Catch That Northwestern Buzz


What's the first thing that comes to mind when you think about Washington state and Oregon? Is it coffee? Depressing weather? Hippies? Grunge rock and flannel? For me, it's wine. Washington is the second largest producer of fine wines in the U.S., after California, and Oregon produces Pinot Noirs that rival the finest red Burgundies. Let there be no mistake: This region is a force to be reckoned with.

In both Oregon and Washington, vines were originally planted in the 19th Century, but they were pretty much abandoned when prohibition hit. Wine production was resurrected in both states during the 1960s and has been on the upward climb ever since.

Oregon really got on the map of the wine world in the late 1970s, when an Oregon Pinot Noir stomped some of France's most beloved Burgundies in a blind tasting in Paris. It had been said for years that grapes could not thrive in Oregon's cool, wet climate, but a few determined U.C. Davis grads proved them wrong.

Within a few years, highly respected winemakers from France were looking to get in on the Pinot Noir game in Oregon. Among them was Robert Drouhin, who founded Domaine Drouhin in Willamette Valley. These wines are fantastic and pretty highly allocated, so snatch 'em up if you see them. Their Classique Pinot Noir (about $40) is made in the true Burgundian style, showing fresh red cherry and cranberry fruit, with classic earthiness and very little tannin.

Another great Oregon winery to check out is King Estate. A relatively young company, founded in 1991, King Estate has already made a huge name for itself in the winemaking community. I love their signature Pinot Gris (around $15). It's dry and crisp with fresh tropical fruit flavors and a soft richness from French Oak aging. You just gotta try this one.

In Washington State, the Cascade Mountains separate the warmer eastern side of the state, where Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon thrive, from the much cooler western side, where Riesling thrives. One of my favorites is the Chateau Ste. Michelle "Horse Heaven" Sauvignon Blanc (about $14). This wine shows fresh citrus fruit and grassy characteristics common in Sauvignon Blancs, along with rich vanilla notes from French Oak aging. Mmm, mmm, good.

Though Cabernets and Merlots from Washington don't spend a lot of time in the media spotlight, there are some really great ones to try. If you're looking for something a little special, Andrew Will offers some top-notch Merlots (unfortunately top-notch prices go along with them). For the more price-conscious among us, try some of the great stuff offered by Hogue Cellars. Their Genesis Cabernet (around $16) shows bittersweet red fruit character with nice toasty oak. Really great wine for the money.

I know what you're thinking now. You're about to run home, throw on a Nirvana record and slurp down some of that good Northwestern hooch. I don't blame you a bit.


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