Washington's sipping scene

Notes from the Northwest

On a recent trip to Washington state, I sat in Starbucks and had an epiphany about wine. Let me explain.

As we all know, Starbucks has slipped into the fabric of American life. Here, college students, cappuccinos and computers at hand, surf the Net; latte-sipping women and men sit and talk for hours. Starbucks is America's psychological equivalent of the Parisian brasserie ― a place where you can sit as long as you like and enjoy drinking a single delicious something.

I have three hypotheses about this phenomenon:

1. There's a reason Starbucks began in Washington state.

2. Starbucks could change the way we drink wine in America.

3. What Starbucks is to coffee, Washington wines could be to wine in general.

Young in spirit and happily detached from the cultural mainstream, Washington exudes a comfortable "otherness." And the same European sensibility that created Starbucks's "cafe society" has spawned a unique wine culture in the state. Like enjoying good coffee, enjoying good wine is a natural, easy part of the Washington lifestyle. With Starbucks as a model, why couldn't wine drinking throughout the country become as simple and convivial as meeting friends for coffee?

As for Washington wines, they are not "like California wines, only less famous," as I had imagined. There's a whole different aura up here. Perhaps it begins with the winemakers themselves, many of whom are completely self-taught and seem more like craftspeople than scientists. That makes a difference to the flavor of the wines in precisely the same way a dish made by a grandmother would taste, well, different from the same dish made by a professional chef.

There's another commonality at work here, too: most Washington vintners lack money. In California, it's virtually impossible to begin a winery without a small fortune behind you, but Washington has winery owners who not too long ago were waiters. The wines seem to capture this humbleness.

The wines also capture extremely concentrated flavors. The state's northern latitude translates into many hours of sunshine, cool nights, and a generally long growing season. During this slow dance toward ripeness, the flavor of the grapes grows ever more concentrated and nuanced.

You might imagine that, this being Washington, the grapes have all the water they could possibly need. Not so. The vineyards are located not in the wet western part of the state but in the arid eastern half, beyond the giant Cascade Mountains. Here the dry, sandy plains give rise to vineyards, orchards, and cornfields as far as the eye can see ― but only because of irrigation.

Surprisingly enough, irrigation seems to be a contributing "secret" to the flavor and texture of the wines. By precisely controlling the amount of water vines get and when, winemakers can literally sculpt the vines and their grape clusters. This, in turn, impacts the character of the final wines. More than one winemaker I spoke with attributed the often incredibly soft texture of Washington wines to the fact that water here is in man's control.

Softness. It's a very compelling attribute for any wine to have ― especially if it's red. And indeed, over the last several years, Washington has become known for silky Merlots and Cabernets. But its Chardonnays can be pretty amazing too, particularly if you like Chardonnays that are elegant and structured rather than fleshy and fat.

In the end, it won't surprise me if all Westerners learn to appreciate the attributes of Washington's wines as quickly as they did the spirit of its coffee.

WASHINGTON WINES TO KNOW

Washington state has 102 wineries, which make countless terrific wines. Some (*) are stellar. A few of my favorites:

Chardonnay: Canoe Ridge 1996, $14; Caterina 1997, $12; Chinook 1996, $20; Columbia Crest Semillon Chardonnay 1997, $8; Covey Run 1996, $9; Hedges Fumé-Chardonnay 1997, $9; Kiona 1997, $18; Waterbrook 1997, $11.

Riesling: Columbia Cellarmaster's Reserve 1997, $7; Paul Thomas Johannisberg 1997, $6.

Merlot: Andrew Will 1995, $27*; Chinook 1995, $24; Covey Run 1995, $10.

Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet blends: Chateau Ste. Michelle "Horse Heaven Vineyard" 1995, $25; DeLille Chaleur Estate 1995, $34; Hogue 1995, $15; Kiona Estate Bottled Reserve 1995, $30; Leonetti 1995, $45*; Matthews Yakima Valley 1996, $35; Woodward Canyon "Canoe Ridge Vineyard" 1996, $28.

SUNSET'S MONTHLY STEAL:  Hogue Johannisberg Riesling 1997 (Columbia Valley), $7. Fresh and lovely, with a fabulous exotic aroma.

... AND A SURPRISE:  Razz by Paul Thomas (WA), $14 for 375 ml. An outrageously delicious raspberry wine; begs for chocolate cake.

Sunset's Wine Club

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