineyard-designated Cabernets and Merlots, occasionally reaching back into their libraries to pull out rare red wines from the early 1970s that demonstrated the aging potential of Washington fruit.

But during the past decade it has been the boutique wineries, run by hard-headed, tenacious, determined artist-winemakers, who have pushed the envelope the hardest. They have sought out the best vineyards, worked hands-on with their growers to improve the fruit, and have proven that magic can be bottled when attention is paid to all the details.

It's interesting to note that, among the small "star" wineries, almost none rely on estate vineyards. To cite just four examples, Quilceda Creek's massive Cabernets, Andrew Will's elegant, polished Merlots, DeLille Cellars' seductive, textured Bordeaux blends, and McCrea Cellars' lush, spicy Syrahs are all crafted from purchased grapes. Yet respective winemakers Al Golitzen, Chris Camarda, Chris Upchurch and Doug McCrea have demonstrated, vintage after vintage, that there is enough quality fruit to go around—especially if you are willing to search for it and pay the going freight.

Increasingly, the focus is on identifying the state's best vineyards and vineyard sites, and developing closer ties between growers and winemakers. Grapes are being purchased by the acre, not the ton, so croploads are being reduced; and more and more wineries are managing specific blocks of grapes in their supplier vineyards. On almost a weekly basis DeLille's Chris Upchurch makes the three-hour trip from his suburban Seattle winery to his Red Mountain growers. "They see me more often than some of their customers who live 20 minutes away," he confides. As a result, he gets control of some choice older blocks, and mandates exactly how they will be managed.

Upchurch and others like him are fine-tuning every aspect of the grape-growing process, from pruning and thinning to trellising, watering and clonal selection. It's a quiet turnabout that represents a new level of sophistication, and it's already paying dividends in the bottle.

The new frontiers
As the industry comes of age throughout the state, it is becoming evident that many of the top vineyards can be found on Red Mountain (the state's newest authorized viticultural area, located just above Benton City at the eastern edge of the Yakima Valley—see sidebar) and in the re-energized Walla Walla Valley.

Between them, Red Mountain and Walla Walla have only about 1,500 bearing acres, a drop in the bucket next to the 25,000 statewide. But they are in the forefront of some exciting trends. Total vineyard acreage in Washington is growing at about 10 percent annually, and most of the new plantings are red Bordeaux varietals and Syrah, the strengths of these two regions. According to data from the Washington Wine Commission, red winegrapes now represent 56 percent of the state's total acreage, up from 36 percent six years ago.

Grower Jim Holmes first scouted Red Mountain in the early 1970s. Then it was just a dry, dusty mound of rock covered with sagebrush, but he saw something he liked. "We looked at the soil," he recalls, "and it had everything you could want. Highly calcareous, lots of hunks of white calcium all over the place. But at the time it was like the frontier out here: no roads, no water, no power, no people. Just sagebrush."

RED MOUNTAIN AVA

As we go to press, Washington's newest viticultural appellation has passed its final review period and is just waiting for the gears of bureaucracy to crank one last turn to make it official. The Red Mountain AVA is an important milestone for this state's wine industry, as it is the most focused appellation yet in terms of both its geographical boundaries and specific terroir.

Oddly enough, Red Mountain is not a mountain at all—it's a hilltop at the eastern edge of the Yakima Valley, rising some 1,400 feet above Benton City and lying a few miles west of Richland, one of the Tri-Cities. First planted in 1975, it now is home to about 600 acres of mostly red winegrapes, grown at elevations ranging from 600 to 1,000 feet on gentle southwest-facing slopes. As proposed, the AVA encompasses approximately 3,400 acres, with the potential for up to 2,700 bearing acres.

Red Mountain is currently home to Hedges Cellars, Kiona and several smaller producers, including Blackwood Canyon, Oakwood Cellars, Seth Ryan and Terra Blanca. There are a total of 13 vineyards on the mountain, most notably the Hedges estate vineyards and the Red Mountain Vineyards, Ciel du Cheval and Klipsun properties, which provide grapes to many of the state's top properties.

Lorne Jacobson, national sales manager for Hedges, has spearheaded the effort to obtain official BATF certification for the Red Mountain AVA. Requirements included providing scientific evidence that the area is distinguished from other existing areas by its soil and climate; that it is clearly delineated geographically; and that its name is generally recognized and has historical significance.

