|Rain bounced knee-high off the pavement. The sky, seconds ago a flawless sapphire blue, now brooded a dynamic shade of gray. Our bags were packed. Taxi called. We were escaping Seattle -- leaving a city of promise in search of great expectations.
We’d been there three days, attending the 1998 Vinifera Conference. Associate editor, Caryn Lerner, and I had thoroughly absorbed the pure essence of this great city. Now, it was time to venture east into the arid dessert known as eastern Washington, where rain is something of a myth, and grape vines grow in near-perfect conditions.
As we waited curbside, the sun suddenly burned a hole through the canvassed sky, and, as quickly as it embraced our senses, the rain retreated into our memories. The shores of Puget Sound now glistened neon green from the fresh moisture. The damp city streets reflected their environments like lakes of glass as an open taxi door beckoned to whisk us away.
Yeah, that's Seattle. City of veiled splendor.
Caryn and I were embarking on a short tour of Washington wine country, set up for us by the Washington Wine Commission. They were flying us from Seattle to Pasco (the Tri-Cities Area), then shuttling us from region to region. The puddle jump from the city takes about an hour. You can drive from Seattle to eastern Washington by heading east on route 90, which will take you into the Yakima Valley, where you pick up Route 82 south and eventually 182 into Pasco. Obviously, a wine map is helpful, along with a detailed road map from AAA.
Our tour guide for the trip was the ever effervescent Marie Hardie. Our first appointment, Balcom & Moe. But we were early. So Marie suggested a stop at Barnard Griffin to whet our palates. This was a good idea. The barrel samples of 1997 merlot were lush and soft, possessing sweet fruit and rounding tannins. A sample of 1996 reserve cabernet sauvignon from barrel exhibited the same juicy characteristics. Look for these two wines upon release.
Griffin's current releases didn't disappoint either. The 1997 Semillon ($14), with its floral, citrus and fig qualities, is crisp, clean and refreshing. The 1996 Chardonnay ($18) is rich, spicy and definitely looking toward a bright future, as is the chardonnay reserve of the same vintage. The 1995 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve ($28) is a bit tannic but possesses nice soft fruit characteristics that should shine through in three to five years.
Back on schedule, we found our way to Balcom & Moe, located in an industrial section of Pasco. No glamorous chateau dedicated to a pretentious ego here. Just some pretty good red wines. The 1996 Merlot ($18), packed with spicy black cherry, cassis and plum fruit, is nicely balanced with a soft lingering finish. The 1995 Cabernet Sauvignon ($18) offers interesting nuances of leather, dark chocolate and cedar along with ripe black and red fruit flavors. It's a bit tight now but should soften with some age.
That evening we had a dinner with Jeff Gordon of Gordon Brothers Family Vineyards. The restaurant was Cedars, located on the scenic banks of the Columbia River. A definite must if you're in the area. As we watched the water gently roll by, Jeff poured several of his wines, of which the 1997 Chardonnay ($16) and 1994 Merlot ($17) stood out. The chardonnay offers a nice blend of fruit, spice and oak, and the merlot serves up an interesting balance of cassis, plum and tea/tobacco flavors with a finish reminiscent of dark chocolate.
Our appointment the next morning was at Bookwalter, situated west of Pasco off of Route 182 (take exit 3). Of the wines poured, the following stood out. The 1997 Chardonnay ($9) is clean and fresh, offering true fruit flavors and a nice lingering finish. The 1995 Vintner's Select Chardonnay ($18) is a step above the '97 chard, with buttery, leesy and viscous qualities wrapped in a nice oaky finish. Of the reds, the 1994 Vintner's Select Cabernet Sauvignon ($38) shines, with its rich, deep flavors. It's still a bit tannic at this point, so consider it a distance runner, not a sprinter. Lay it down. The 1997 Riesling ($7) was a nice surprise. Weighing in at 4.5 percent residual sugar, this is a rich, deep, smooth and beautifully spicy wine whose finish you can time on a watch. Definite buy.
We were leaving the Tri-Cities area, heading west along Route 82 for Benton City in the Red Mountain Area of Yakima Valley. Our first stop was Kiona Vineyards, a small winery that makes a large portfolio of wines ranging from chenin blanc to riesling to lemberger to icewine. Yes, icewine. I was excited.
Of course we had to taste the whole gamut. We found the rieslings very Alsatian in style, with crisp, clean acids and a disposition to be paired with food. Look for the 1997 Dry Riesling ($6) and the 1997 White Riesling ($6), the latter of which is a bit sweeter at 2.5 percent residual sugar. If you haven't tried lemberger, Kiona's non-vintage is a good example of what this grape is all about. After all, they were the first producer of this varietal in the state. A little tannic, the wine offers a very pretty nose and palate of fruit, vanilla and oak. At $10, it's worth the search.
Of the reds we tasted, the 1997 Cabernet-Merlot ($10) was interesting, possessing nice firm red and black fruit flavors with pepper spice and a slightly tannic finish. The 1995 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($30) is a pretty serious wine, with deep, rich fruit characteristics wrapped in dark chocolate, cedar, leather and tannins. This wine needs time. We then came to my favorite -- icewine. The 1994 Chenin Blanc Icewine ($17/375ml) is rich and viscous in honey, figs and ripe citrus and melon fruits. Very impressive. The 1995 was a step beneath the '94 but still very enjoyable.
