FOR MY FIFTH annual selection of recommended wines, I am putting the focus squarely on the Yakima Valley. As this issue's cover story reveals, the town of Prosser is quickly becoming a must-see stop on the trail for any wine-obsessed Washington tourist. You'll find more than enough tasting rooms and wineries in town to keep your palate happily occupied for a long weekend.
But many more wineries are scattered across the valley — the appellation follows the graceful curve of the Yakima River along its run from the eastern foothills of the Cascade Mountains to the edge of the Tri-Cities. Included in the Yakima Valley appellation are the sub-appellations of Red Mountain — arguably this state's most distinctive — and Rattlesnake Hills, the newest.
Print-and-save wine list
The Yakima Valley was Washington's first officially designated AVA — legally defined American Viticultural Area. Recognized in 1983, it encompasses more than 11,000 acres of vinifera (European) vineyards and is home to more than 50 wineries. Some of this state's oldest vineyards are here, and virtually all of Washington's best winemakers obtain at least some of their grapes from Yakima Valley growers.
At this time of year, as autumn fades into winter, the wineries are wrapping up another harvest and putting the newly fermented wine into barrels to begin the long aging process. The young, fresh white wines from 2005, released in the spring and summer, are giving way to the autumn wines — richer whites from that vintage, including chardonnays and blends of semillon and sauvignon blanc. The red wines from the 2004 vintage are now appearing at many wineries, a nod to the impending winter.
Mid-fall is very much a transitional time for wine drinkers, when the weather begins pushing you toward heartier meals, and you can take delight at the prospect of pulling out some of the bigger red wines that seem too tiring when the days are warm.
So included below are a case each of Yakima Valley whites and reds. These are wines that have jumped out from the crowd and spoken to me. As I've said before, they taste like something specific — a particular variety of grape, grown and made into wine in a particular place. They go beyond the ordinary.
In compiling these two cases, I have sampled literally hundreds of wines. This is not a "Best of Yakima Valley" list, for several reasons. First, two cases would not suffice to cover the best! Second, such a list would have to include many wineries not listed here. Not everyone has wines available right now. Some wineries have been written about so many times that it is only fair to focus on someone else, perhaps someone new or small or somehow overlooked. And sometimes, you just run out of room.
If you have trouble finding any of these wines, give a call to the Washington Wine Commission (206-667-9463; find them online at www.washingtonwine.org) and request a copy of its "Touring Washington Wine Country" brochure. It includes detailed maps, touring itineraries and phone numbers, addresses and e-mail for hundreds of Washington wineries. You may also check online; most wineries have active Web sites. They will be happy to assist you in finding their current releases and usually have some sold exclusively from the tasting room. And remember, wineries in Washington — in fact wineries anywhere in the country — may now legally sell and ship wine to you directly here in Washington, provided they observe all the laws of their home state and pay the appropriate taxes.
The third featured case is a selection of what I optimistically think of as "value" wines. They are widely available and budget priced, generally around $7 or $8. I'll be honest with you: Finding sound, flavorful wines in this price range is the hardest challenge I face. Many frogs must be kissed (along with emus, roosters, kangaroos, jackaroos, amaroos, crocodiles, cockatoos, swans, loons, and koala bears) to find a prince or princess. On top of which, some inscrutable misalignment of the marketing zodiac has brought down upon us all a hailstorm of transportation wines! Wines named for cars and trucks and campers and bicycles are zipping around the supermarket shelves, bashing into the celebrity wines and feminist wines and frightening the three blind moose (meece?).
Whatever. Whether a wine is named for a critter, a river, a little black dress or a tree stump matters little to me. What I hope to find for my seven or eight bucks is really quite simple. If a wine is labeled chardonnay, it should taste like chardonnay, not like microwave popcorn or vanilla syrup. If it is labeled merlot, it should taste like something (with cheap merlot you have to be grateful for almost any flavor at all). Many are called; 12 were chosen.
