Quick Word Association Test: What do you think of when you hear "Washington state wine"? If wine doesn't come to mind, then you're in the unfortunate majority. Unfortunate because you're missing out on some really tasty, budget-price wines. Washington state's 200-plus wineries drip with value and quality, but the lack of buzz hasn't created the love connection with consumers. Washington winemakers appear to be a humble, quiet lot, compared with the marketing machine that is California, which has a few more years of experience under its belt. Before 1980, essentially none of the current Washington wineries existed, with the exception of two. But with California prices skyrocketing in the past several years, it's time wine lovers get to know the relatively unknown, immense growing wine area of Washington.
Chances are, you've tasted a few Washington wines; you just didn't know it. They're not boastful, but they easily could be. If you've tasted the popular Columbia Crest label — the state's largest producer — you've experienced easy-on-the-wallet, yet well-made wines with depth and character. So much of California's juice in the lower price range lacks flavor, finesse and personality, but the value wines from Washington really have that pizzazz I seek out in the under $15 range.
You might wonder about the climate in Washington. When people think of the Evergreen State, they visualize Seattle and its drippy conditions, but most of the state sweats in the heat, getting very little rain. In the vast eastern part of the state lie the sprawling Yakima, Columbia, and Walla Walla valleys, where the majority of the state's wine grapes are grown. Given plenty of irrigation, grapes thrive in these conditions, even with the cold northern winters. Names like Merlot, Chardonnay, Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Cabernet Sauvignon seem perfectly happy in the sometimes harsh weather in those parts. Washington also grows an obscure red grape called Lemberger, the darling of many in-staters, so the rest of us see little of this light, fruity, Beaujolais-like wine. Hogue Cellars releases a few hundred cases, so seek it out if you're craving something fun and interesting.
Despite the natural obstacles, the Washington wine industry continues to grow rapidly. Watch and see them kick some California ass. We're the ones who'll win.
Wine Editor Taylor Eason can be reached at 813-248-8888 ext. 162 or [email protected].
Chateau Ste. Michelle 2000 Syrah A really impressive Syrah for only $11. Lush blackberry, plum and hint of spice. Priced low enough for school-night enjoyment. 1/2
Sagelands 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon A Cab for silky smooth, jammy wine lovers. It sports a slightly oaky, musky kind of finish, but a bright raspberry fix on the way down. $16
Columbia Crest 2001 Semillon-Chardonnay Best of the tasting for value and taste. Easy, smooth drinking with exotic flavors like pineapple and melon. Don't ponder it; just drink lots of it. $7
L'Ecole No. 41 1998 Merlot An extraordinarily smooth, well-crafted Merlot worth twice the price. The black pepper and cherry caress your nose then douse your tongue in an elegant wave of sexy berries. Fabulous. $35 1/2
Hogue Cellars Genesis 2000 Syrah A veritable fruit salad of flavors. Kickin' with cherry, black pepper, blackberry and even plum. Great yummy factor in this one. $20
Past Recommended Washington Wines:
Chateau Ste. Michelle Eroica 2001 Riesling, 7/2002, $17
Hogue Cellars 2000 Johannisberg Riesling, 7/2002, $8 1/2
Domaine Ste. Michelle Cuvee Brut NV, 12/2001, $9
Hogue Cellars 2000 Fume Blanc, 11/2001, $10
Columbia Crest 1999 Chardonnay, 11/2001, $10 1/2