As Jacobson explains it, the name Red Mountain shows up on maps dating back to the early 1900s. Supposedly it derives from a type of native grass, called cheatgrass, that turns red in the spring. Using data collected over many years by Washington State University, Jacobson found that Red Mountain could be clearly differentiated climatically from the rest of the Yakima Valley, which in turn is a subset of the vast Columbia Valley AVA.

"We found differences in rainfall, solar units, maximum high and minimum low temperatures, frost, you name it," he says. "One part of it is that the temperatures on Red Mountain average as much as eight to ten degrees warmer than those at the west end of the valley."

In addition, there's a sizable gap in the ridge of mountains just to the north, which allows cooler air to flow down from Canada. Consequently, Red Mountain typically heats up fairly early in the morning, then cools off late in the day as the winds pick up and bring in Canadian airflow. This in turn heightens the contrast between very warm daytime temperatures and very cool nighttime readings.

What it all adds up to, many winemakers agree, is that Red Mountain Cabernet and Merlot grapes ripen early, achieve full maturity with exceptional balance, and convey a unique sense of the particular soils of the region. Says Jacobson, "It's like a second-growth Bordeaux coupled with the ripeness of Napa or Sonoma—both opulent and racy at the same time. I really think it's a winning combination." —P.G.

 

Twenty-five years later, his 110-acre Ciel du Cheval Vineyard supplies grapes to more than a dozen leading wineries, among them Andrew Will, Quilceda Creek, Waterbrook, DeLille, Bookwalter and Barnard Griffin. Neighbor Tricia Gelles, who owns the 120-acre Klipsun Vineyard, supplies many of the same producers, along with Woodward Canyon, L'Ecole No. 41, Seven Hills and Hedges.

In Red Mountain wines, many of which are already vineyard-designated, a distinctive terroir can be found. On the one hand, they have what Quilceda Creek's Al Golitzen calls "Big Kahuna" fruit. On average, Red Mountain gets about five degrees hotter than the rest of the Yakima Valley during the peak of the growing season—with average highs in the mid 90s—and grapes ripen accordingly, yielding big, black, powerful wines that still retain the acids needed for balance and aging.

In addition, there is an extra dimension of depth and texture, readily apparent in such wines as Hedges 1997 Red Mountain Reserve, a $45 Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot blend that's lushly perfumed with blueberry, black cherry and red fruits. It's a classic Red Mountain red: built to last. Taken as a group, Red Mountain wines seem to express all that is best about Washington viticulture. Grapes grown here achieve a state of "hyperripeness," the result of a long growing season and the dramatic temperature swings during harvest time between the toasty days and chilly nights.

Norm McKibben, last year's Washington "Grape Grower of the Year" and the current chairman of the Washington Wine Commission, explains: "The same thing that sets the acids and gives good color to our apples also works in the vineyard, and that's the cold nights. We keep pounding on quality because we can't out-produce California. But we truly believe we can compete on a quality basis with Napa, and our production costs [and in turn, the cost of the finished wines] are so much less. Just look at the cost of land down there!" Indeed, in Napa prime vineyard land has topped the $100,000-per-acre mark, while in Washington, costs are generally about $10,000 per acre.

If any one thing stands in the way of continued growth, it is the problem of water rights. In recent years, and seemingly for political reasons, new water rights have been frozen statewide. Even new wells are forbidden in places such as Red Mountain. About the only way to get water for vineyards in previously unirrigated areas is to buy or trade for someone else's water rights. Worse still, the furor over vanishing salmon runs has brought the Endangered Species Act to bear, and some vineyards that already have water rights face the threat of losing them if existing dams are taken out, as has been proposed.

While confounding to farmers, difficulties involving water and irrigation have always been central to the development of eastern Washington's agriculture. Once you cross the Cascade Mountains, it's mostly desert. Almost 200,000 acres of sagebrush burned in a four-day wildfire in late June, and except for the fact that much of it bordered the Hanford nuclear facility, no one would have cared. But where there is water, often taken from the Columbia, Snake and Yakima rivers, there are orchards, vineyards and fields bursting with fruits and vegetables.

McKibben, who grows grapes, apples and onions on close to 600 acres at Pepper Bridge in the Walla Walla Valley, draws his water from a sophisticated system of wells, all linked and regulated by computer. For the moment, his water is secure, and he's moving full speed ahead with construction of a state-of-the-art, gravity-flow winery. The first Pepper Bridge release will be a 1998 Cabernet Sauvignon, due out next spring.

