Tuesday, July 29, 2008

West Coast Whine

When I lived in New York--Manhattan to be specific--I used to have trouble finding, in New York’s wine shops, all the great California wines that I lusted after. That problem is no more, but a new one has presented itself—finding wine from the rest of the left coast. I adore California wine and we certainly have a lot of it here. But I also adore Oregon and Washington State wines.

I am not a fan of thin, high acid, cellar- for when your grandchildren are ready for retirement-French wines. I have a mostly American palate, having grown up on cheap, overly sweet sodas and chocolate milk. Make no mistake, I drink a good deal of California wine. But even so, I find many of the wines that my fellow California favor to be far too sweet for my palate.

I have been collecting and drinking wine from Washington State and Oregon for many years. For me, Washington wines, especially the Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet blends (often called Meritage in the U.S.) and Syrah, are halfway measures between Cali and Bordeaux. And Pinot Noir from Oregon are, stylistically, halfway between California and Burgundy.

I thought it was going to be a slam-dunk getting Pacific Northwest wines in California, since it is so close to Oregon and Washington. Those wines, it turns out, are very difficult to find in Southern California. So, like when I lived in New York and ordered most of my California wine online, I order my Washington and Oregon wines online. That takes the fun out of it for a wine geek like me. For me there is nothing better than going into a wine shop and browsing and schmoozing with clerks and other customers.

Washington on the Rise
It took decades to ripen, but, today, the reputation of Pacific Northwest wines among American wine drinkers is rising. The main players, of course, in "the Pacific Northwest" are Oregon, which I will tell you about next month, and Washington.

Washington is still a distant second when it comes to total U.S. wine production, but their wines have rapidly snuck up to rival California’s as some of the best in the world. By 2000, there were twenty-two wineries in Walla Walla alone; and today there are over 100. In the whole state of Washington there are about 500 wineries. Washington's wine industry, in fact, has become one of the country’s fastest growing agricultural sectors. Over the last decade, the number of wineries in Washington more than doubled. While a few of thee wineries are growing into fairly large producers, the majority remain boutique operations aimed at aficionados (read: geeks like me!)

French, German and Italian immigrants pioneered the earliest plantings. The first commercial-scale plantings began in the 1960s. The industry expanded rapidly in the mid-70s, but that expansion has been overtaken by today’s breakneck pace, with a new winery opening every couple of weeks.

Washington State's most important viticultural areas are the Columbia Valley, Walla Walla Valley and Yakima Valley. Some of the world's best wine grapes are grown on Washington’s Red Mountain, at the eastern end of the Yakima Valley. Washington is known for its Bordeaux-style wines, producing dynamite Cabernet and Merlot, plus Syrah that can “out Syrah” Aussie Shiraz!

The father of the Washington State’s modern wine industry, Walter Clore, died a few years ago at age 90 or so. Now, if that is not an endorsement for drinking wine (in moderation, of course), I don’t know what is! There is even a highly rated Cabernet Sauvignon/Bordeaux blend honoring Walter Clore, from the Columbia Crest Winery, called Walter Clore Private Reserve Red Table Wine 2003/4. At about $35 a bottle, grab it if you see it! Columbia Crest Winery, large but not well known, also produces wines in the $10-15 range that are very good everyday drinkers.

A Perfect Score
My purchases from Washington come from small, mostly- off- the- radar wineries that produce astonishing wines at a fraction of the price of Napa wines. For quite a few years, I have been collecting wines from Quilceda Creek Vintners, which produces only about 3500 cases of its Cabernet Sauvignon each year. These are not cheap wines, running about $120 a bottle, but have consistently gotten scores averaging 95 points and up from all the wine critics. Imagine my delight when the 2002, 2003 and 2005 vintages garnered perfect 100 point scores from the critic dubbed “the emperor of wine,” Robert Parker! All of a sudden, Washington State has gotten on serious wine drinkers’ and collectors’ radar—even among staunch California devotees. Those two vintages are now selling for an astonishing $300 a bottle!

But here’s a secret, Quilceda Creek also makes a red wine from grapes not quite “perfect” enough to be put in their “grand vin.” This red wine sells for about $55-$60 a bottle and is highly rated as well. Another way to get amazing wine from the same vineyards that Quilceda Creek sources its grapes from is to buy the marvelous wines of Andrew Will and Cadence for about $50, which are available locally. It’s worth a little sleuthing to find them. Some other excellent below- the- radar producers include Abeja, Arbor Crest, Boudreaux, Delille, Mark Ryan,
Mc Crea and Sineann.

My Wine is Bigger than Yours
So why is top tier Washington Cabernet Sauvignon still less expensive than Napa’s gold-plated names like Screaming Eagle, Harlan, Grace Family and Bryant Family? Those wines, if (and that’s a big IF) you can get your hands on them, start at about $500, and go up to over $1500 for Screaming Eagle! And most of them have never even achieved the perfect 100- point score from any of the big-gun critics.

Part of the reason is the price of the grapes. In Napa County, the price for Cabernet Sauvignon is somewhere around $4000 per ton. In Washington, it's $1,261 per ton.
Another factor is the extraordinarily high price of land in Napa. But there’s another factor at play as well…consumer perceptions. Fewer people drink Washington wine, so there is far less buzz about the wines. Also, most of the Washington wineries are young and have not had the opportunity of producing and marketing wines for 20 or more years.

Other reasons include exclusivity and bragging rights. (Nyah-nyah-nyah, you can’t have one, but I can!). Most of Napa’s cult wines are made in batches of only 500 cases or so annually, sold only through the wineries mailing list and are often re-sold for even more money on the secondary market. (Compare that with Bronco Winery’s Two Buck Chuck, with an annual output of around 5-6 million cases!) Some people buy the $500-plus Cali cabs not so much to drink, but to tell everyone about. If a guy is trying to impress a woman or a business associate, he is not going to brag about that great bottle of Januik Champoux Cab he has in his cellar, right? Well, let me tell you that I do have that bottle in my cellar and I can’t wait till it has a little bit of age to enjoy it. Here’s why: it comes from the vineyard where Quilceda Creek sources much of its Cabernet grapes, but it only costs about $45!

But things are changing and the ante has been upped. As the Washington industry becomes mature, more and more collectors are getting the bug. And that will soon filter down to the regular drinking folk.

Washington’s Best

Some of the best Washington State wines are based on Cabernet Sauvignon. As in Bordeaux and Napa, Washington vintners like to blend their Cab Sauv with Merlot, Cabernet Franc (one of my most recent crushes, get it?), Malbec and Petite Verdot. But let’s not forget about the white wines. Look for Chardonnay, Viognier and Riesling as well as Semillon, the white Bordeaux grape that does beautifully in Washington.

Long Shadows is a winery begun by Alan Shoup, the long-time CEO of Stimson Lane and Chateau Ste.-Michelle. In 2002, Alan put together a consortium of some of the top talent in the winemaking industry to showcase the best that Washington State’s Columbia Valley can produce. Each winemaker or winemaking team is famous for high-end wines that they produce elsewhere. For Feather Cabernet Sauvignon, Alan got Napa’s Randy Dunn; for Pirouette, a Bordeaux-style blend, he chose Quintessa’s Augustin Huneeus and Phillppe Melka (also from Napa); for Pedestal Merlot blend, Shoup picked famed wine consultant Michel Rolland. For Sequel Syrah, Alan brought in John Duval, who for 15 years made Penfolds Grange, Australia’s most famous (and expensive) Shiraz. Most of Long Shadows wines are available in better wine shops and none costs more than about $55.

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