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ON WINE

From Rhubarb to Riesling : A '60s Rebel Becomes a Force in Washington State Wines

November 23, 1986|ROBERT LAWRENCE BALZER

If I told you that I know an overage hippie in Washington state who makes rhubarb wine, you wouldn't be surprised. But if I told you that the wine is adored by some of the country's most discriminating palates, you might be more than a little skeptical.

That rhubarb wine is made by Paul Thomas, an engaging wine maker in Bellevue, Wash. Thomas was born into a farming family whose forebears had pioneered the Pacific Northwest.

But Paul Thomas was a rebel. He had ideas about social change, and after he had finished high school, he struck out for Europe to attend college in Paris, where his real passion for wine and food was born.

When Thomas returned to Washington state, he began a 14-year stint as a teacher of history and urban affairs. Thomas' students may not have been aware of it, but their teacher had had an interesting past. Thomas says that the FBI maintained a file on him because of his early interest in the People's Republic of China and possibly because of his visit to Vietnam as a civilian in 1968.

For years, schoolteacher Thomas wore peasant-style collarless shirts, but if you were to meet him today, his wardrobe--like his life style--is more Brooks Bros. than Calvin Klein. After all, heading up a 30,000-case winery that is second in sales only to Chateau Ste. Michelle in Washington and whose wines are marketed in 15 states requires a certain sartorial adaptation. No problem. Locals agree, with smiling faces, that Thomas is an intelligent, driving force. In 1983, he appeared before the Washington State Legislature and persuaded its members to allocate $300,000 to support the marketing of regional wines via the Washington State Wine Institute, which he had helped establish in 1981.

I met Thomas for the first time two years ago in Honolulu, where he and his wife, Judy, had spent their honeymoon 18 years before and where they had stayed on to teach. He'd been trying to nail down an appointment with me so I could taste his wines, but our schedules had not matched until this time in Hawaii.

We began the tasting with Thomas' Crimson Rhubarb, a wine with a bouquet as inviting as a bowl of country-home fresh rhubarb sauce--yet refreshingly dry. The wine was nothing short of amazing. We then tasted some varietals--Sauvignon Blanc and White Riesling--and a Dry Bartlett Pear, which I didn't like at all.

Last year, I visited the Paul Thomas Winery in Bellevue, where I met young Brian Carter, who has taken over the duties of wine maker, freeing Thomas to do the marketing. I also spent an evening tasting wines with Thomas and his wife at the houseboat home of Tom Stockley, wine writer for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Recently, I again tasted a selection of Paul Thomas wines, this time in the Pavilion dining room of the new Four Seasons Hotel in Newport Beach. We tasted the rhubarb wine, which has been renamed Paul Thomas 1985 Washington Crimson ($5). The name change moves it into the blush-wine category, but the Crimson's rhubarb origins are still found on the label's sidebar. This new label--designed by Paul's wife, Judy--emphasizes that the wine is dry and that it is a perfect companion for fresh salmon, smoked ham and broiled chicken. True. This is a wine that really defies description. It's a beautiful copper-hued blush of pale-pink color, which puts the trendy blush wines--often too sweet--to shame.

The second wine we tasted is truly worth searching for. It's a 1983 Washington Cabernet Sauvignon ($12) that you can put up against any claret of comparable age, and it's almost certain to be the one you'd like best.

There were other wines: two 1981s from the winery's library (for vertical tastings of Sauvignon Blanc and White Riesling), 1985 Chenin Blanc, 1984 Merlot and 1984 Muscat Canelli. I unhesitatingly endorse all of them for their taste, value and charm. I would recommend the 1985 Sauvignon Blanc over the 1984; the younger wine, with 15% Semillon, has a crisp, pippin-apple flavor. The 1985 Johannisberg Riesling is silky smooth and utterly delightful, with a refreshing acidity balancing its 2.9% residual grape sugar.

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