Together, Pepper Bridge and McKibben's other property, the Seven Hills Vineyard (which he co-owns with Leonetti's Gary Figgins and L'Ecole's Marty Clubb), comprise 400 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Malbec, Cabernet Franc and Sangiovese, the lion's share of the valley's 1,000-acre total.

The Walla Walla Valley has been a legal appellation for years, but until recently the name rarely appeared on a wine bottle, mostly because almost no grapes were grown there. The first modern-day plantings were those of the McClellan and Hendricks families, at Seven Hills in the early 1980s; their Seven Hills Winery began production in 1989.

Initially this created more confusion about the meaning of the Walla Walla appellation, as the Seven Hills winery and vineyard were located across the state border, in Oregon. Recently, having sold the vineyard, the McClellans have moved the winery back across the border, and though grapes that may go into Walla Walla-labeled wines may legally be grown in both states, all of the wineries bottling Walla Walla wines are in Washington.

Despite the small amount of local grapes, the region's wineries have over the years acquired a reputation for producing bold, muscular, oaky red wines, along with some of the state's best Chardonnays and Sémillons. In particular, it was the pioneering efforts of Leonetti, Woodward Canyon and L'Ecole No. 41 that put Walla Walla on the map. And today all three are still at the top of their game.

At Leonetti Cellar this past summer, Gary Figgins and his son Chris were doing final blends on the 1998 Cabernets, getting ready to bottle the 1999 Merlot and Sangiovese, and putting the finishing touches on a massive Mediterranean-style winery building that will accommodate long rows of unstacked barrels in three vast underground caves. Leonetti, the valley's oldest winery (in production since 1978), isn't planning to grow significantly beyond its current 4,600 cases, but Figgins isn't resting on his laurels either. One indication of change: With the 1999 vintage, and for the first time, virtually all of Leonetti's Cabernet was sourced from Walla Walla Valley vineyards.

Figgins recently purchased a 40-acre site adjacent to the winery, and will use it to further expand his Walla Walla program. He insists that the move is not just local boosterism; if he wanted to, he could draw fruit from top vineyards statewide. "We see a combination of strength of character and structure, along with a floral quality that you don't see in other regions," Figgins explains. "So what you have is more of a seamless, gratifying wine. You have that softness but you still have some grip to allow the wine to age."

The newest releases from Leonetti show that Figgins is back in top form, after the freeze-crippled 1996 vintage forced him to buy grapes from out of state. If his 1998 Merlot isn't the best $50 Merlot in the world, then I don't know what is. It's dark, thick and jammy, with dense layers of fruit, spice and oak highlighted with scents of sandalwood, coffee, mint, pepper and more. Big, rich, long and deep, it's ready to drink right now. In contrast, the 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon ($55) needs some time to knit itself together. The palate impression is still young, firm and tight, with tart loganberry fruit that has a nice tang to it. Unfortunately for the consumer eager to snag a Leonetti bottling or two in the local wine shop, both wines are highly allocated—and the mailing list is full.

Over at Woodward Canyon, Figgins' long-time friend Rick Small becomes hyperkinetic when asked about the changes sweeping the valley. "It's an absolutely wonderful place to be growing grapes," he enthuses. "But at this point in time, it's more about the style of winemaking than the style of vineyards. The wines in Walla Walla are not manufactured or mass-produced. We are trying to do everything we can to craft wines like artisans."

Jeff Gordon, a pioneering grower in the Yakima Valley, went against the grain in the early '80s by planting red grapes instead of riesling.
New faces
Six years ago you could count the number of Walla Walla-based wineries on one hand; today the most recent map shows 18 different wineries and tasting rooms in the area. Add in newly bonded wineries with still-unreleased wines, and that number is close to 30 and climbing. Vineyard acreage in the Walla Walla AVA is expected to double within two years, and triple within five, helped somewhat by a proposed expansion of the geographical borders.

Amid all the new wineries, there are, in particular, three exciting newcomers whose wines perfectly express the energy, talent and focus driving the new generation of Walla Walla winemakers.

