Wandering the Western wine trails
I just got back from a trip through the Washington, Oregon, and California wine countries, where I tasted about 500 wines. Here is an array of my favorites, along with their Web sites in case you have trouble finding these wines locally.
We started in Washington and found some amazing wines. The Walla Walla area, in particular, is producing a stunning array of red wines, especially Syrahs. Although they are suffering from the same problem that faces all young wine areas -- the only way to pay the bills is to charge high prices -- several of their wines qualify as world class.
The most impressive Washington Syrah I tasted was from Isenhower (www.isenhowercellars.com). Their Reserve Syrah ($27) was complex and full of delicious fruit, and a bargain at the price. Three other Syrahs were only a skosh behind in quality, Forgeron ($29, www.forgeroncellars.com), Reininger ($32, www.reiningerwinery.com), and Three Rivers ($24, www.threeriverswinery.com). All four wines are big New World-style wines with enough oomph to stand up to grilled meats.
Washington is also turning out some impressive white wines. At the top of my list is Waterbrook's delicious and bargain-priced Sauvignon Blanc ($9, www.waterbrook.com). They are also making a glorious Viognier ($20) that is as smoky and intricate as a 1950s Chet Baker solo. Forgeron's French winemaker, Marie-Eve Gilla, is making a Burgundian-style Chardonnay ($19) that proves this area has great potential for Chards. For a sweet treat, Three Rivers Gewürztraminer ($21) is a rich dessert wine filed with all the grape's characteristic rose and lychee aromas.
Just down the river from Walla Walla, I had the opportunity to learn an important lesson: Just because you have a monstrously large winery doesn't mean you have to make bland and anonymous wines. I found that out when I visited the winery that gets my vote for the best huge winery in the United States, Columbia Crest (www.columbiacrest.com). I think I figured out their secret: They treat each of their wines with all the love and care it would receive in an individual winery; it's sort of like dozens of small wineries operating in one building. After tasting through every one of their wines, I can say that all are splendid, and one line, their Estate Wines, is a dazzlingly good deal. Their Grand Estates Chardonnay ($10) is better than most wines at three times the price and their Syrah ($22) is another stunning, and less expensive, example of the magic the grape makes in Washington.
Oregon has become the hotspot for two varietals, pinot noir and pinot gris. Many of the pinot noirs have become ridiculously expensive, but careful shopping yielded some legitimate, if poshly priced, bargains. Top on the list was Domaine Drouhin Laurene ($50, www.domainedrouhin.com), a hedonistic, fruity miracle of a wine. Fifty dollars might sound like a lot, but a lot of premium Oregon pinots have punctured the $100-a-bottle mark, and this beats most of them. Their Willamette Valley Pinot Noir ($40) is almost as good and much easier to find. Oregon white wine is coming on strong and, thankfully, is more fairly priced. Chehalem's Pinot Gris Reserve ($19, www.chehalemwines.com) was deliciously intense and would be a great food wine with something like wild salmon.
Down in California, I ran into one other huge winery making wonderful wines, Meridian Vineyards (www.meridianvineyards.com). Everything I tasted proved winemaker Signe Zoller knows what she wants and has access to good enough fruit to make it year in and year out. Their budget wines are ubiquitous and cheap, yet their Chardonnay ($8) and Shiraz ($13) are worthy drinks. Their Reserve Chardonnay ($15) and Syrah ($19) are even better wines, but still at fair prices.
Bonny Doon (www.bonnydoonvineyard.com), in Santa Cruz, is probably the most Austin-tatious winery around. These are folks who would grok the whole "Keep Austin Weird" phenomenon. Ralph Steadman draws many of their labels, and all the wines have droll names, like Cardinal Zin or Critique of Pure Riesling. Behind all the comical names are some excellent wines, including one of the great bargains of the year, their Domaine des Blagueurs Syrah-Sirrah, in a screw-top bottle for just $9. Speaking of that screw-top, Bonny Doon is leading the way in the U.S. for a return to this very sensible closure.
Two wineries close to Santa Barbara were making stellar wine. Gainey Vineyard (www.gaineyvineyard.com) has a delicious Sauvignon Blanc ($14), along with several other well-made wines. They also make three Limited Selection wines, Sauvignon Blanc ($19), Chardonnay ($29), and Merlot ($32) with the classic taste of great California wine. Fess Parker's (www.fessparker.com) deliciously honeyed Viognier ($17) was another example of super Santa Barbara wine.
Finally, I found a winery that has pulled the trick all others wish for: great wines and nothing but great wines. Siduri (www.siduri.com), in Santa Clara, is owned by Texans and operated on a shoestring from an industrial warehouse. Siduri has now grown to the point where there should be a bad wine in their portfolio. There isn't. Their wines range from $17-50 a bottle. All they make is pinot noir, but if that sounds like an easy target, imagine this: They make 17 different pinots from vineyards 1,000 miles apart! Let's hope they can keep up their perfect track record. For now, Siduri on the label means you'll be drinking great wine.