YAKIMA VALLEY WHITE WINES
Brian Carter Cellars 2004 Oriana White Blend; $24. The wine is 45 percent roussanne, 36 percent riesling and 19 percent viognier. Aromatic, rich and dry, this stylish blend captures the best of each grape: citrusy viognier, floral riesling and ripe, peachy roussanne.
Cedergreen Cellars 2005 Sauvignon Blanc; $18. An outstanding bottle, vibrant and full of green berry, melon, fig and apple fruit flavors. It's textural, well-defined, crisp and polished, with 10 percent semillon adding some flesh.
Bonair 2004 Riesling; $9. You'll find lots of peach and apricot, hints of tangerine and even a whiff of jasmine. With just under 1 percent residual sugar, it has a nice roundness in the mouth.
Wineglass Cellars 2005 'In The Buff' Chardonnay; $13. In the buff, as you might suppose, means no oak, no malolactic. It is nonetheless quite stacked with flavor, thick currents of pear, peach and other stone fruits, and plenty of natural acid to keep it lively in the mouth.
C.R. Sandidge 2004 Viognier; $19. Fragrant and intensely fruity, this thick and slightly hot viognier is loaded with fascinating flavors. Stone fruits galore, and then it morphs into a more buttery, chardonnay-like creature, with highlights of bitter lime.
2005 Apex II Sauvignon Blanc; $11. A bright mix of pineapple, citrus, green berries and more, with a yeasty, pleasing grassiness. It's a good follow-up to the 2003.
Chinook 2005 Sauvignon Blanc; $17. Leesy and crisp, an immaculate wine, with flavors that are translucent, yet layered and reasonably substantial. An elegant wash of stone, melon and citrus, it will give your palate and your meal a lift.
Thurston Wolfe 2005 PGV; $15. The blend is 70 percent viognier, the rest pinot gris. The fruit is thick and semi-tropical; a big, dense, chewy white wine.
Willow Crest 2005 Pinot Gris; $10. This is their best white, showing more pear than apple flavors, with light melon also. The wine feels and tastes of lees, and flavors of crisp skin tannins that put a clean edge on it. Nothing fancy, just solid winemaking.
Willow Crest 2005 Chenin Blanc; $10. Made off-dry, with flesh and fresh-fruit sweetness that mixes pear, honeydew and sweet citrus.
Pontin Del Roza 2005 Pinot Grigio; $17. This is the best of the winery's whites. It moves beyond simple apple and pear fruit flavors. It's a seamless, solid wine that shows some crisp orange-peel flavors, giving it extra detail and dimension.
Pontin Del Roza 2005 White Riesling; $10. The riesling is what you might call old school, made off-dry with bright fruit flavors. You'll taste Meyer lemon, lime candy, grapefruit and sweet peach — the classic tasting-room white.
YAKIMA VALLEY RED WINES
McCrea 2003 'Boushey Grande Côte' Syrah; $42. This is pure syrah from a single great vineyard. Forward and opulent, it's packed with flavors and scents of smoked meat, herb, gorgeous red fruits and pretty chocolate. Despite its heft it remains beautifully defined.
DeLille 2003 Harrison Hill Red; $68. Apart from Columbia's Otis cabernet, this is Yakima's (and Washington's) oldest cabernet vineyard. Newer plantings of merlot and cab franc enhance the blend. The wine is an unusual black-cherry hue, and immediately marked by its exceptional grace.
Bunnell Family Cellar 2004 'Boushey-McPherson Vineyard' Syrah; $33. Complete, aromatic and lively, with a bright, citrusy nose. Layered and precise, this beautifully focused effort sets sparkling acidity against toasty oak. The tart, cool-climate fruit flavors are concentrated and fresh.
Brian Carter Cellars 2002 L'Etalon; $30. Firm, full and fleshy, this Bordeaux blend is done in a ripe but not quite voluptuous style. It displays its fruit well with a nice, firm structure. Polished, still youthful, it takes the new oak in stride and should continue to evolve nicely over the next decade.
Sheridan Vineyard 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon; $45. This is pure cabernet sauvignon from an important vineyard. Ripe, with just the right hints of leaf and bark, it also carries a subtle suggestion of chocolate. The finish is smooth and textural, and a bit of coffee kicks in right at the end.
