Washington state bottles success

VINTAGE POINT

July 21, 1991|By Michael Dresser

Three-quarters of the 50 states have at least one commercial winery, but only a few have a bona-fide wine "industry."

California, of course, has a huge wine industry that dates back more than a century. So, on a lesser scale, does New York, although much of its production is hardly the kind designed to appeal to selective palates.

The rest of America's wine-producing states, with one exception, have what you could charitably call "mini-industries" -- clusters of tiny "farm wineries" that have more economic significance as tourist draws than as employers or producers.

That exception is Washington. Its vineyard acreage is still

dwarfed by California's, but it has achieved rough parity with California -- and more of Washington's grapes go into serious table wines.

Such states as Oregon, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Missouri can all point to a profusion of wineries and a significant number of fine wines, but all fall short of Washington in terms of economic importance. It's sad to admit, but in each of those states the overnight disappearance of its entire wine industry would cause barely an economic ripple. (In Maryland, with fewer than a dozen wineries, the impact would be almost nil.)

Unlike these others, Washington has attracted a key element in building a truly viable, economically important wine industry -- serious investment capital in search of big profits.

And there's nothing wrong with that. Big money creates big wineries, which can produce enough wine to sustain national brands. Chateau Ste. Michelle, along with its associated label Columbia Crest, has become the largest U.S. producer of fine wines outside California, with more than a million cases a year.

The success of Chateau Ste. Michelle has created a climate in Washington in which small, quality-oriented producers can thrive. With a large winery as a customer, independent growers can flourish, giving small wineries a vital source of grapes as well. And because of Chateau Ste. Michelle, Washington vintners can go into another state and not have to convince skeptical distributors that wine in fact is made in their state -- as Virginia or Pennsylvania producers must do constantly.

Unfortunately, distributors in Maryland have been slow to follow up on the opportunities Washington presents. Except for Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Crest and Columbia Winery, Washington wines are seen only rarely on store shelves. Some of the most highly regarded Washington wineries -- Leonetti, Quilceda Creek and Woodward Canyon, for example -- are absentees from the Maryland market.

Clearly, this is an opportunity waiting for some imaginative wholesaler to seize it. My recent tastings of

Washington state wines make it clear to me that the Columbia Valley in particular is a region of vast potential, even if performance is a bit erratic.

In terms of quality, merlot seems to be the big winner in Washington -- a fact that has been recognized by some California producers (Fetzer, J. Lohr) who have come looking for inexpensive grapes for their second labels (Bel Arbors, Cypress).

Cabernet sauvignon also is a solid, occasionally excellent performer in the Columbia Valley, where it tends to produce wines that taste like a cross between the Bordeaux and Napa Valley styles. Poor examples sometimes display the greenish, vegetal, excessively minty characteristics of bad Monterey County cabernet.

As for the whites, the jury's still out. Certainly, Washington produces some of America's best rieslings -- but they still can't hold a candle to many German wines in the same price range. Chardonnay is often disappointingly flavorless, though this may have as much to do with overproduction and poor winemaking as the inherent potential of the region.

Sauvignon blanc and semillon, on the other hand, display enormous potential here. Chateau Ste. Michelle's versions have been known to do a fair imitation of fine white Graves. Chenin blanc also shows good potential, while gewurztraminer is as troublesome in Washington as it is anywhere else except Alsace.

Over the past few weeks I have tasted two dozen Washington state wines for sale in Maryland and the District of Columbia. Here are some of the winners, along with cautionary notes about some particularly poor efforts:

Reds

*1987 Chateau Ste. Michelle Merlot, Columbia Valley ($14). This is a big, ripe, dramatic wine with a firm backbone of tannin supporting lush, complex black charry, chocolate, oak and spice flavors. This Pomerol-like wine could benefit from another 3-4 years of aging, and should last at least a decade.

*1985 Chateau Ste. Michelle Cabernet Sauvignon, Cold Creek Vineyard, Limited Bottling ($16.49). A rich, mouth-filling wine of enormous potential, it comes on with a great rush of fruit but ends in a backwash of fierce tannin. Like a great Bordeaux of the same vintage, it simply isn't ready to drink yet, but its sheer power and great cherry-black currant flavors argue that this will be a great wine in 10 years or so.

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