Sunday, April 14, 2024 Apr 14, 2024
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Washington produces more than apples.

EVERYBODY KNOWS that California is the country’s major wine-producing state: The quantity it makes is staggering (almost 400 million gallons a year); the quality is legendary. Lots of people realize that New York State makes wine, too – though most non-Easterners know it mainly through those little screw-capped bottles of “champagne” that make depressing cocktail-time appearances on several of our nation’s airlines. Some wine lovers even know that there are four producing wineries, and at least three more in the planning stages, right here in Texas.

But when I mention casually that there are now commercial wineries operating in at least 25 of the 50 states-including Mississippi, Hawaii, and even New Jersey-looks of disbelief start creeping over people’s faces. And when I add that the best American wines being made outside California today, without question, are those produced in the Pacific Northwest – Oregon, Washington, and northern Idaho-disbelief becomes unfettered incredulity. People ask if there’s a punch line. Is this some joke about volcanoes or boysenberries or the dubious fortunes of the Seahawks?

No. It is a fact. Other states might hold promise for quality wine production, but it’s the Pacific Northwest that is getting the best stuff in the bottles now. They can’t grow every grape variety successfully, and they can’t produce anywhere near the quantity that California does (not that they want to), but they make some astounding wines -wines that are even, in some cases, as good as or better than the far more famous wines of California and even (heresy!) of France.

I’d go so far as to say, for instance, that two Washington Gewurztraminers, the 1977 Preston and the 1978 E.B. Foote, are the best domestic Gewürztraminers I’ve ever had -far better than any California version of the wine and as good as a lot of what comes out of Alsace-and that the best domestic Sémillon I have encountered is probably the 1978 Adelsheim from Oregon. A crew of noted connoisseurs in France, far more experienced and better-known than I am, went even further: Last year, the influential French gastronomic journal Le Nouveau Guide Gault/Millau staged an “Olympiad” of wine, and in a field of 11 red burgundies and related wines from six countries (including four from France and one from California), third place was won by a 1975 Pinot Noir from Oregon’s Eyrie Vineyards.

The noted Burgundy shipper Joseph Drouhin, whose wines had not been included by Gault/Millau, asked for a rematch in which he would represent France. He got it, and probably wishes he hadn’t. This time, a jury that included Beaujolais magnate Georges Duboeuf and the deputy-general of the Burgundian wine shippers’ syndicate gave the Eyrie Pinot Noir second place. In fact, it finished a scant two-tenths of a point behind the winning wine, Drouhin’s prized (and pricey) 1959 Chambolle-Musigny-and it bested five of Drouhin’s other vintages, including such big guns as 1976 Vosne-Romanée, 1964 Aloxe-Corton, and 1961 Chambertin Clos-de-Béze.

The results of these two tastings didn’t exactly send shock waves of despair through the French wine community (the French are remarkably secure in their opinions of their own wines), but at least it showed them that the Napa Valley wasn’t the only corner of the United States that could produce fine wine. Now, say Pacific Northwestern winemakers, they wish Americans would wake up to that fact. They wish Americans would forget their prejudices and misconceptions, and treat the wines of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho more seriously -and drink and enjoy them more often.

Among the things most Americans, even experienced wine-drinkers, don’t know about their wines, these winemakers say, are the following facts:

– Washington is the third largest grape-growing state in the nation. Admittedly, the vast majority of the grapes grown there are table grapes, not wine grapes. But the state is obviously no novice when it comes to the art and science of viticulture.

– Winemaking isn’t exactly brand new in the Pacific Northwest. Granted, the first modern-day quality wineries weren’t founded until the mid-Sixties in Washington and the mid-Seventies in Oregon and Idaho. But there was a winery at least trying to make good varietal wines in Washington as early as 1933 -and a wine made in Idaho won a prize at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1898. In other words, there are at least some shreds of wine-making tradition in the area.

-There are more than just one or two wineries in Oregon and Washington (though Idaho, thus far, has only one). There are, in fact, at least 32 wineries in those two states already making (and releasing) premium wines from classic European grape varieties. There are also, incidentally, a number of wineries in the area that make only fruit and berry wines – some of which are quite dry, complex, and surprisingly good. And there are six or seven functioning wineries in neighboring British Columbia, though none has yet tiny vineyard that yielded them has since been replanted to other varieties.)

