SEATTLE — Within the next year or two, the wines of Oregon, Washington and Idaho will begin to show up on shelves and wine lists in California. For those who still can't tell a Viognier from a Volnay, this will be a boon: The labels will be in English.
For now, however, the names mean nothing to most Americans because, except for some early success with Oregon Pinot Noir, the wines of the Pacific Northwest are unknown nationally.
However, this region is moving out of its infancy and soon will get a desire to show itself in ever-great amounts to America and notably to California.
"Coals to Newcastle," was the way one Washington vintner explained it recently at a lawn party following the annual wine competition of the Enological Society of the Pacific Northwest (an ESPN that has nothing to do with sports).
It's true that California has some 700 wineries and that there are little more than 100 in Washington and Oregon combined. It's true, too, that northwest grape acreage is a fraction of that in California. But from the quality of the wines I tasted at the competition here, it's clear that wine lovers across the country will be willing to seek out the best products from the Northwest.
The only problem is exposure. Right now, only one northwest wine is commanding attention: Pinot Noir from Oregon. Enthusiasm reigns over the Burgundian grape planted in Oregon, even though its success rate is spotty due to erratic weather conditions. Still, people buy Oregon Pinot Noirs at high prices because they have heard good things about them.
But what if I told you that one of the finest Merlots I had ever tasted was the 1986 from Gordon Brothers? Or what if I said that the 1983 Cabernet Sauvignons from Quiceda Creek or Paul Thomas or the 1985 from Mercer Ranch would hold their own against anything made in the Napa Valley? Would that have the effect of rousing a few "couch potatoes"?
At the wine competition here, the top-ranked Pinot Noirs of Oregon were excellent. Golds were awarded to 1986 Knudsen-Erath Vintage Select and 1985 Amity. Oregon's dominance was clear: Of seven medals awarded, only one went to a Washington wine, a silver to 1986 Staton Hills Pinot Noir.
The most excitement among the five judges was created by the great unknown wines of Washington. The judges liked all the wines, finding them of generally higher quality than any previous year. When the results were revealed, Washington cleaned up.
History was made, of a sort, when two grand prizes were awarded. The society that runs this event mandates that all five judges must agree on the grand prize winner, and in years past there has often been a difference of opinion, with four preferring one wine and one judge opting for another. In such cases, no grand prize was awarded.
This year, however, my four compatriots and I argued that we couldn't separate the top two wines, so the judging committee relented and allowed a double grand prize to be awarded.
The wines: 1986 Paul Thomas Chardonnay Reserve ($18, extremely rich and lush, with fruit, oak and acid complexity competing for attention) and the aforementioned Merlot from Gordon Brothers ($9, slight herbaceousness but packed with fruit and lovely nuances of new French oak).
The Chardonnays impressed the judges, who awarded 14 medals to 37 entrants (a high 38%). But even more successful was the Riesling category, in which 15 wines of 24 entered got medals, better than 62%. Ten of the awards went to Washington wineries.
This was undoubtedly bad news for Washington wine makers, some of whom would like any excuse to tear out their Riesling vines and plant something else. That's because Riesling is a hard sell in the last few years, consumers complaining they're never certain if the wine will be dry or sweet.
Washington has yet to solve the problem. Most of its wines are labeled simply Johannisberg Riesling or White Riesling (same wine, different names) and few show the residual sugar on the label. It would be wise for the Washington wine industry to adopt a proprietary designation, such as Washington Dry Riesling, define it for all wineries and stick to it to assist consumers.
The wines, however, are stunning, such as the gold medal-winning 1987 Paul Thomas Dry, 1987 Hogue, and 1987 Tagaris. The Thomas wine has a mineral water and honey aroma but is extremely dry and would match handsomely with seafood; the Hogue is strikingly fresh and crisp and would also match well with food; the Tagaris has a hint of mint leaves in the aroma and would be appealing as a match to fruit salads.
Buy of the Year
All these wines sell for $6.50 or less, making them the buy of the year, if only Washington would mount a major campaign to tell the public about them.