Cayuse Vineyards (profiled in Vine Cuttings in May) is off to an impressive start with its first releases of Syrah. Owner/winegrower Christophe Baron, who was born into a winemaking family in Champagne, brings a Frenchman's appreciation for the soil to his adopted home. While scouting land south of the town of Walla Walla a few years ago, he noticed something that had somehow been overlooked by the locals: a neglected apple orchard dotted with hundreds of smooth, round cobblestones. He dug down below the grass and weeds and, to his delight, discovered an ancient riverbed densely packed with rock as far down as he could go. No one in his right mind would set out to plant such a miserable patch of ground, but Baron saw a chance to duplicate the famous rocky vineyards of the Rhône Valley.

"You have to respect your ground," he insists. "This is the most important thing.
To make a vin de terroir, this is compulsory." Today, Baron's Cobblestone Vineyard (recently renamed the Cailloux Vineyard to avoid potential legal diffi-culties with a California winery) consists of ten meticulously manicured acres of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Viognier. Vigorously plucking off young bunches of grapes on a sweltering 103° summer afternoon, he can barely contain his excitement. "I love to drop fruit," he says, tossing another cluster away. "This will help to create even more intense wine. This is crucial to reach the ultimate quality."

WASHINGTON'S FIELD GENERALS

The ongoing synergy between the big and small wineries in Washington would impress even the biggest fans of open-market competition.

Not so terribly long ago, questions such as "on which side of the Potomac are Washington's grapes grown?" were all too common, and the Columbia Valley AVA wasn't even officially designated until 1984. A few now-big wineries were instrumental in changing all that.

Chateau Ste. Michelle, since its acquisition in 1976 by U.S. Tobacco's Stimson Lane Vineyards & Estates, has been Washington's most visible winery, dedicated to promoting the region rather than just its own brand. Under the leadership of CEO Allen Shoup (who after more than 15 years at the helm of Stimson Lane recently announced his retirement, effective July 2001), the Chateau and its constantly expanding family of sister properties (Columbia Crest and Domaine Ste. Michelle among them) have set the quality standard for the state and opened countless retail doors for other Washington wineries.

Meanwhile, the Corus Brands family of wineries, built around Washington's other great pioneer property, Columbia Winery, continues to grow, and now includes Paul Thomas, Covey Run, Cascade Ridge and Idaho's Ste. Chapelle in its lineup. Columbia's winemaker David Lake, a Master of Wine, is entering his third decade of winemaking in Washington and has most recently been in the forefront of the growing commitment to Syrah. More than anything else, Lake's string of a dozen well-made, ageworthy vintages of Syrah, the result of careful work with Red Willow Vineyard owner Mike Sauer, provides convincing evidence that Washington's soils and microclimates can echo, without exactly replicating, those of the Rhône.

Hogue is in close competition with Corus for the title of Washington's second-biggest winemaking operation, after Stimson Lane and its Columbia Crest/Domaine Ste. Michelle/Chateau Ste. Michelle triumverate. Mike Hogue says his family-owned enterprise will produce 430,000 cases this year. He notes that the biggest challenge he and his brother Gary face is to increase both the volume and quality of their wines. To that end, the Hogues a couple of years ago launched the Genesis line, a small winery within a larger winery, which Mike Hogue calls the "research and development" arm of the company. Genesis allows Hogue's winemakers to work with small lots of fruit, sometimes from a single block within a larger vineyard, and to experiment with different styles and grapes. Hogue's Syrah was introduced in just this way, and more recently, the winery's first Sangiovese.

It's too soon to know how important either Syrah or Sangiovese will be for the state in the long run, but one thing is clear: It has been the leadership provided by the big wineries—in marketing, vineyard research, and experimentation—with new or revived varieties, such as Ste. Michelle's Eroica Riesling, Columbia's Red Willow Syrah, and Hogue's Genesis Sangiovese, that continues to pave the way for the smaller wineries to keep their tight focus and find a ready market for their products—no matter which side of the Potomac they're grown on. —P.G.

 

Another young winemaker on a quality quest is Eric Dunham, whose Dunham Cellars makes a tiny amount of 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon each year. The highly allocated wines are vintage-dated and also numbered with Roman numerals, so the current release, from 1997, is III, and the 1998, due out in November, will be IV. Dunham's Cabernet is a serious wine. "I'm trying to do it right the first time. I don't believe in skimping," he says. The 1997 ($45) is powerful and compact, with a concentrated core of black fruit and the structure for long-term aging. Though sold out at the winery, it can still be found at some wine-dedicated restaurants in New York, Boston and Seattle. The 1998, tasted some months before its release, is youthful and firm, with concentrated fruit, good grip, and stiff tannins. About 1,200 cases will be released this fall.