O• S Winery 2004 Dineen Vineyard Syrah; $42. Here is an interesting tangle of flavors: smooth chocolate and bright citrus, wrapped around cool-climate syrah fruit. There is a lovely floral element in the nose, and the bright berry juice blends into lightly toasted chocolate.
Columbia Winery 2001 Red Willow Vineyard Syrah; $27. Columbia's Red Willow wines often need extra bottle time to open up. This is the 'Signature Series' and is just moving into a lovely phase, with soft, elegant nuances of truffle, tobacco, fig and earth.
Animale 2004 Petite Sirah; $22. Act quickly; just 40 cases of this petite sirah/merlot/grenache blend were produced. Though lean for petite sirah, the tannins are especially well managed, and there is a tangy, citrus-rind snap to it that both defines and lifts the flavors.
C.R. Sandidge 2003 Minick Vineyard Syrah; $24. This Sandidge is comparable to the Willow Crest from the same vineyard, with pleasing berry flavors that are lightly touched with smoke and coffee.
Chatter Creek 2004 Lonesome Spring Ranch Syrah; $24. This fragrant mix of sweet fruits and aromatic herbs comes together beautifully in the bottle. Sleek, peppery and lively, with citrus highlights, it's got a racy quality and pinpoint balance.
Kestrel NV Lady In Red Holiday Edition; $15. This popular blend, with the leggy lady etched onto the bottle, is just out with a special 'Holiday Edition.' Here she's resplendent in a mini-skirted Santa suit. The wine is less showy; a perfectly fine mutt blend, soft and smooth and easy drinking. It is a non-vintage (NV) wine, which usually means some older wine has been blended in. You can taste it in the round, slightly stewed cherry and prune flavors.
Wilridge 2004 Kestrel Vineyard Sangiovese; $19. A pretty rose color sets up a wine with pleasant mixed red fruits, some spicy highlights and a warm, soft mouthfeel. A good, all-purpose pizza red.
As always, the goal here is to assemble a case of enjoyable wine that will cost you around a hundred bucks. The prices quoted may vary slightly, but with a case-purchase discount, this should come in just about on target. This year the focus is on widely available varietal wines whose flavors are right down the heart of the plate. For convenience, I've divided them into six flavor categories. Distributor is listed in parentheses.
Columbia Winery 2005 Gewurztraminer; $8. This is Columbia, not to be confused with Columbia Crest. This fabulous example of Washington gewurz is as good as the grape gets here in the USA — a beautiful blend of floral, bath powder, apple and grapefruit components. There is an elegant intensity that powers the wine through an exceptionally long finish. (Young's-Columbia)
Bloom 2005 Pinot Gris; $8. Bloom wines, all German, are part of the locally owned Precept Brands portfolio. Also in the lineup are a pleasant riesling and a Muller-Thurgau called Petals, but the pinot gris is the standout. (OK, it's really ruländer, but why add to the confusion? Same grape, different name.) This shows a bit more grip and pear flavor than most budget Euro gris, with a good clean finish and moderate alcohol. (Odom)
Trinchero Family 2005 Sauvignon Blanc; $9. Trinchero is trying to shed its reputation for uninspired generic varietals by making appellation-specific bottlings. This ripe, tart, peachy sauvignon blanc, with a nice addition of 10 percent semillon, comes from Santa Barbara County. Cold-fermented in stainless steel, it offers clean, crisp flavors at just 13.5 percent alcohol. (Young's-Columbia)
Canyon Road 2005 Sauvignon Blanc; $7. Grassy is the operative phrase here, but I do not mean that to be negative. Sauvignon blanc is a grassy grape; its natural flavors are pleasantly herbaceous. In California that natural grassiness has often been covered up with barrel fermentation, malolactic fermentation, new oak or simply by letting the grapes get too ripe. Here is just plain good grassy sauv blanc. (Unique)
Rich & Fruity Whites
