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Wednesday, January 25, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Wine Adviser

First, 10 friends came together — and then, so did their wine

Special to the Seattle Times

Pick of the week


Klostor 2004 Pinot Grigio; $9. Pinot grigio from Germany? If this outstanding bottle from Klostor (in the Nahe region) is in any way typical, bring it on! Bone dry, deliciously fruity, concentrated and spiced up with flavors of pear skin and citrus, this outshines many Italian versions selling for twice the price. Perfect with fresh halibut. (Unique).

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).

Last week, I wrote about a once-in-a-lifetime tasting of wines from the earliest days of Washington's modern wine industry.

Having worked our way through eight vintages of Ste. Michelle cabernet dating from 1978 back to 1969, we continued by turning our attention to the wines of Associated Vintners.

The story of this unique venture is worth a book all by itself. Briefly: A group of friends, many of them professors at the University of Washington, banded together in the 1950s to purchase grapes and winemaking equipment so they could make wines for their own consumption.

At first, they used grapes imported from California, but by the early 1960s, they had turned their attention to Eastern Washington. They incorporated in 1962 and a year later purchased and planted a small vineyard, Harrison Hill, in the heart of the Yakima Valley.

Dr. Cornelius Peck, one of the 10 who started the enterprise, recalls that very little was known about what would do well in Washington. So they planted nine varieties on their five acres in order to see which grapes, if any, might survive. The mix included gewürztraminer, riesling, semillon, chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon. Happily, some of the original cabernet vines are still bearing, now used by DeLille Cellars to make a vineyard-designated wine.

At the time, the very notion of Americans making vintage-dated, varietal wines from the great European wine grapes seemed far-fetched, even to wine connoisseurs. Published in 1965, Angelo Pellegrini's classic "Wine and the Good Life" passionately promoted the pleasures of good wine and food made with local ingredients. The book's finale, an account of two monumental dinner parties, is titled, "Is There An American Wine Fit To Drink?"

At the conclusion of a lengthy discourse on the subject, Pellegrini notes, "In our own state, a group of dedicated wine men have planted several acres of choice hybrids." Was he speaking about the Associated Vintners? Maybe so, though they were interested in French vinifera grapes rather than hybrids.

In any event, and despite his unbridled enthusiasm for Cascade Mountain mushrooms, Dungeness crab, Cougar Gold cheese and all things Northwest, Pellegrini rather summarily concludes the chapter by saying, "As wine drinkers we wish them luck; meanwhile we must look to California for most of the dinner wines in our cellars."

The following year, author Leon Adams ("The Wines of America") visited Seattle, tasted some of the group's wines and called at least one wine "outstanding."

"We were winemakers," Peck recalls, "and we knew we were onto something pretty darn good. In '66, we all made wine in our basements; afterwards, we said, 'Holy Christopher! — if it's this good, we should make wine commercially.' "

And so they did. The first commercial A/V wines released were a 1967 riesling and a gewürztraminer. The first red wine was a 1967 cabernet sauvignon. That very wine was the centerpiece of our recent tasting. Given its place in history, I would have to say it was the most exciting Washington wine I have ever experienced.

We began, as we had done with the Ste. Michelle wines, with the youngest bottle on the table, a 1980 Associated Vintners Cabernet Sauvignon. By this time, the winery was undergoing significant changes. A new winemaker, David Lake, had taken over in the middle of crush the year before, and 1980 was his first full vintage. It was also the year that the winery changed names, to Columbia, a change that Peck regrets to this day.

Looking at the bottle of the 1980, I had to agree. This was the last vintage to feature a version of the original, classic black-and-white label: the letters AV written in ornate script above the name Associated Vintners. There may well have been many sound business reasons for the name change (among others, the wines were no longer being made by a group). But the fact remains that the founders had earned, and deserved to keep, their place in history.

Whether it is coincidence or some sort of blind justice, the name Columbia has caused confusion among the buying public ever since. And the winery, which went through the first 14 vintages with only minor label adjustments, has never again found a unifying design it could stick with.

A little doodle in the bottom corner of the bottle, an original scribble by David Lake, shows a mountaintop and a puff of smoke, and in tiny type reads, "St. Helens 1980 vintage." The back label proudly states, "Washington's First Premium Winery" and briefly tells the story of the group. Its concluding words are, "Their dream of distinctive Washington State varietal wines finds its reality in this bottle."

Some of our tasters felt that the bottle we opened, from Peck's cellar, may have been slightly tainted by a poor cork. Soft and elegant, with just a hint of chalk in the tannins and a brief suggestion of mint, it was nonetheless a fine kickoff to the second half of the afternoon.

We followed it with the 1979 cabernet, which, Lake explained, was exactly the same wine as the legendary '79 Millennium; only the label was different. My notes call it, "Extraordinary, dense, hard and rich, with traces of mineral, spice, herb and other subtle elements. Showing beautifully well, but perhaps beginning to crack up."

On to the '76, a tinny, thin wine with an odd lift to the nose. "I'm afraid it was impaled with SO2," Lake explained, meaning that too much SO2 (added as a preservative) had overtaken everything else the wine may have had going for it. Things improved dramatically with the 1970, 100 percent cabernet from Harrison Hill. Deep, full, rich and evocative, it showed a good, thick mid-palate, with mixed dried fruits, molasses, caramel and light spice. Perfectly evolved, in terms of pure pleasure it was my favorite of the flight.

The 1969, also pure cab from Harrison Hill, was flawed and beginning to oxidize but remained interesting. I picked up some volatile nail-polish aromas but also found powerful flavors of cooked cherry, sweet brown sugar and a whiff of iodine.

We eagerly pulled the cork on the 1967, bottle number 1049. It was a lovely amber color, with a plush bouquet reminiscent of a dry tawny Port. Dusty and raisined, with an extremely long finish of butter and caramel.

Savoring it, Peck recalled, "We were out there every weekend, like having a new baby, topping it." The vintners believed that by the time their wine would be released, in 1969, the protective laws that had prohibited California wines from being sold here would be abolished. They felt the time was right for Washington to go head to head (cork to cork?) with California.

"We were willing to be competitive," says Peck. "When the California wine bill came up in the Legislature, I said, 'If we can't compete, we don't deserve to be in business.' I was pretty sure we'd be able to equal the Californians; in fact, I thought we'd reduce them to raising raisins!"

Postscript: As an interesting finale, and in a nod to the memory of Angelo Pellegrini, I pulled a 1966 Robert Mondavi cabernet from the cellar and poured everyone a glass. It was light, elegant and well-crafted, with delicate scents and flavors. Frail but still confident, it had a solid core of mature fruits, herbs and manicured tannin. Indeed it was quite good, but certainly no better than many of the wines we had been tasting. Clearly, right from the start, Washington rocked.

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 © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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