At Glen Fiona, an early commitment to focus exclusively on Syrah has placed winemaker Berle "Rusty" Figgins at the forefront of the hottest wine trend in the state. He makes three different Syrahs, which are released in unison each spring. Current vintages include a fragrant, seductive 1999 Bacchus Vineyard ($20), a tannic, peppery 1998 Walla Walla Valley bottling (fermented with a little bit of Viognier in the traditional Côte-Rôtie manner; $40), and a stunning 1997 Basket Press Reserve Syrah ($55), which is dense, deep and convincingly Rhône-like.

Figgins came to winemaking via a casual apprenticeship with his older brother Gary at Leonetti, then migrated from Walla Walla to Wagga Wagga (Australia), where he became enchanted by Shiraz. "I was thinking I could not do Cabernet and Merlot," he recalls, "because I would forever be compared with my brother. I had to make my own mark, and I saw that with Syrah, which I love. Also, the Syrah playing field wasn't that crowded in Washington."

 

TOURING WALLA WALLA

The city of Walla Walla, population 30,000, is located in rolling farm country in the southeast corner of the state. It is a charming town of Victorian homes and lovingly restored old brick buildings. It is also home to some 28 wineries, several with tasting rooms right in town.

From Seattle, Walla Walla is about a four-and-a-half-hour drive; Horizon Air also offers several daily flights from Sea-Tac International Airport. An overview of the town, restaurants, lodging, and special events can be found on the web at www.wallawallawa.com. During the annual Walla Walla Hot Air Balloon Stampede, held the first two weekends in May, many wineries host open houses. There are also special winery events and open houses during the end-of-year holiday season. Unless you like it very hot and dry, you may want to avoid visiting during the middle of summer, when temperatures regularly top 100°F.

For a taste of pioneer grandeur, the old Marcus Whitman Hotel, originally built in 1928, is opening 50 newly restored guestrooms, phase one of an ambitious renovation (for information call 509/525-2200). The loveliest place to stay is surely the Mill Creek Inn, located a few miles east of town on 22 bucolic acres. Owners Greg and Vanessa Finch have wrought magic with the rundown old farm, turning turn-of-the-century outbuildings into luxurious private cottages. The former chicken coop is particularly wonderful, and Vanessa's breakfasts are worth the stay all by themselves. There are also two wineries on the sizable grounds, Titus Creek and Glen Fiona; they will soon be joined by two more. Rooms start at $100 and book up well in advance. Call 509/522-1234 or reserve through their website at www.millcreekbb.com. There are also several inexpensive motels in the area, along with a handful of B&Bs.

In town, four wineries operate attractive tasting rooms. Canoe Ridge Vineyard is in the old electric railway depot at 1102 West Cherry Street. It's open daily from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the summer, and from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. in winter. Phone 509/527-0885 or visit www.canoeridgevineyard.com for details. Cayuse and Waterbrook are both in the heart of the old part of town, just a few doors apart at 17 East Main and 31 East Main, respectively. For visiting hours check www.cayusevineyards.com (phone 509/526-0686) or www.waterbrook.com (phone 509/522-1262).

Seven Hills Winery has recently moved from Milton-Freewater, across the border in Oregon, to a wonderful new facility in a former woodworking plant at Third and Cherry. Its website is www.sevenhillswinery.com and the phone number is 509/529-7198. Located in the same building is Walla Walla's newest and finest white tablecloth restaurant, Whitehouse-Crawford. Manager Tom Uberuaga has a good selection of area wines (all current vintages, alas) and the menu offers a limited amount of well- prepared seafood, poultry and beef dishes, and fresh, local produce, most notably Walla Walla sweet onions. Dinner for two with wine costs around $100. For reservations call 509/525-2222.

In addition, Jacobi's at the Depot features generous portions of prime rib served in a restored Pullman dining car. Casual dining is the specialty at the Homestead, which also features an extensive wine list. —P.G.

 

He frequently blends Old World tools and techniques—such as the basket press, spontaneous inoculation with natural yeasts, and co-fermentation of different types of grapes—with New World training and technology. Something Figgins calls "pneumatage," a word he claims to have invented, is used on his early-release Bacchus Vineyard Syrah. It's a kinder, gentler alternative to punching down or pumping over the cap during fermentation, whereby a sequential series of pulses of sterile compressed air is introduced into the bottom of the fermentation vat. "You're not oxidizing the wine, you're giving it a breath of fresh air," he says.