Our 3 pm was just up the road at Hedges at Red Mountain. We arrived at 3:30. Not bad for journalists. The winery, still under construction, is a beautiful building which will house the tasting room, banquet facilities and offices. It's a must visit. As for the wines, the 1997 Fume-Chardonnay ($15) is a fairly concentrated effort with good acid structure and a nice crisp finish. The 1997 Cabernet-Merlot ($20) is a nice blend of cherries, plums and blackberries, with splashes of spice, pepper and tea/tobacco/coffee. The Reserve ($30) and "3 Vineyards" ($35) wines were all rich and concentrated but overly tannic for our tastes. Might want to check 'em out on your own.
That evening we had dinner at Chinook Winery, located on Wine Country Road just outside Prosser. (Don't blink or you'll miss Prosser.) Our hosts were Clay Mackey and Kay Simon, partners in life and the winery. And the wines reflect this marriage well. Everything we tasted, from the semillon to the chardonnay to the soon-to-be-released (if not already) cabernet franc, was tasty and a real complement to the most delicious dinner served. Well done.
Day three started with Hogue Cellars located just down the road from Chinook on Wine Country Road. If you follow Wine X, you know we're high on Hogue rieslings, gewurztraminers and chenin blancs. Some of the best made. Period. So at this appointment we concentrated on the other varietal wines. The 1996 Chardonnay ($10) is a fresh, fruit-driven wine perfect for all occasions. The bit more serious 1996 Chardonnay Barrel Select ($16) is deeper and richer, with smooth citrus, melon and apple fruit flavors and just the right amount of oak. The 1995 Merlot ($15) offers lots of smoke, cedar and tobacco characteristics with a balance of red and black fruits following. And the 1994 Cabernet Sauvignon ($15) was almost as lovely as Leslie Hogue herself.
We had a bit of a drive ahead of us. We were headed toward Walla Walla and stopping in Lowden for a tasting of regional wines. L'Ecole #41hosted the get-together. Our guide, Marie, was going to cook lunch for all of us as we tasted our way through 30-odd wines. Caryn decided to sun herself (it was the first sunny day on the trip), so I was left flying solo. I'll spare you the gory details, but here are my faves from the extensive taste fest. (Note: suggested retail prices were not furnished.) The L'Ecole #41 1997 Barrel Fermented Semillon offers fresh orange and citrus peel flavors backed by honey, figs and some oak. The finish is rather long and nice. Woodward Canyon's 1996 Chardonnay "Arena Valley Vineyard" (located in Idaho!) is a full-throttle, rich and somewhat oaky wine that stands up to the 1997 “Columbia Valley" Chardonnay, which exhibits fruit-forward flavors with just enough oak to make it all work. Another stunner is the L'Ecole #41 1997 Chardonnay, which offers loads of fruit and a smooth long lingering finish.
Red wise, the Waterbrook 1995 Merlot Reserve caught my attention with its deep, rich, almost cabernet-like fruit structure and a nice lingering finish. Walla Walla Vintners had their 1996 Cuvee there, which also stood out with its toasty oak and wonderful currant, black plum and chocolate flavors. The Woodward Canyon 1995 Cabernet Sauvignon "Old Vines" held its place in the tasting with a rich, deep concentration of black fruits and a firm but rounding tannin finish. I'm sure everyone's wondering about the Leonetti 1994 Cabernet Sauvignon. It's an intense wine, with big bold black currant and spice characteristics, but the finish is just too chewy and tannic to enjoy now. (Expect big scores from the Spectator and Parker on this one, since tannins seem to rule there. For us, maybe an X+.)
Well, I was certainly ready for a nap. Unfortunately this was not to be -- at least not until after we visited Glen Fiona, a tiny operation located on Mill Creek Road in Walla Walla. This winery concentrates on three syrahs -- a reserve, a Walla Walla appellation and a Columbia Valley labeling. We tasted barrel samples, since production is small and the current releases are long gone. The barrels of 1997's were quite nice, showing lush, plush fruit flavors and just enough oak to balance everything out. Look for these wines some time later next year.
We were now headed to see Molly Galt and John Abbott at Canoe Ridge. If you remember, we sent Stewart Dorman up to interview them for Headspace in our Volume 2.6 issue. Luckily we weren't going river rafting. Just a nice quiet dinner at their home in Walla Walla. If there's a winery that continually blows me away with consistent quality, it's Canoe Ridge. But, I found something even better on this trip: Molly and John's cooking. It was some of the most delicious Thai food I've ever had from two of the most American-lookin' people I know. If you see Canoe Ridge on the shelf, grab it!
It’d been another long day, and we had a long trek ahead of us the next morning, with a few appointments scattered around Woodinville (just outside Seattle).
Once again our daily appointments left our palates near fatigued. However, dinner was another story. It was hosted by DeLille Cellars, located off of 140th NE in Woodinville. As it turns out, one of the winery principles is dating one of the hottest chefs around. Bummer. The wines, all very good, consist of a Chaleur Estate Blanc (a blend of sauvignon blanc and semillon), a Chaleur Estate Red (a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc) and a wine called D2, which is terroir-driven red labeled Harrison Hill. Unfortunately the winery is not open the public. But, you can join the winery's CEO Society (see sidebar).
Well, the trip was about as much as any one human could possible take in in three days. And even though we were thoroughly worn out after, Caryn and I both highly recommend the adventure. So if you're thinking about touring the wine regions of Washington State, contact the Washington Wine Commission at 206/667-9463 to obtain and brochure with maps and addresses. Marie would love to show you around but she's off to medical school. Sorry. You're on your own.