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Wednesday, May 4, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Cabernet ages well at Otis Vineyard

Otis Vineyard cabernet sauvignons


Classic older vintages (no longer available)

1981: Strongly herbal, peppery, mineral. Fruit is faded but elegant; tasting perceptibly of raspberries. Evolves beautifully in the glass.

1985: Cedar, tobacco, leather. Still sweet on the palate, with generous fruit and a classic, Bordeaux structure; some mint/menthol sneaks in, too.

1986: Another glorious bouquet, with pepper and cinnamon and hints of meat; good length, soft tannins and plenty of tart pie cherry fruit.

Library vintages (for sale at winery)

1991 ($45): Typical Otis aromatics: jalapeo pepper, a sweet spice note, smoke, grave. There's a nuanced elegance to this wine, graceful and lingering.

1992 ($35): Mix of meat, smoke, herb, with a strong spine of cardamom. Open and sensuous, drinking really well right now; just starting to show the tea tannins.

1994 ($30): Still youthful, with scents of pure cherry and good concentration. Shows some of the same tobacco and tar as the Millennium wine; deep color and more mass and weight than most Otis.

1995 ($25): Elegant, with plenty of acid and tannin; soft, peppery fruit.

1998 ($20): Ripe fruit highlighted with hay, alfalfa. A bit of cayenne heat in the finish. Rounding out, spicy with good acid and texture; includes 10 percent merlot.

Current vintages

1999 ($25): Firm and a bit tough, tannic; with black currant, black pepper and dried sage aromas. Concentrated, dense, thick, and still quite young. Sold out at the winery, but some shops may still have it in stock.

2000 ($25): Young, round, fruity, approachable, "modern" Otis with good cherry/plum flavors. Nice spicy highlights and round, pretty fruit.

GRANDVIEW, Yakima County — Standing in the Otis Vineyard, on a crisp, cloud-studded Yakima Valley spring day, I am surrounded by some of the most beautiful cabernet vines in the world.

Gnarled, sculpted and twisted by time, their shaggy trunks as much as 6 or 8 inches in diameter, they corkscrew skyward, forming row upon row of fan-shaped dancers. Trellised shoots are just beginning to push new buds. This will be the vineyard's 49th season, a remarkable age for cabernet in Washington state. "As far as I know," winemaker David Lake explains, "this is the oldest cabernet vineyard outside of California in the country. And there is hardly any 50-year-old cabernet even in California."

These old vines are survivors, pioneers from a distant time when the Washington wine industry was largely based upon high-yielding grapes such as sultana, palomino, alicante and salvador. Those vines were heavily irrigated to produce the maximum tonnage, then augmented at fermentation with bags of sugar and turned into high octane "sherry" and "port."

The original six acres of Otis cab were planted by Otis Harlan in 1957. He tells me that it was used for a cheap rosé, and also as part of a California-style "Burgundy" blend that was marketed for a number of years under the Alhambra label. "We were even thinking of using corks for that wine," he recalls — a radical departure from the screw-capped wines of the day — "until we found out that not many people had corkscrews!"

David Lake came to work at Columbia Winery (then called Associated Vintners) in September 1979. He remembers that he was so impressed with the Otis fruit that fall that he based his now-famous 1979 "Millennium" cabernet upon it. Tasted a few weeks ago, I found that it remains a remarkable wine, showing brick-colored edges but still a dark, black cherry color in the center. Almost Barolo-like in both look and flavor, it's scented with tar and leather, rose petals and cut tobacco. There is not a trace of exhaustion; it's a mature, confident, truly lovely wine.

Columbia got no Otis fruit in 1980, but beginning in 1981, Lake has made a vineyard-designated Otis cabernet sauvignon in every vintage. The wine is always 100 percent Otis and usually 100 percent cabernet, and it is released well after the vintage (the 2000 Otis is just now coming onto the market).

I won't pretend it is an easy wine to love. Otis does not romance you with sweet, succulent fruit or toasty new oak. In fact, I have often found that newly released vintages of Otis are rather hard, unyielding wines, occasionally quite tannic, usually marked by a distinctive peppery, herbal nose. They were, and continue to be, the antithesis of the sweet, super-ripe California cabs that have been à la mode for the past couple of decades. But I sense that popular tastes are beginning to trend away from all that alcohol, jammy fruit and new oak. About to enter its second half century, Otis may have finally arrived.

Otis wines are food wines. They taste best when enjoyed with a good meal. These cabs are much closer to Bordeaux in their structure than they are to Napa. They display the classic herbal aromas of the cabernet varietal — the sort of lightly vegetative scents prevalent in even the best young Bordeaux — along with fairly hard tannins and tightly knit layers of tart red fruit.

These same qualities make them remarkably cellar-worthy. It is not just because the vineyard is so old that it attracted my attention. It is because David Lake, whose palate has earned him a Master of Wine credential, has been so steadfastly dedicated to these vines; he tastes something special here. And also because I suspected that tasting old Otis cabs would be a very different experience from tasting them young.

When I asked him about the "ageability" of Otis, Lake kindly offered to pour me a number of well-cellared examples from the winery's library. That is how I came to be sitting at a conference-room table at Columbia, eagerly eyeballing 19 vintages of Otis cabernet. As I waited, I noticed that the air in the room was already perfumed with the scents of sandalwood, cedar, mocha, roasted nuts and Asian spices. These are the smells of great, old cabernet, and already they had begun to answer the questions I wanted to explore.

How does this most distinctive of Washington cabernets age? Do these Otis wines last, and if so, do they evolve? The answer, briefly, is that many of the older wines had blossomed beautifully into complex, nuanced wines. Inevitably, some vintages had worn out, and Lake has "retired" the Otis cabs from 1982, 1984, 1987 and 1990.

The entire Otis vineyard comprises 120 acres, with many newer plantings, including this state's first pinot gris and Dijon-clone chardonnay vines. It continues to evolve, and since 2000 has been managed by Terry Herrmann, who is introducing sustainable viticulture practices, revitalizing the soil, and in collaboration with Lake, ripening the fruit a bit further than in the past.

"In the recent years we've been getting a better handle on the bearing of these older vines," says Lake. "The styles [of future Otis cabs] will tend to be perhaps more mainstream. Some of the warmer years probably will be less acidic and won't last as long. We're not immune to the tendency to let things hang, but in the case of Otis it's more about controlling the yields a bit more."

Owner Otis Harlan rather sadly notes that he sees a lot of his grapes dropped on the ground these days, a yield-reducing practice called green harvesting. "I'll bet they look just like dollar bills," I tell him, and he nods.

Such is the price of greatness. It is also an indication that, even after 48 vintages, those old vines are going strong.

Paul Gregutt is the author of "Northwest Wines." His column appears weekly in the Wine section. He can be reached by e-mail at wine@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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