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Wednesday, February 12, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Wine Adviser / Paul Gregutt

Washington's newest group of wineries shows promise

The most current figures put the number of licensed Washington state wineries around 240, a figure inconceivable to those of us who remember when there was barely a tenth that many. Just two years ago, Washington Wine Commission Executive Director Steve Burns famously observed that Washington was birthing a new winery every 13 days!

In recent months that pace has slowed, but because it takes, on average, a couple of years between the time a winery is bonded and the time that its first wines are released, the number of new wines actually coming into the marketplace continues to accelerate.

The fact is, we have a winery baby boom going on here in Washington, and it carries with it a great deal of excitement. The newcomers bring with them energy, passion, creativity and a sense that the good times are just starting to roll.

Just how good are they? At a recent tasting of more than 50 wines from 20 different wineries, I found a lot to like. The best of them expressed the ripe, pure, varietally true and vibrant flavors that typify Washington grapes. The white wines were crisp and evoked floral and citrus scents and flavors, using oak tastefully, if at all. The red wines favored the bold, jammy, oaky flavors that are so in vogue these days.

Granted, there were no instant superstars among these wineries. In fact, I found a few clunkers that really should re-check their lab work.

But if you, as I, feel it is a privilege to live in one of the world's most promising and creative new wine regions, you will support the efforts of those who are debuting with solid, well-crafted, well-priced wines.

Best buys

Syncline's 2001 Subduction Red ($10) has already been winning legions of admirers hooked on its forward, lusciously fruity mix of grenache, syrah and cabernet.

Even better is Syncline's 2001 "Milbrandt Vineyards" Syrah ($14), another immensely appealing red wine. Rough, tannic and oaky at first, it smoothes into a resonant, deep and powerfully fruity wine, with rich, dark, liquorous flavors, wrapped into a finishing kiss of sweet oak; 300 cases were made and will be released on Valentine's Day. On the Web: visit or e-mailinfo@synclinewine.com

Best bottles

For class and consistency, Rulo Winery was the star of the tasting. All three of their wines were very well-rendered, and priced a bit lower than most of their peers. Rulo's 2001 Viognier ($18) tastes fresh and clean; it's like a drink of fresh air. There is a slight saltiness to it, and a pleasing, lightly bitter flavor of citrus rind. Elegant, persistent and long, it's made in a light, lively, food-friendly style.

Rulo's 2001 "Sundance Vineyard" Chardonnay ($23) delivers clean, precise fruit carefully showcased in a very pretty, balanced, concise, elegant style. This is not a blockbuster, but it is a beautifully structured wine that shows a careful sense of craft. Hints of butter, lemon, citrus, floral and honey are all suggestively layered together.

Last but certainly not least, Rulo's 2001 Syrah ($18) is a steal. Good, sweet, complex fruit flavors mix red fruits with hints of leaf and spice. It packs plenty of power without being too alcoholic, or so oaky that the nuances of the fruit get obliterated.

Contact: Call 509-525-7856 or schlick@pocketinet.com

Brave and bold

JM Cellars is best known for its blended red named Tre Fanciulli, but the winery's 2000 Columbia Valley Cuvée ($21) is the wine that really shines. Here the style is full throttle, with flavors of blackberry jam, toast and white chocolate, along with high heat and thick, spicy tannins. The blend is 50 percent cabernet sauvignon, 44 percent merlot and 6 percent cabernet franc. You wouldn't call this a subtle wine, but it sure is big! The winery made 375 cases. Contact: www.jmcellars.com or e-mail john@jmcellars.com

Other notables

Here are some of the other wines and wineries that are worth a look-see-swallow:

Animale 2001 Syrah ($30). This wine, the first from a tiny, Seattle-based producer, won't be released until May. But it caught my attention because, in spite of its over-the-top (15.1 percent) alcohol, it packs powerhouse fruit, with excellent peppery spice.

Winemaker Matt Gubitosa says he wants to make wines "dominated by intense fruit, jam and spicy qualities true to varietal character." He's off to a good start. Just 60 cases were made. Contact: www.animalewine.com or e-mail animale@animalewine.com

Austin Robaire is a boutique winery located in Woodinville and specializing in "industrial-strength cabernet sauvignon and syrah." It does make a few cases of a fat, meaty and expensive ($55) "Select" cabernet bottling, but almost as good (at half the price) is the winery's regular 2000 Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($26). It's made in a drink-now, pleasing, soft and plummy style, with sweet red fruits played against slightly green, coffee-flavored tannins. The winery made 160 cases. Visit www.austinrobaire.com or e-mail wines@austinrobaire.com.

Cañon de Sol is located in Benton City, Benton County, and has done particularly well with its initial releases of syrah (currently sold out). Of the wines still available, I most liked the 2000 Meritage ($28). It was dark to the point of inky; fragrant with red and black fruits, wood and earth. In short, a very attractive wine that shows plenty of concentration and deep, dark, tarry, smoky flavors through the finish. The winery made 250 cases. Contact: www.canondesol.comor e-mail n68c89@msn.com

Chandler Reach Vineyards is a Yakima valley grower and red- wine specialist. Its 2001 Yakima Valley Syrah ($26) has sweet, forward fruit, spicy and grapey, with young wine flavors that hint at southern French herbs and gamey leather. This is beautifully ripened fruit, through which the subtle herb, leaf and spice elements are revealed. There are 450 cases of this. Contact: visit www.yakimavalleywine.com/chandler.html

Cougar Crest Winery is a Walla Walla valley grower and brand new winery, with two well-made releases. The 2001 "Hangartown Select" Merlot ($26) is for those who favor unusually dark, deep and extracted wines, as it is almost liqueurlike, with oily, sweet, alcoholic flavors; 193 cases were made. Cougar Crest's 2001 Syrah ($26) is another big wine, with lush, plummy fruit; very young and showing a lot of power. 360 cases were made. Contact: 509-529-5980.

Fox Estate's 2001 Riesling ($10) far outshines the winery's red wines, with its clean, crisp, off-dry fruit, tasting very pretty and lemony. It's almost vouvray-like, making one wish the winery would try its hand with chenin blanc. Fresh and refreshing, well done and well priced, and 1,000 cases were made. Contact: Visit www.foxorchards.com/winery/

Patit Creek Cellars hails from tiny Dayton, Columbia County, and a polished, well-made 2000 Merlot ($32) is its first release. It features Seven Hills fruit, with a bit of Pepper Bridge cabernet blended in. Pepper Bridge's Jean-Francois Pellet is the consulting winemaker and has created a balanced and sophisticated wine, with a generous amount of toasted flavors from new oak barrels. Stylistically it recalls PB's own excellent merlot from the same vintage; 300 cases were made. Contact: patitcreekcellars.com or e-mail info@patitcreekcellars.com

Upcoming wine events

Two events offer consumers the chance to taste many of the current releases from Washington state wineries. WAVE — the Washington Arriving Vintners Event — will be March 18 at the Turntable Restaurant in Seattle. Tickets are $35. Contact: www.acteva.com/go/wave

Taste Washington 2003 is the Wine Commission's annual food-and-wine blowout. Scheduled for April 6 at the Seattle Seahawks Stadium Exhibition Center, it will feature wines from 140 wineries and food offerings from 85 restaurants. This year it's offering premium ($125) tickets that allow early entrance; general admission costs $85. Ticketmaster and many local wine shops are selling tickets now. Word to the wise: This is one event that usually sells out well in advance.

Paul Gregutt is the author of "Northwest Wines." He can be reached by e-mail at wine@seattletimes.com.

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