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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

On the Road: Exploring Washington’s Columbia Valley

Okay, I am not cooking today, but I am drinking some wonderful wines. Traveling in the Columbia Valley in south central Washington State, I went in search of what is local. As it turns out, luckily for me, what is local is wine. (I tried to keep the wine-geek-speak to a minimum.)

I remember the first time I traveled to Jamaica and tasted freshly ground Blue Mountain coffee in the place where the coffee was grown. Perhaps it was the beauty of the place and the over-the-top kindness of the Jamaican people, but I remember it as an epiphany. "Terroir", the French call it; loosely, ‘the flavor and character of a place‘. Eating mango, papaya and bananas picked from nearby trees and drinking Jamaican Rum distilled next to the fields where the cane is grown further increased the experience for me.

Yakima Valley Vines

Having the opportunity to travel to the Columbia Valley in Washington State with my husband over the annual Spring Barrel Tasting in the local vineyards was another such experience. I have drunk Washington wines many times, but this was different. To feel the weather in a place, touch the soil, hike the terrain and understand why the wine tastes the way it does is something quite different - an ‘aha’ moment in time.

Apple Blossoms in the Columbia Valley
Although this area is considered a ‘dry steppe’, there is little that will not grow here if irrigated. The Missoula floods of approximately 12,000 years ago deposited masses of broken and tumbled rock and sand as far as the eye can see. The treeless vastness of the area is striking.  To the east of us, past Walla Walla, is grassland until you reach the Rockies. To the west, you will find true desert before you reach the foothills of the Cascade Mountains and the rain forests of the west coast beyond. In between, the Columbia, Snake and Yakima rivers come to confluence here and allow for the irrigation of wheat, Walla Walla sweet onions, asparagus, apple and cherry orchards and vineyard after vineyard, large and small. 

Frost protection in Kiona Vineyards

Though the area is generally hot and dry, receiving only about 6” of rain a year, during ‘bud break’ growers are concerned about late frosts that could kill the vines. At Kiona Vineyards on Red Mountain (beautiful, award-winning wines), owner John Williams has placed frost control propellers throughout his fields. We saw them throughout the valley and mistook them for small wind generating machines. Their purpose is instead to create enough air movement to dispel any nighttime frosts as their helicopter-like blades push higher, warmer air from above down over the vines.

Drip irrigation is found everywhere throughout the Columbia Valley

Hot, dry summers tend to produce big, ripe, jammy tasting fruit in the wines of this area and you will see everything from Sangiovese to Zinfandel to Rhone and Bordeaux varietals planted here. And I found Washington winemakers as varied and colorful as their wines. I met winemakers who formerly worked as engineers, dentists, geologists, ranchers and more.

A gem at the top of Red Mountain

My favorites so far?
Syrah from Tapteil Vineyard where winemakers Jane and Larry Pearson sell off 95% of their Red Mountain juice and turn the remaining 5% into well-designed full bodied estate wines.

Larry Pearson at Tapteil

Producing only 500 cases a year, their Syrah was the most memorable I have tasted so far in Washington. You will not be disappointed in these carefully produced bottles. (If you cannot find them in your area, ask for them. Otherwise, vineyards here can ship to most states nationwide.)

You will love the Martinez family as much as their wines

Growing grapes in Horse Heaven Hills, the hottest area in the state, winemaker Andrew Martinez, his parents and his wife Monica run a small winery and tasting room in Prosser.

Barrel Tasting: seeing into the future

 I barrel tasted a lovely 2009 Cabernet as well as an Orange Muscat, fortified with their own Chardonnay Brandy that was contract-distilled for them at local Blue Flame Distillery. I had great fun chatting with Andrew’s mother, Kristy and Managing Partner Monica about their family winemaking history and their winemaking style. I also picked up a bottle of their Cesar Blend (66% Cabernet, 15% Malbec, 10% Merlot 9% Syrah) which they create each year from the favorites of their 30 varietals chosen in a family blind tasting. Each year this blend represents the best of what their vineyards produce.

Airfield Estates is steeped in the prodigious World War II history of the Columbia Valley. Just before the war, the Miller family leased their farmland to an air transport company for a few years in order to build an airbase to train military pilots.
After the war, Lloyd Miller purchased the buildings that were erected on the site to house the pilots and equipment. Even though crops have been planted in the fields, you can still see the remnants of dirt runways. The post war generation replanted the site to vitis vinifera grapes.

A number of buildings and three dirt runways were built on the property, and an arial shot taken after the war clearly shows the half-mile-plus airstrips on the property even after crops were planted. Six of these airstrips happen to have been built in a horseshoe around the nearby Hanford Site where the first atomic bomb was developed and speculation is that they were strategically placed for surveillance and potential defense of this first US nuclear site.

Winemaker Marcus Miller with his father Mike

The 860 acres of vegetables and cattle, now long gone, were replaced with grapevines in 1968 and are now home to 26 different varietals. Airfield wines are made from 100% estate grown grapes in the Yakima Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area- wine geek speak for an area with distinct character, soil or climate that makes the wine different from the general region).

Alright already, how’s the wine? The 2009 Bombshell (45% Merlot, 41% Syrah, 8% Malbec, 4% Sangiovese, 2% Petit Verdot) was fun to drink; the Merlot was distinctive with a beautiful, light lemon finish and The 2008 Aviator (50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, 10% Cab Franc, 10% Petit Verdot, 5% Malbec), which winemaker Marcus Miller pointed me to as his personal favorite, is a beautifully balanced blend with perfect vanilla and spice notes.

Elegance in a glass

Hightower Cellars, adjacent to Tapteil at the top of Red Mountain was the other big winner in my tasting trails. Kelly and Tim Hightower, along with the ever-vigilant Riley, planted 15 acres in Bordeaux varietals in 2005 and currently source fruit from the Horse Heaven Hills and Walla Walla AVA’s. Tim and Kelly bottle a stellar Cabernet Sauvignon and his elegant Reserve Blend is worth seeking out.

Riley, Greeter and Foreman at Hightower

As much as Washington is (rightly) touted for it’s Riesling and Guwertztraminer I must confess a new love for it’s Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah. A perfect pairing with grilled ribeye steak, kabobs or BBQ, I will definitely be shopping the Washington section in my local wine shop from now on. Look for estate bottlings, AVA’s such as Red Mountain, Yakima Valley and Horse Heaven Hills and get out of your California rut in general. There is some great juice in this state - don’t miss it!

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