Northwest wine 

In a Washington state of mind

Quick word association test:

What do you think of when you hear "Washington state wine"? If nothing comes to mind, you're in the unfortunate majority. Unfortunate? Absolutely, since you're missing out on some really tasty, easy-priced wines.

Washington state's 200-plus wineries drip with value and quality, but the lack of buzz hasn't created a love connection with consumers. Washingtonians appear to be a humble, quiet folk trying to compete with the marketing machine that is California, which has a few more years of experience under its belt. Before 1980, essentially none of the current Washington wineries existed, with the exception of two. But with Cali prices skyrocketing in the past several years, it's time wine lovers get to know the relatively anonymous yet immense wine area of Washington state.

Chances are you've tasted a few Washington wines; you just didn't know it. If you've tasted the popular Columbia Crest label -- the state's largest producer -- you've experienced easy-on-the-wallet yet well-made wines with depth and character. So much of California's juice in the lower price range lacks flavor, finesse and personality, but the value wines from Washington really have that pizzazz I seek out in the under $15 range.

You might wonder about the climate in Washington. When people think of the Evergreen State, they visualize Seattle and its drippy conditions, but most of the state sweats in the heat, getting very little rain. In the vast eastern part of the state lie the sprawling Yakima, Columbia and Walla Walla valleys, where the majority of the wine grapes are grown. Given plenty of irrigation, grapes thrive in these conditions, even with the cold northern winters. Names like Merlot, Chardonnay, Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Cabernet Sauvignon seem perfectly happy in the sometimes-harsh weather in those parts. Washington also grows an obscure red grape called Lemberger, the darling of many in-staters, so the rest of us see little of this light, fruity, Beaujolais-like wine. Hogue Cellars releases a few hundred cases, so seek it out if you're craving something fun and interesting.

Despite the natural obstacles, the Washington wine industry continues to grow like a weed, content with their piece of the consumer pie. For now. But watch and see them kick some Cali ass. We're the ones who'll win.

Recommended wines

Chateau Ste. Michelle 2000 Syrah ($11) : A really impressive Syrah for a low price. Lush blackberry, plum and hint of spice.

Sagelands 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon ($16) : A silky-smooth, jammy Cab. It sports a slightly oaky, musky kind of finish, but imparts a bright raspberry fix on the way down.

Columbia Crest 2001 Semillon-Chardonnay ($7) : Best value and taste. Goes down easy with exotic flavors like pineapple and melon. Don't ponder it, just drink lots of it.

L'Ecole No. 41 1998 Merlot ($35) : An extraordinarily smooth, well-crafted Merlot worth twice the price. The black pepper and cherry caress your nose then douse your tongue in an elegant wave of sexy berries. Fabulous.

Hogue Cellars Genesis 2000 Syrah ($20) : A veritable fruit salad of flavors. Kickin' with cherry, black pepper, blackberry and even plum.

Past Recommended Washington Wines

Chateau Ste. Michelle Eroica 2001 Riesling 7/2002, ($17)

Hogue Cellars 2000 Johannisberg Riesling 7/2002, ($8)

Domaine Ste. Michelle Cuvee Brut NV 12/2001, ($9)

Hogue Cellars 2000 Fume Blanc 11/2001, ($10)

Columbia Crest 1999 Chardonnay 11/2001, ($10)



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