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The Great Divide

Vintners in western Washington aren't letting faraway vineyards stop them from crafting fabulous wines
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
Steve Wynn, Jan/Feb 03

A fire crackles in a hearth at DeLille Cellars, in Woodinville, Washington, spreading warmth against a spring chill. A table spread with a gourmet lunch awaits a writer and two photographers. We sip the 1998 Chaleur Estate, a Bordeaux blend with the roundness and accessibility of a St. Julien and the punch of a Pauillac that has found a place on exalted restaurant wine lists like New York's Jean-Georges and Gramercy Tavern. In the barrel room below, the magnificent 2000 and 2001 vintages are aging in French oak.

It's a scene reminiscent of the Medoc, from the wine to the welcome, except for one nagging difference. When I wander to the window to see the Washington sun peering through the cloud cover, I look out at a vast expanse of sheep meadow, punctuated by the occasional barn of a dairy farm. There's not a vineyard in sight.

This corridor of western Washington wineries is unlike any in the world. From Quilceda Creek in Snohomish to the north, through Seattle, to Andrake in Olympia an hour south, Washington's wineries are making some of the best Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet blends anywhere in the country, and that includes Napa Valley. They're dabbling in world-class Syrah and Sangiovese, reinventing Merlot with lush Washington fruit, and experimenting with edgier Mediterranean varieties like Nebbiolo and Tempranillo. The wineries are proliferating like wildflowers; this small town of Woodinville alone has 13 of them. Yet the nearest grapevine is hundreds of miles away.

The fruit comes from eastern Washington, spilling into the northern reaches of Oregon, on land that was once used to grow apples and cherries and even wheat. In wine regions like Napa and Bordeaux, almost all of the highest-end wine is made from estate vineyards, meaning that the grapevines are owned by the winery. Not in Washington, where many of the best vineyards are run by independent operators who sell fruit to a range of producers.

Some of these vineyards, with colorful names like Champoux, Red Willow, Ciel du Cheval and Sagemoor, are more renowned than the wineries. "You can buy seven or eight or nine bottles of wine, all with Champoux fruit," says Bob Andrake, of Andrake Cellars. "It gives us an opportunity to compete against ourselves and to showcase our individual styles."

As often as several times a week, winemakers make the four-hour-plus trek over the Cascade Mountains from the Seattle area to the Columbia Valley, Pasco and the Walla Walla Valley beyond to check on the grapes. When the harvest arrives, the wineries send the fruit back over the mountain in refrigerated trucks.

The result, somehow, is remarkable wine -- from the $11 Chateau Ste. Michelle varietals to Alex Golitzin's Quilceda Creek Cabernets, available for about $100 at auction and as serious a bottle as America produces -- from equally remarkable settings. A walk around DeLille's grounds shows how tastefully a winery can be landscaped when you don't need room for vines. There's a shaded fish pond bordered by a rock outcropping, and a gazebo where winemaker Chris Upchurch was married in June 2001. Throughout the summer, a series of wine dinners are held on tables set in the soft grass between the soaring trees.

That's one option. On the other end, Ben Smith makes small batches of his single-vineyard Cadence wines hard by the freeway in downtown Seattle, near Safeco Field. Why not? Once the grapes come in, they don't know where they are.

"It adds to the logistics, that's all," says the fresh-faced Smith, 40, who worked as an engineer for Boeing for 14 years before leaving to make wine. Smith buys grapes from several vineyard sources, including Tapteil and Ciel du Cheval on Red Mountain. "If we were on the east side of the state, we'd be driving every weekend over the mountains in a Ford Explorer with 50 cases, trying to sell them all," he says. "You drive either way."

Up in Snohomish, a short drive north of Seattle, Alex Golitzin doesn't even bother with an external facility. He makes Quilceda Creek in an annex of his home. A chemical engineer, he moved to the state from California in 1967. "Seattle at that time was a gastronomical wasteland," he says, and what wine there was tasted worse than the food.

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