Wednesday, January 18, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Wine Adviser

Turns out, you can save time in a bottle

Special to the Seattle Times

Pick of the week

Archetype 2004 Shiraz; $14. Barossa Valley shiraz has certainly become one of the world's favorite wines, but the "collectible" wines can cost $40 and up. Here's a bright, spicy version, loaded with sweet black cherries and hints of smoked meats. (Alaska Distributing)

Unless noted, all Wine Adviser recommendations are currently available, though vintages may sometimes differ. All wine shops and most groceries have a wine specialist on staff. Show them this column, and if they do not have the wine in stock, they can order it for you from the local distributor (noted in parentheses).

Old wines have a magic to them — at least the good ones do — because they capture history in a bottle.

I have been fortunate, on many occasions, to taste a bottle or two from the earliest years of the modern Washington wine industry. But never had I seen, much less tasted, a collection of old wines to equal those that lined my kitchen countertop one recent Friday afternoon. From Chateau Ste. Michelle and its predecessor, Ste. Michelle Vineyards, were cabernets from 1978, 1977, 1976, 1975, 1974, 1973, 1970 and 1969. From A/V (Associated Vintners), the very first winery in Washington to produce vintage-dated varietal wines, were cabernets from 1980, 1979, 1976, 1970, 1969 and 1967.

The guests at the tasting table included Dr. Cornelius Peck and his wife, Gloria. Peck is a founding member of the group of 10 men, most of them University of Washington professors, who bonded Associated Vintners back in 1962. Seated next to him was David Lake, the winemaker at A/V (now Columbia) since 1979. Also in attendance were Bob and Cathy Betz. Betz worked at Ste. Michelle for almost 30 years before leaving to devote attention full-time to the Betz Family Winery.

Most of the wines had come from the cellar of Chuck and Diana Carey, wine enthusiasts and collectors who had purchased each new vintage by the case. They had written to me after reading my column urging people to drink their older wines, not let them sit there forever and go bad.

The article "struck home," Diana wrote. She went on to describe how their water heater had burst a year previously, forcing them to move untold boxes of wine to high ground as the waters rose. "That was the wakeup call," she continued. "After the flood waters receded, I decided to organize the (still slightly soggy) boxes. I found cases of over-the-hill whites, some dating from as far back as 1979, quirky treasures (such as a 1945 Los Amigos cabernet), cases of vintage port and lots of early Washington wines from A/V and Ste. Michelle."

Words of the pioneers

A flurry of e-mails later, we had assembled our group of tasters and added a few extra bottles to the Careys' collection. The tasting began with the Ste. Michelle wines, from youngest to oldest. I spent a very pleasant hour reading and studying the labels before the wines were even opened. They were chock-full of surprising information.

The youngest, the 1978, still had its original price sticker ($6.85), as did the bottle from 1970, which sold at Washington State liquor stores for the whopping sum of $2.15. The bottles from 1974-78 were labeled Chateau Ste. Michelle in ornate black script and featured an oval, color woodcut of the Stimson Lane mansion, which had been acquired when the winery changed hands in 1974.

The back labels were highlighted by twin maps of Washington and France, showing the 46th Parallel crossing from the bottom of the state into Bordeaux; and the 48th Parallel crossing from northern Washington into the Loire and Burgundy. The maps' caption reads, "Washington State's vineyards are midway between the latitudes of the great wine-producing areas of France."

The two oldest bottles bore completely different labels, from the days when Ste. Michelle Vineyards was part of the American Wine Growers portfolio. In 1967, both AWG and A/V released the first commercial, vintage-dated varietal wines ever made in Washington state. Today it is hard to imagine what a radical and difficult enterprise it must have been. There were very few vineyards growing French vinifera varietals, and most were experimental. In others, the vines were mixed in hodge-podge fashion, so you couldn't really be all that certain what you were harvesting.

Winemaking techniques were primitive at best, and what little was known came largely from California, with little relevance to Washington growing conditions. But growing the grapes and making the wines wasn't the least of the problems. Consumers, with rare exceptions, didn't understand or even like dry, varietal wines. Those that did looked to France or possibly California for good wines; the generally accepted wisdom was that Washington was too cold to make decent cabernet.

The new wineries attempted to pack as much educational information as they could onto the bottles. Ste. Michelle's 1969 cab reads like an entry in a wine tome. The neck label notes that this is "A Premium Wine From Personally Selected Stock." "1969 Vintage" is printed below. On the main label, a light cream color bordered by black vines, it says, "A Distinctive Varietal Table Wine," then "Ste. Michelle Vineyards" in black script over "American Cabernet Sauvignon" in red script. In small type it adds, "Produced from Cabernet Sauvignon Grapes grown in the Yakima Valley." There's an odd crest; in 1970 a motto was added: "Ab Uno Disce Umnes" (from one all others are judged). But wait — there's more!

A back label, hectoring consumers like an old-time schoolteacher, reads, "This fine wine comes from the superb noble grape from which the famous clarets of Bordeaux and America's greatest varietal red wines are made. After aging in small white oak barrels and in glass, this vintage wine is still capable of achieving further greatness in the bottle. Connoisseurs will enjoy the rewards of laying this wine aside in their cellars for as long as they can wait. This superior quality dry wine will bring out the best in fine steaks, prime ribs and other red meats. Store unopened bottles on their sides in a cool dark place. Serve at cool room temperature."

Whew! These days we get a picture of a kangaroo and a warning not to drive heavy machinery. The pioneers really had to slog.

On to the tasting

What did these old Ste. Michelle wines have to tell us as we tasted through them? First, that despite the primitive vineyard and winemaking techniques, they came through well. Lower in alcohol and more acidic than today's cabernets, they were better structured for long-term aging.

Bob Betz explained, "Up until 1974, we were not successful with malolactic [a secondary fermentation that softens the acids], so we had low-pH, high-acid wines. We were harvesting under much different criteria then. People were not willing to take chances on longer hang time; the Bordeaux model was bringing them in at 23 ½ to 24 ½ brix."

There was also plenty of SO{+2} added both during fermentation and at bottling, and far less exposure to new oak. The wines, most of them 100 percent cabernet sauvignon (merlot was not used as a blending grape prior to 1976), all were still drinkable (except the 1977, which was corked), and several were standouts.

• The 1978: Fragrant and beautiful, the color orange/brick, like a sunset. Round and supple, fully mature flavors; plum and pie cherry, hints of tobacco.

• The 1976: Best of the decade. A dark wine, with more color and extract than the '78. Smooth and supple in the mouth, its well-ripened fruits mix black cherries with hints of berries and plums, along with spices and caramel.

• The 1975: Another dark, heavy wine, quite tannic and beginning to tire.

The 1974: Bordeaux-like, herbaceous and very light, tart and frail.

The 1973: Assertive, herbal, very deeply colored and searingly tart.

The 1970: The most like Bordeaux, elegant and delicate. Rose petals, pale cherry, hints of chocolate shavings.

The 1969: Hard, tannic and angular, but quite drinkable, with notes of tobacco and caraway seed spice.

Next week:

The tasting continues, with Associated Vintners.

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

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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