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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

(continued from page 1)

Golitzin knew wine. Born in France to a Russian émigré family in 1939, he'd grown up in San Francisco, the nephew of esteemed enologist Andre Tchelistcheff, who for many years made Beaulieu Vineyards wines and, later, the Niebaum-Coppola Rubicon blend.

Frustrated, Golitzin decided to make his own wine -- and sell it, beginning with the 1979 vintage -- by using fruit from Otis and, eventually, Klipsun and other eastern Washington vineyards. Even after Quilceda Creek became a commercial success, Golitzin never contemplated moving to the other side of the Cascades. He had a day job with Scott Paper until 1994, and a lifestyle he didn't want to lose. "San Francisco to Seattle was bad enough," he said. "Eastern Washington? Never."

Today, the Cabernet Sauvignon he gets is so good, Golitzin believes, that it is no longer necessary to blend in Merlot grapes. "We've come to the conclusion that, if you do the Cabernet right, you don't want Merlot in it," he says. A taste of the 2000 Cabernet confirms the theory. Despite being a 100-percent Cabernet, the wine already tastes like a first-growth Bordeaux.

David Lake, the British-born Master of Wine who has served as the winemaker at Columbia Winery in Woodinville since 1979, remembers when Washington was considered a white-wine state. So do most wine lovers; such conventional wisdom held until the early 1990s. Cold, wet Washington was Riesling territory, America's Rhineland. "The thought was that nothing else would ripen here," Lake says.

In Woodinville, nothing does. But the grapes aren't in Woodinville; they're in the arid, sun-steeped plateaus of the eastern half of the state. At the same time that Washington was earning a reputation for fruity, good-value whites, Lake was making robust yet elegant Cabernet from vineyards such as Otis and Red Willow, and shaking his head at the stereotypes.

Then the Merlot boom hit California in the mid-'90s, and Washington was poised to benefit. The brightness of the local grapes worked perfectly with that variety, which is generally softer and fruitier and less tannic than Cabernet Sauvignon. Specializing in Merlot provided a point of difference from Napa and Sonoma, which were known for Cabernet and Chardonnay.

Nobody really noticed that Washington's Cabernets were even better than its Merlots. "The marketplace was hungry for Merlot," Lake says. "We made it well, the market wanted it, and to keep saying, 'You shouldn't be buying our Merlot, you should be buying our Cabernet' seemed rather self-defeating."

Lake pours three of his single-vineyard Cabernets from the difficult 1996 vintage, and revels in the differences between Otis, Red Willow and Sagemoor fruit. He has long-term contracts with the vineyards, so his ability to obtain grapes is secure, barring the killer frost that tends to blanket Washington's viticultural areas several times a decade. If that happens, at least he has options, unlike wineries wedded to fruit from a single source.

Downstairs from Lake's reception area is a tasting room and gift shop the size of a Gap store, which sells older vintages, shirts and caps, and assorted wine-related trinkets. Across the street sits Chateau Ste. Michelle, a massive producer that attracts more than 300,000 visitors a year to its manicured grounds for wine tours, concerts and even a live broadcast of Garrison Keillor's "Prairie Home Companion," the long-running radio variety show. Columbia feasts on the spillover, as do most of the other wineries in Woodinville.

That's one reason so many are concentrated together. But what's DeLille doing here? It has no tasting room, gives no tours and declines to even hang an identifying sign, so as not to encourage visitors. When I ask Jay Soloff, one of the four partners in the winery, he offers an embarrassed smile. "Look, we knew Chris [Upchurch] would be a good winemaker, but we didn't realize he'd be this good," Soloff says. "We were going to put the tasting room right here. Then we started selling out everything we made, and we realized we didn't need it."

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