Tualatin’s 1979 estate-bottled White Riesling (a silver-medal winner at the aforementioned wine festival) isn’t as complex as Ste. Michelle’s Riesling, but it has plenty of good Riesling flavor and an attractive crispness. The same winery’s 1978 estate-bottled Chardonnay (a bronze medal winner) has good flavor and an unusual -for Oregon -syrupy richness, but for some reason doesn’t seem to show much varietal character in the nose.

Ste. Chapelle made headlines in the Pacific Northwest when it won two gold medals at the Enological Society’s 1980 festival for its two 1978 Chardonnays, one from Washington grapes and one from grapes grown in Idaho. Both were very good wines, but I personally far preferred the Idaho wine, which had a sharp, flinty character and a lot of truly wonderful Chardonnay flavor (if, maybe, a bit too much oak for the elegance of the fruit) – rather like a Chablis Premier Cru.

If you travel to Oregon, Washington, or Idaho, or to other states in which Pacific Northwestern wines are reasonably well distributed (like California, New York, Colorado, Illinois, and parts of New England), here are some other wineries – and wines -you might look out for:

From Oregon: Adelsheim, of Sémillon fame. The winery also makes superb Mer-lot (from Washington grapes, naturally), and plans to release Oregon-grown Pinot Noir and Chardonnay shortly -though the winemaker himself told me that he doesn’t think these first Oregon wines will be as good as he would have liked them to be. Eyrie, which many observers think makes the Oregon Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Knudsen-Erath, also known for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Sokol-Blos-ser, one of my own favorites, whose best wines have been Washington-grown Mer-lot and Sauvignon Blanc (the latter in the grassy, herby, Sancerre style), and who made a superlative 1978 Oregon (Yamhill County) Chardonnay. Amity, another of my favorites, which makes a most appealing “house wine” called “Solstice Blanc” and which produced a fragrant, well-balanced 1978 Oregon Chardonnay, but which is perhaps most successful with its range of Pinot Noirs (three of them each from the 1977 and 1978 vintages, one from each of three different clones of the grape – each of which had its own character and its own great charm). Ponzi, which makes good, honest, if not particularly exciting Chardonnays and Rieslings, among other wines. Elk Cove, particularly good at (Washington) Merlot, though they have released a 1979 Oregon Riesling with an almost hypnotically attractive bouquet. And Hillcrest, which was the first quality winery in Oregon, and which makes some of the state’s best Rieslings-and which, last year, released their 1974 Oregon Cabernet Sauvignon, an austere but richly flavored wine that was well worth waiting for and which, alone among the Pacific Northwestern Cabernets I have tasted, seems to demand some years of aging.

From Washington: Preston, most of all-a comparatively large operation (about60,000 cases annually) that does well witheverything they try, and very well withmost of it. Their most recently released”Fume Blanc,” the 1979, is among the bestexamples of that wine I’ve ever tasted, areal professional piece of winemaking.Their 1977 Gewürztraminer, as I mentioned earlier, is one of the finestAmerican Gewürztraminers I’ve ever had-and I drink a lot of Gewürztraminer.(Subsequent Preston Gewürztraminershave been just fine, but they’ve beensweetened and softened slightly, and Idon’t like them nearly as much.) Their1976 and ’77 Chardonnays were simplywonderful, and the latter wine won thefirst and (so far) only grand prize evergiven by the Enological Society of thePacific Northwest. Their Chenin Blancsand Rieslings have been as good as anyone’s, and their Cabernets show greatpromise. This is a major American winery.

Other Washingtonians: Hinzerling, especially good for Cabernets and for their “Die Sonne,” an unusual late-harvest selected-cluster Gewürztraminer with a pink-orange color and the mysterious whirls of flavor of a good Rhone valley Muscat. E.B. Foote, maker of that other wonderful Gewürztraminer I mentioned, and probably on the way to producing good Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, though not quite there yet. And Associated Vintners, which was, with Chateau Ste. Michelle, the first of the modern premium Washington wineries. They make very good Gewürztraminer and Riesling and attractive Chardonnay, and a wine called “Cascade Red”-which is not a proprietary name, but the name of a hybrid grape (actually called Cascade Noir) popular on the East Coast -a minor wine, to be sure, but an extremely appealing one in color, aroma, and flavor.

In the Dallas area, Chateau Ste. Michelle wines can be found at Spirits,Marty’s, Norman’s Wine World, and theWarehouse stores, among other places.Tualatin is carried by Spirits and Marty’s,and Spirits has some wines from Ste.Chapelle. Other stores may have some ofthese wines, or be willing to get them. Andmost stores that carry only one or twovarietals from these wineries will be willingand able to order other ones.

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