From Oregon comes reminder of wines of Pacific Northwest

VINTAGE POINT

August 15, 1993|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Staff Writer

Readers have been listening to me pontificate about wine long enough. Now it's your turn.

Actually, it was your turn several weeks ago, when we first threw this column open to questions. The result: an empty mail slot.

This was a severe ego blow. Was nobody interested in wine? Or have readers picked up on the fact that most question-and-answer columns are excruciatingly boring?

As it turns out, there's plenty of interest. We were just looking in the wrong place.

People just don't write letters anymore. They sign on to their computers and send E-mail. So now that's what we did, through the America Online computer bulletin board, and the questions started flowing in.

That still leaves the problem of boredom. That's not something a mere columnist can solve alone, as Dear Abby knows so well. To have an interesting Q&A column, you need interesting questions. Irreverent questions. Questions with attitude.

Replies will be in kind.

Anyway, the folks on America Online got right into the spirit, starting with a man from Portland, Ore., who goes by the handle "Canis."

Q: OK, OK, OK. I've been adding notes to the folders in this forum for months now making a pitch for wines from the Pacific Northwest.

I have found some wonderful wines for some fairly decent deals (since we're in the region and don't require much transportation). However, much of the reaction I seem to get is indifference, often from those who never seem to have tried our stuff.

Tell me, is it gauche or tacky to like things from the Pacific Northwest, or are we just a place that makes the news for our stand on gays, health care reform, and pesky little birds that make our loggers red with fury? Please give me an East Coast perspective on the wines from the most beautiful (and undiscovered) part of the country.

A: So what is the proper wine to serve with spotted owl, delicately chain-sawed over a bed of ferns? Perhaps a Washington state lemberger, or a pinot noir from Oregon.

Seriously, it is not at all gauche to like things from the Pacific Northwest. If anything, the region is hot. What you don't realize is that we Eastern boomers are all quietly buying up vineyard land in Oregon and Washington. We will then retire out there and vote down school bond issues that would waste money on your kids' education.

That's popularity, Canis. Sure you want it?

Personally, I enjoy many Pacific Northwest wines and have a number of favorites, notably Washington's Woodward Canyon chardonnay and Oregon's Ponzi pinot gris and pinot noir. Washington's Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia Crest are huge operations, but they manage to churn out fairly priced, high-quality wines on a consistent basis.

But many consumers have been let down by hideously amateurish Pacific Northwest wines that are all too common in a region high on good intentions and low on actual winemaking skills.

Overall, Pacific Northwest vintners seem to be at about the same point the California wine industry was in about 1968 -- just starting to learn what the vineyards have to say. The potential is enormous.

Q: I'm in the midst of a disagreement about proper barbecue wines. My friend E. claims that only a good cabernet sauvignon can stand up to the wonderfully smoky flavors imparted by charcoal and hickory chips.

I, however, think that merlot and red zinfandel are terrific accompaniments to a perfectly charred steak. E. thinks I am too gauche for words. Any comments?

-- Julie, Jamaica, N.Y.

A: This E. fellow has been smoking too much mesquite. Your instincts are right on the mark. A great red zin is in fact a better match for barbecue than cabernet, while merlot is marginally better. Also, some Rhone Ranger wines such as Bonny Doon's Clos de Gilroy are great choices.

Unfortunately, there are still folks out there who think cabernet is the be-all and end-all of wines. I love cabernet, but there's a whole other world out there. You have the right idea, Julie. Stick by your zins.

Q: Do you have any thoughts on good recent Sauternes? Which 1988s or 1989s do you like? Are the "great" ones, Chateau

d'Yquem for example, worth it for laying down?

Jeff, Fargo, N.D.

A: My main thought on recent Sauternes is that I wish I could afford a ton of them. These sweet white Bordeaux wines are among the world's most decadent dessert pleasures.

Top Sauternes are indeed worth laying down, even though they're delightful to drink when young. Chateau d'Yquem is the best and longest-lived, but its price -- generally $150-$200 a bottle in a good vintage -- is prohibitive for most people.

There are some excellent alternatives from Sauternes and its sister village Barsac. They aren't cheap, but they cost a lot less than Yquem while coming close in quality.

Regarding vintages, 1988 is a spectacular year, 1989 very good and 1990 somewhat spotty, though with some real triumphs. Don't overlook 1986, a great year that never really set consumers' hearts afire.

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