I love surprises and finding something I didn’t know existed.

Recently, I was meeting with a lovely bride and her family from Philadelphia.  The Father is a wine distributor, so I ask him to tell me something I don’t know. “What wine am I missing out on?” Without skipping a beat he said Washington State. I’ve since developed a newfound love with wines from the Columbia Valley (much to the chagrin of Christina, a dyed-in-the-wool Napa girl).

I admit that when one hears about fine American wine, California automatically comes to mind because there are certainly some beauties being produced there. But I was surprised to hear that Washington State ranks number two in wine production for the United States, with some 600 wineries! The climate there is unique. Most of us on the East Coast think of Washington as having a rainy Seattle-like climate. But that is not so for the wine region of the state – it has a desert dry climate, averaging only eight inches of rain per year, mostly in the winter. The region also averages about seventeen hours of sunlight in the summer, two hours more per day than California. Columbia Valley also has a longer growing season so grapes develop on the vines that much longer. The Columbia valley stretches between the 46th parallel and 47th parallel, putting it in line with the wine growing regions of Bordeaux and Burgundy. As a result, many of Washington’s wines are made in the Bordeaux style. Irrigation from nearby rivers combined with volcanic and sandy loan soil that drains very well makes for really happy, flavorful grapes.

Now, I’m not a total neophyte. I have enjoyed the beautiful wines from Chateau Ste. Michelle (named Best America Winery in 1998) for years. But I guess I just figured it was an anomaly.  Not very long after the father of the bride told me what to watch for, I was invited to a lovely dinner hosted by Kelley Moore. Low-and-behold, it was hosted by Washington State Wines.

That night we tasted the Buty 2010 “Semillon/Sauvignon/Muscadelle” Columbia Valley, an ode to traditional Bordeaux style of wine.  Domaine Ste. Michelle “Blanc de Noir” Sparkling that poised as a fine rival to Champagne is made from 100% Pinot Noir.  Maison Bleue 2010 “Petite Joie” Marsanne, Boushey Vineyard, Yakima Valley is rich and aromatic and reminiscent to the wines of the Rhone Valley.  Gramercy Cellars 2008 “Lagniappe” Syrah, Columbia Valley that is co-fermented with Viognier that gives it an earthy (heavenly?) nose. And lastly, they poured Poet’s Leap 2008 “Botrytis” Riesling, Columbia Valley that most agreed would rival a notable Sauternes.  The conversation at dinner was a constant barrage of “where have we been to have missed out on these wines?”

A few weeks ago, when I was speaking in Honolulu, my friend Stephen invited me to accompany him to the James Beard Celebrity Chefs Tour in Kona at the beautiful Mauna Lani Bay Resort. Ming Tsai, Tyler Florence, Jonathan Waxman and Sandy Tuason were cooking. That night I was introduced to Domaine Serene (Oregon) 2009 “Clos du Lune” Chardonnay and 2007 “Evenstad” Reserve Pinot Noir.  The only thing I can say is: OH MY…They both had such character and personality. That night also featured Chateau Ste. Michelle 2010 “Ethos Reserve” Riesling and Ethos Late Harvest Riesling – both rich and wonderful. There was only one California wine on the tasting – something that would be unheard of only a few years ago.

This past Friday night I was out with my friends Michael and Ryan. I had forgotten that Ryan grew up in the Columbia Valley, so he looked at me like I had two heads when I asked if they minded if we ordered a Washington State wine. He said “Duh!” and launched into a diatribe of the wonders of the Columbia Valley. His parents live amidst the wineries (I see a personal tour in my future!).  We had the J. Bookwalter “Foreshadow” 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon.  It was simply delicious with a depth of flavor that many wines simply don’t have.  It was one of those wines that just keeps opening up to reveal more of itself, then becomes something completely different when paired with food.

While I was at the Chelsea Market last night, I stopped into the Chelsea Wine Vault to ask General Manager, David Hunter, what wines he had from this region. While his selection was limited, he was very excited to show me what they had in stock.  There were two Domaine Serenes calling my name, but he encouraged me to take home a bottle of the Charles & Charles 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah blend. At $11.99 he said it was an amazing bargain. It’s on my kitchen counter at home just begging to be explored.  I can’t wait to get home tonight.

I encourage you to explore the wines of Washington and Oregon.  I believe you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

The Secret Ingredient:  Color your world from outside the box.


Image used under Creative Commons from Dave Schumaker

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