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Hail, Columbia Cabs


The vineyards of Washington state may be in the same time zone as Southern California, but the 1,500 miles between here and there would take you about halfway across the United States if you mistook Interstate 10 for Interstate 5. In Europe, that's the distance from Bordeaux to Oslo.

The heart of the Washington wine-growing industry is the Columbia Valley appellation, an area defined by the meanderings of the Columbia River as it bends through the center of the state and then heads west, where it defines the border between Oregon and Washington.

There, on lands that are still mostly planted in apples, hops and cattle feed, a small but thriving wine industry has taken root. Small by California standards, that is: a little less than 30,000 acres, compared to almost 400,000 acres of grapes in California.

Two important sub-appellations, the Yakima Valley and the Walla Walla Valley, lie wholly within the Columbia Valley appellation, just as the Stags Leap District lies entirely within the Napa Valley. The soon-to-be-recognized Red Mountain sub-appellation is also within the Columbia Valley. Its vineyards have yielded some of the best Cabernet coming out of Washington.

Strict geographers will note that portions of two appellations, about 500 acres of the Columbia Valley and a bit less than 300 acres of Walla Walla Valley, are actually in Oregon.

The mix of grape varieties grown in Washington has never been quite as broad as California's. The Big Three--Cabernet Sauvignon (5,000 acres), Merlot (5,600) and Chardonnay (6,100)--made up 75% of all the grapes planted in the state at the last official tally, in July 1999.

Riesling, a grape that does far better in Washington than in California, accounts for 2,000 acres, and Syrah is coming on fast at 1,500 acres in 1999 (from none in 1993). Scarcely any Zinfandel is to be found, no Pinot Noir and precious little Sauvignon Blanc.

Columbia Valley Cabernet is capable of both depth of fruit and great balance. The wines reviewed here represent a cross-section of producers from large to small and moderately priced to upscale. But nowhere on this list are you going to see the $100-and-up Cabernets now so prevalent in the California scheme of things.

Though many Washington wineries are relatively small, which can make their wines hard to find, the price-to-quality ratio is generally very good.

* 1996 Chateau Ste. Michelle "Reserve," Columbia Valley, $30. Ste. Michelle's Cabernets always seem a little on the firm, tightly structured side compared to their California cousins and even to Cabernets from the Red Mountain and Walla Walla districts. This solid effort is no exception. It shows a bit of suppleness at first, but then becomes somewhat reserved. Though its tannins are not big, it is a wine that will need time to open up into the elegant bottle it is destined to become.

1996 Columbia Crest Winery "Estate Series," Columbia Valley, $14. Often among the best values in West Coast wines, Columbia Crest wines have made many appearances in this column. This particular wine gets only a lukewarm endorsement, but it's a clean, lightly oaky and moderately stuffed wine, and at this price, its suppleness and brisk vitality make it a decent everyday quaff.

* 1996 Covey Run, Yakima Valley "Whiskey Canyon Vineyard," $27. Whiffs of roasted coffee beans and herbs set the pace here, with the supporting fruit staying a bit in the background. The wine is firmly structured, as are so many from Yakima Valley, but its underlying suppleness and lingering fruity finish promise a more open future as it matures.

** 1997 DeLille Cellars "Chaleur Estate," Washington, $40. Like Hedges, noted next, this little-known winery will, I am sure, win fame as word spreads beyond the Pacific Northwest. This bottling blends very ample black cherry fruit with sweet creamy oak, and it follows with a wonderfully supple texture that gets some needed backbone from youthful tannins. It is a rich wine, worthy of aging, at a lower price than most California wines of the same quality.

* 1996 Hedges "Red Mountain Reserve," Columbia Valley, $45. No wine has more consistently shown why Washington state vintners esteem Red Mountain for Cabernet and Merlot. This muscular bottling starts with aromas of smoke, walnuts, loamy earth and black cherries. Fairly full in body and high in tannin, it will show better in six to eight years than it does today.

1995 Peninsula "Red Willow Vineyard," $70. This blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (50%), Merlot (30%) and Cabernet Franc (20%) earns mention here more for its vineyard than for its success in this vintage. Red Willow is a magnificently tended property sitting on a rocky outcropping with a small chapel at its peak: You'd think you were somewhere in France. Its wines are often concentrated and complex, and though this one only hints at that quality, it does demonstrate the sturdiness of Cabernets and Syrahs from this vineyard.

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