Wine From Walla Walla

Washington wineries put the squeeze on California.

David is giving Goliath a noogie. Washington, the second-largest wine-producing state in America, is ready to rumble with California. The state now boasts more than 400 wineries and eight designated growing regions (or appellations), three established in the last two years. Sixty-seven wines from 30 wineries (on 30,000 acres of vineyards) took home awards from the prestigious San Francisco Wine Competition last June, and this month, the state launches a marketing campaign designed to raise awareness of Washington State brands. You can't help but see the progress these so-called "little guys" have made. Robin Pollard, Executive Director for the Washington Wine Commission, declares: "Bring on the competition; our wines can stand up to them."

Lacking the pomp that California wineries often have, Washington wine people are a humble, quiet folk trying to earn a spot in your glass. Before 1980, essentially none of the current Washington wineries existed, but with Cali prices skyrocketing in the past several years, it's time wine lovers get to know this relatively unknown, yet growing wine region. You got $15? You can get some great Washington wine.

When people think of the Evergreen State, they visualize Seattle and its drippy conditions. But most of Washington 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 wine grapes are grown. Tall hop fields line the roads as much as vineyards, demonstrating the versatility of the land, but given a steady diet of water, grapes thrive in these conditions.

Some of Washington's best wines are merlots, syrahs and Chardonnays, but the state is also producing some excellent cabernet sauvignon, pinot gris and Riesling. Reliable, larger producers like Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia Crest — two old-school Washington wineries — lead the pack in production and quality, like the 2004 Eroica Riesling ($22), Chateau Ste. Michelle Canoe Ridge Estate Merlot ($22), and Columbia Crest Grand Estates Chardonnay ($11).

But don't ignore the higher-priced, smaller wineries. Most are worth twice the price, reminding me of high-quality, inexpensive wines from Chile and South Africa. Dunham Cellars impressed the hell out of me, especially their 2001 Trutina Cabernet Sauvignon blend ($24) and 2003 Columbia Valley Syrah ($45). And J. Bookwalter Winery produces hefty, manly tannin wines like the NV Lot 19 Red Wine ($20) and the 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon ($40).

Despite the competition, the Washington wine industry continues to grow like a weed, no longer content with its smaller piece of the consumer pie. Try and see why it's kicking some Cali ass. We're the ones who'll win.

Recommended Wines

Waterbrook Winery 2004 Chardonnay Columbia Valley (Washington) Tropical fruity, steely and very easy to drink. I could dine on this alone. Might be hard to find. Sweetness = 3. $13. 3.5 stars

Seven Hills 2004 Pinot Gris Oregon This Washington winery gets these grapes from the coast of neighboring Oregon, but it doesn't matter. Loads of fruit explode in your mouth, with gorgeous tangerine, vanilla and honeysuckle finishing dry and refreshing. Sw = 3. $14. 4.5 stars

Tucker Cellars 2003 Cabernet Franc Rosé (Washington) For those seeking a rosé with some oomph, try this one. Oddly refreshing dark cherry with a kick of astringent tannin, enough to make you pucker. Pretty cool. Sw = 2. $10. 3 stars

Hedges Family Estate 2004 CMS Red Blend Columbia Valley (Washington) CMS stands for Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah. This one has bright, fun raspberry and cherry with some spicy black pepper. Great value. Sw = 1. $12. 4 stars.

Hogue Cellars 2005 Fumé Blanc Columbia Valley Hogue is one of the granddaddies of Washington wine, and they continue to shine, especially with their white wines. This Sauvignon Blanc has tart green grassiness, with bright, bracing lemon-lime. Sw = 1. $9. 3.5 stars

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