Time to send Washington a message …

By Terry Sweeney

Washington State,  that is. “We love your Washington wines … and your apples and your computers.” Actually, Microsoft has its headquarters right outside of Seattle.  But now that I think about it, shouldn’t Apple Computers be in Washington and Microsoft in Silicon Valley, California? Why don’t they just trade headquarters? Brilliant. OK, my work’s done here. Time for a glass of wine — from Washington State.
Now, you don’t automatically think wine when you think about this state.  If anything, Starbucks and grunge rocker Kurt Cobain are what put Seattle front and center in our minds in the 90’s … oh, and that tabloid, headline-grabbing train wreck, Courtney Love. Mesmerized by that hot mess, we sort of missed the fact that Washington State had started turning out great merlots and cabernet sauvignons. The lush supple cherry and raspberry fruit you taste in these wines is some of the best in the Northwest.  But what else makes these wines so darn good? I once asked this very question of a wine nerd I ran across in a boutique wine shop up there. He  gave the Ice Age, 15,000 years ago, all the credit.  Apparently, when the ice melted, the great Missoula Floods washed over the entire Eastern half of the state giving it a uniquely vibrant minerality. He then painfully proceeded to try to take me from prehistoric times up to the present. I slowly backed away with my newly purchased bottle of wine, nodding and smiling until I hit the door and made a run for it.  Too much information, fella!
You don’t have to be Albert Winestein to figure out that Washington has longer summer days than California, and at harvest the days get shorter and cooler much faster. Those Washington grapes just love it since their natural acidity is protected and they have the perfect conditions for  ripening. Maybe that’s why thousands of years after the ice age, there are now more than 700 wineries in the state.  Actually, Washington ranks second only to California in total wine production in the U.S. It produced 11 million cases last year. I really should start keeping track of how many cases I put away in a year. It’s probably close to that number…
Now while it’s true that Seattle and parts west have very heavy rainfall, it’s the Eastern part of the state on the other side of the coastal cascade mountains, with its dry almost arid soil, that more than 20 varieties of grapes call home.  The four Eastern appellations are Columbia Valley, Yakima Valley, Red Mountain and Walla Walla. The only western appellation is Puget Sound. Pity the poor vintners who are stuck on the soggy side, after all, wet T-shirts look a lot better on busty spring break co-eds than on hairy middle-aged men!
One thing’s become very clear: Napa better watch its rear end. Washington state is coming up fast and beeping the horn for it to move over.  Its high-scoring cabernets are about half the price of Napa and many of its merlots are juicier and more memorable.  The most prestigious names among Washington state’s “redskins” are: Delille Cellars, Leonetti Cellar, Chateau Ste. Michelle, Quilceda Creek, and the Andrew Will Winery.  But there are very few bargains to be found at these exclusive wineries, unless paying $90 for a bottle of wine that tastes like a wine that cost $200 is your idea of a bargain.  I’m not quite there yet. I’ll let you know after this week’s Powerball Lottery winners are announced.
Until then, there are two labels that produce very good, affordable cabernets and merlots: Columbia Crest and Hogue. Both can be found for under $15. That’s more like it. So, sit back, open a nice bottle of Washington state merlot and throw some Walla Walla onions on the barbecue. And if you feel the tears coming on, it’s tears of joy at how little you had to pay to have such a truly great glass of wine. Or it’s the onions. Move your chair.

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