Black Opal 2005 Chardonnay; $8. Black Opal is part of the huge Foster's Group wine portfolio, whose Australian brands include other well-known wines such as Little Penguin and Rosemount Estate. New packaging elevates the look of the lineup in 2005, and as is generally the case in budget wines from Australia, chardonnay and shiraz are the best bets. This puts the fruit in the driver's seat — no fake oak or vanilla here — just clean, fresh, dry, tropical fruit flavors. (Young's-Columbia)
The White Knight 2005 Viognier; $11. From a California producer called The Other Guys comes this winner of a viognier, nicely textured with bracing minerality. It's got classic flavors of citrus rind, scents of mixed blossoms, and luscious flavors of pink grapefruit, orange and light citrus. This sidesteps all the usual problems with viognier (too hot, too bitter, etc.) and really pulls it all together. It's a bit of a splurge here, but has been knocked down from a much higher price. (Vehrs)
Kingfish 2005 Merlot; $5. I list the merlot, but Kingfish, a budget line from Delicato Family Vineyards, makes an equally good shiraz and a cabernet sauvignon. They all cost five bucks and are blended with various other grapes to add punch. These are soft, pretty, fruit-forward wines; exceptional at this price. They all taste about the same. To test the theory, I tasted them one at a time, then blended them all together. All good. (Alaska)
Butterfield Station 2005 Shiraz; $7. This pleasant California bottling speaks to me of raspberries, fresh picked and dusted with cocoa. Don't expect muscle or nerve here, not at this price. But fresh fruit? Check. Tart, clean finish? Check. A nice light red all around, and one to tuck away for Thanksgiving leftovers. (Unique)
Sawtooth 2004 Skyline Red; $9. This Idaho winery, part of Corus Estates & Vineyards group, is turning into old reliable; every wine they offer is soundly made and fairly priced. And these are estate-grown grapes, not fruit purchased in Washington and trucked back across the border. This blend has a little bit of everything. Dark, toasty and smoky, it's loaded with finishing flavors of licorice, clove and espresso. (Unique)
Oak Grove 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon; $7. It's not easy to find cheap cabernet sauvignon that doesn't swing wide to the weedy side of grape life. There is a certain earthy funk here, a hint of veggie, but to some degree that just makes the wine more French, n'est-ce pas? This generic California producer insists on calling it a "Reserve" (I'd hate to think what their non-reserve is like), but it is a respectable bottle. Tuck it around a thick steak and it will do just fine. (Unique)
Big Tannic Reds
Cellar No. 8 2004 Merlot; $9. The Asti winery and vineyard, in northern Sonoma County, dates back to the late 1800s, and quickly rose to fame with its Italian Swiss Colony label. More than a century of ownership changes have occurred, but the winery continues. Its Cellar No. 8 label, named for one of the original winemaker's barrel aging rooms, makes red wines from the North Coast. The best of the lineup is this substantial merlot, with plenty of black cherry cola flavor, earthy tannins and surprising length. The addition of small amounts of carignane and petite sirah enhances the flavors and honors the wines of long ago. (Young's-Columbia)
Columbia Crest 'Two Vines' 2002 Merlot-Cabernet; $7. There is plenty of color, and beguiling scents of bramble, tobacco, ash, bark and smoke. This is a party wine, smooth and delicious, with generous cherry, blueberry and raspberry fruit, ripe tannins and perfectly balanced acids. (Young's-Columbia)
Paul Gregutt, The Seattle Times' Wine Adviser in the Wednesday Food & Wine section and a regular contributor to Pacific Northwest magazine's Taste column, is a contributing editor for the Wine Enthusiast magazine and the Pacific Northwest correspondent for Tom Stevenson's "Wine Report" books.
Thanksgiving in the Wine Country
Now a favorite Northwest tradition with more than 45 wineries participating, this post-holiday event offers visitors a taste of the outstanding Yakima Valley. Experience adventuresome culinary pairings, library tastings and tours over the weekend of Nov. 24-26. Tickets are available online through Wine Yakima Valley at www.wineyakimavalley.org/events, or by phone: 1-800-258-7270.