Gordon Bros.--Potato growers Jeff and Bill Gordon expanded their farming operation a decade ago with a variety of grapes. Merlot has turned into the star wine, winning top honors in many judgings. The 1988 Merlot ($16): A stunning example of cherry fruit, toastiness and a lean, tart finish with loads of complexity. A wine for now or the cellar. (531 Levey Road, Pasco, Wash. 99301.)
Columbia Winery--Canadian-born British Master of Wine David Lake makes some of the state's top red wine, notably rich, long-lived Merlots from the Red Willow ranch of Mike Sauer. Now located at the handsome former Haviland winery, Columbia also makes wonderful dry white wines. The 1989 Semillon ($8): Delicate new-mown-hay aroma with a trace of sage honey and a delicate, crisp finish. Widely distributed.
Chateau Ste. Michelle--The largest winery in the state, with an annual production of 700,000 cases, Ste. Michelle made a stride forward in 1990 when winemaker Mike Januik came on board. The 1987 Cabernet "Cold Creek" ($20): Classic herbal/cherry notes with spicy complexity. The 1987 Cabernet "River Ridge" ($18): Lighter, less dense, but still richly flavored. Widely distributed. (See blind tasting results below.)
Arbor Crest--The Mielke family winery, located in eastern Washington, close to the Idaho border, makes many kinds of wine. The whites had been the front-runners until recent vintages. The 1987 Merlot "Cameo Reserve" ($12): Slightly oaky note competes with wonderful fruit. Deep flavors and rich aftertaste for a wine so reasonably priced. (North 4705 Fruithill Road, Spokane, Wash. 99207.)
Columbia Crest--A sister brand of Ste. Michelle with California-trained Doug Gore (he was at Beringer) working wonders. Gore's line is more reasonably priced than Ste. Michelle's, but the wines often show better. The 1987 Merlot Barrel Select ($15): Richly flavored and textured wine with classic herbal-leafy note underneath a chocolate and berry center. Wonderful wine. Widely available. (A 1988 Merlot, a bargain at $10, is also excellent and more widely distributed.)
Mount Baker Vineyards--Located north of Seattle, near the Canadian border, Mount Baker grows much of its own grapes, including the only block of Madeleine Angevine in the nation. Winemaker Jim Hildt also buys Cabernet grapes from the Columbia Valley far to the south. The 1988 Cabernet ($16): Rich, smoky, bacony, toasty aromas with deep, dense fruit and a long finish. (4298 Mount Baker Highway, Deming, Wash. 98244.)
Following my trip to Washington, The Los Angeles Times tasting panel met at Meadowood Country Club in the Napa Valley to taste blind a range of additional Washington wines. The panel consisted of author Bob Thompson, wine consultants Michael Rubin and John Thoreen, and John Williams, winemaker at Frog's Leap winery in the Napa Valley.
\o7 The panel's results of that tasting follow:\f7
Group 1: 1. 1990 Worden's Chenin Blanc ($6.50): Wonderful melon, banana, apple and pear fruit in an off-dry style with a hit of carbonation to make the wine zesty. Superb. (7217 W. 45th St., Spokane, Wash. 99204.) 2. 1990 Chateau Ste. Michelle Chenin Blanc ($6): Apple and pear juice notes with melony taste. Off-dry. One other Chenin Blanc reviewed.
Group 2: 1. 1990 Suncrest Riesling ($6.50): Spicy (a trace of Gewurztraminer was added) with lichee nut and cinnamon-apple notes. Wonderful to sip on a hot day or match with spicy foods. This is the label Worden Winery uses for wines made from organically grown grapes. 2. 1989 Kiona Dry Riesling ($6): Melony-earthy complexity, a trace of lime and a dry finish that's not austere. Three other Rieslings reviewed.
Group 3: 1989 Columbia Crest Sauvignon Blanc ($7): Clean, fresh, mild grassy notes, attractively crisp finish. 2. 1989 Chateau Ste. Michelle Fume Blanc ($9): More assertive in grassy notes than the above wine, for folks who like grassier styles. Two other Sauvignon Blancs reviewed.
Group 4: 1989 Hogue Reserve Chardonnay ($13): Pear and oak notes interplay in a crisp, delicately flavored wine. Elegant. Four other Chardonnays reviewed, none very interesting.
Group 5: 1990 Suncrest Gewurztraminer ($6.50): Classic juniper, spice and carnation aroma (one taster said it was like bubble gum), with a load of carbonation to add zip and a crisp finish. From organically grown grapes. 2. 1990 Columbia Crest Gewurztraminer ($6): Wonderful spice notes of lichee and ripe pear, softer than the above wine, with a faint classic bitterness that should match nicely with Asian foods. Two other Gewurztraminers reviewed.
Group 6: 1. 1987 Columbia Crest Cabernet Sauvignon ($8): Exciting herbal, cherry complexity with a lot going on; it changes as you sniff and sip it. Cedary notes creep in, and the wine is soft and appealing in the finish. A wine to drink or keep in the cellar. 2. 1987 Chateau Ste. Michelle Merlot, Cold Creek Vineyard ($19): Classic herb-tea aroma with fine cherry fruit. Also recommended: 1987 Chateau Ste. Michelle River Ridge Cabernet ($18) and 1987 Hogue Cellars Reserve Cabernet ($21).
Wine of the Week
\o7 1990 Chateau Ste. Michelle Muscat Canelli ($7.50)--\f7 Rarely do people think of Muscat as a wine to go with food, but this wine, with 4% residual sugar, is wonderful as a dessert. It has an intensely spicy aroma, perfectly varietal, with balancing acidity so it's not at all cloying. But the wine also seems to work with spicy foods, and when I tried it with a hot Southwestern chili, it was grand. There aren't many Muscats this good.