Next year, by which time Glen Fiona's new winery space will be operational, Figgins is going to be doing all fermenting in neutral wood puncheons, which he calls "beautiful in terms of a higher wine-to-wood ratio. Our aim is to not make woody wines, like we're ashamed of our fruit."

Without question, the story today in Washington is quality, quality, quality. The focus is on red wines, with Syrah the most likely candidate to capture the hearts of consumers, just as Merlot did a decade ago.

But there is experimentation everywhere. Everything from Riesling (see our mixed case for a superb new example) to Sangiovese, to still more exotic varietals are being looked at, tested out and evaluated. To steal a line from Washington's own Bill Gates: "The future's so bright we're wearing shades!"

Faces of Walla Walla Christophe Baron a Frenchman specializing in Rhône style wines
A Mixed Case of Washington

Red Wines
93 DeLille 1997 Chaleur Estate (Yakima Valley); $40. A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc that captures the lead-pencil/cigar-box nuances of a nice Pauillac, and uses the deep, dark, slightly bitter black-cherry fruit to full advantage.

93 Andrew Will 1998 Ciel du Cheval Merlot (Washington); $45. Bright, forward, and intensely fruity in the typical Andrew Will mold. This is a concentrated, tight wine that tastes just like the essence of raspberries floating in vanilla cream. Ends with a long, focused finish.

92 Dunham 1997 III Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley); $45. Aromas of cassis and black fruits, with an added bite of dark chocolate and roast coffee. This is still a young wine, powerful and compact, with a concentrated core of black fruit. The finish is streaked with licorice, coffee and bitter chocolate, and the structure is in place for long-term aging.

91 Columbia 1998 Red Willow Vineyard Syrah (Yakima Valley); $25. From the oldest Syrah vines in the state, this proven ager comes out big and briary. Dark, dense, even brooding, it is scented with black pepper, leather, tar and smoke. It's powerful without being heavy; a sculpted wine whose rich, meaty fruit is heavily guarded with oak and tannins.

88 Hedges 1998 Cabernet-Merlot (Columbia Valley); $13. This is the value star of the Hedges lineup, with a beefy, meaty nose, layers of thick, ripe red fruits, and well-defined, sculpted tannins. Elegant, balanced and approachable, it is everything one could hope for in a budget red.

88 Chinook 1999 Cabernet Franc Rosé (Yakima Valley); $13. Wonderful scents of dried citrus rind, flower petals, cloves, and spices lead into a seductive, dry, and expressive rosé that packs a lot of power on an elegant frame.

White Wines
93 Woodward Canyon 1999 Celilo Vineyard Chardonnay (Washington); $37. Stunningly rich on the nose, with roasted nuts, creamy butter and lime/kiwi/apple fruit. Truly amazing structure and balance, with the kind of extra dimensions typical of a top Burgundy.

92 L'Ecole No. 41 1999 Fries Vineyard Sémillon (Columbia Valley); $22. Ripe, with a golden-yellow color, this immense Sémillon is extreme winemaking at its most successful. Ultraripe, barrel-fermented fruit delivers all sorts of apricots, peaches and vanilla cream.

91 Canoe Ridge 1999 Chardonnay (Columbia Valley); $13. A bright, sweet nose of tropical fruit. Forward and lively, with excellent concentration. The fruit shines here; white peaches with a hint of mineral at the core; pure and tangy with a natural sweetness in the finish. Great value.

91 Chateau Ste. Michelle/Dr. Loosen 1999 Eroica Riesling (Columbia Valley); $20. A landmark collaboration between Germany's Ernst Loosen and Stimson Lane's flagship Washington winery. Fine-tuned, elegant and powerful, with a concentrated nose of citrus, apricot and white peaches. Firm and racy on the palate, with anise and mineral notes.

91 Waterbrook 1999 Viognier (Columbia Valley); $18. Citrus blossom, apricot, and fresh flowers liven up the nose. Exotic flavors kick in after the fruit—anise, orange rind, cilantro—then unfold into a rich, layered, lingering finish. Barrel fermented and fresh as a daisy.

89 Kiona 1998 Late Harvest Gewürztraminer (Yakima Valley); $7/375ml. Kiona has a magic touch with late-harvest wines. This one mixes orange peel, apricot, and lemon in a deep, concentrated nose. Ripe and forward, with plenty of acidity to keep it from becoming thick or syrupy.

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