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Wednesday, January 22, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Every state now has at least one winery, some surprisingly good

Walla Walla Union Bulletin

Want something billed as "a Taste of Old Alaska?" Visit Great Land Wines in Haines, which makes Zweibel onion wine and Pomme de Terre potato wine, along with an assortment of berry, dandelion, fireweed and mead wines.

Looking for something grapy, crimson and sweet? Head down south to Gadsden in northern Alabama to sample Wills Creek Vineyards' muscadine grape wines.

Or, instead of imagining hints of apple and pear in your gewürztraminer or raspberries in your cabernet, a trip to Maine's Winterport Winery will yield fermentations of the genuine articles.

The United States is now one nation under wine — albeit a fruit bowl of varieties and styles — with North Dakota becoming the 50th state to have at least one winery. By year's end the state had two.

Apart from the potpourri produced for inquisitive palates, many growers are trying their luck at planting the classic, pure strain of European vitis vinifera grapes, such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah and chardonnay varietals that made the West Coast the top tier of the nation's premium-wine production.

"This is an exciting development for America," said Bob Betz, one of about 250 certified masters of wine in the world and vice president of winemaking research for Woodinville-based Stimson Lane Vineyards and Estates. "Local wineries build interest, interest builds trial, experimentation and expansion of interest. Ultimately this leads to a vigorous wine market in all its dimensions."

It's in that spirit that Selah Heights Winery, one of 32 newcomers over the past two years to push Washington's number of wineries to 240, is testing boundaries. Mike Clark, a home winemaker for 20 years, started the Yakima-area winery with his father, Royce. Last year they released their first reds and whites from the 2000 and 2001 vintages.

But to stand out among Washington's European-style wines, Clark made a Nouveau Merlot from grapes picked in October and processed and bottled in time for Thanksgiving. Not only was it released more than a year ahead of traditional winery-aged merlots, Clark also decided to leave the wine naturally cloudy instead of filtering and fining it to remove grape sediment.

"I liked it better that way," said Clark. "It has a citrusy flavor. The closest thing I would say it comes to is a sangria, only dry."

Taking a lead in pioneering places and approaches to winemaking are Virginia and North Carolina.

Combined the two states now have more than 100 wineries, according to www.allamericanwineries.com, a Web site listing 2,221 U.S. wineries. The site is maintained by Bob Hodge, a San Francisco Bay Area native living in North Carolina's Yadkin Valley, which in December became the newest of the 149 federally recognized wine-growing appellations in the country.

A retired contract-fraud investigator for the U.S. Department of Defense, Hodge said he has made a point of visiting wineries and sampling their products around the nation during his travels.

"Being a native Northern Californian, you kind of get snooty about California wines," Hodge said. "But I have recently acquired a taste for New York wines, and it would blow people from the West Coast away if they tried some good Virginia and North Carolina wines."

The two states are in the birthplace of American winemaking, practiced by no less than Thomas Jefferson. And the Yadkin Valley, Daniel Boone's boyhood home in the eastern foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, was a launching pad for the early western migration that helped expand the craft and agriculture in general across the nation.

Hodge said many of the wines today are made with French-American hybrids rather than the winter-hardy native grapes used through the 1800s. But modern wine pioneers — many former tobacco growers — are finding success with riesling, chardonnay and viognier among white wines, and cabernet and merlot among reds.

The inland Piedmont region is on the same latitude that bisects the Mediterranean Sea between North Africa and Southern Europe. But at an average of 1,200 feet above sea level, the area has winters cold enough to thwart many vine diseases but not so cold that they will kill the plants, Hodge said.

That similarity to some of the world's best wine-producing regions was at least part of what encouraged Joe and Joyce Neely in 2000 to build their winery in the Yadkin Valley.

RayLen Winery, named after daughters Rachael and Helen, was a 115-acre dairy farm and hay field that in the past two years has sprouted vineyards and a 13,000-square-foot production facility designed to handle up to 20,000 cases a year.

"This year's total production is 8,000 cases," said Steve Shepard, company vice president and winemaker, adding that the 2001 vintage was nearly sold out over the holiday season. "We probably will not have enough to carry us until the new wines are released this summer. I guess it's a good problem to have."

The wines produced are mostly vitis vinifera varietals, he said. "We have found that most all of the varieties of grapes we grow do well, but the two best whites are chardonnay and viognier, the two best reds being merlot and syrah, with cab franc very close behind. Ask me in a few years and I may tell you different."

RayLen also is experimenting with riesling, pinot grigio and petite verdot.

Betz said there are still many undiscovered sites around the nation, including in Washington, with the kind of soils, terrain and microclimates that will support premium wine grapes if managed by conscientious growers.

"I had a viognier from Virginia that was among the best I've had in the U.S.," he said. "I've tasted through many of the Texas and New Mexico wines with good results (although) Colorado's have been ho-hum."

But Washington, Oregon and California vintners need not worry about being upstaged anytime soon by other wine regions in the nation, according to Betz.

"For me, the three West Coast states offer the best terroirs for consistent, classic wine production," he said. "Temperature ranges, growing-season length, (sunlight) intensity, soils, topography, pest issues — all point to a superior area to cultivate these varieties.

"And the proof has been in the pleasure."

Thomas P. Skeen: 509-525-3300 or tskeen@ubnet.com.

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