Food & Drink, Libations

Washington wines deserve attention, too

With a squeal of tires and a cry of “Hiyo Silver, away!” the Boozemobile roared into Washington state.

Washington is largely ignored by Canadians as a wine destination and I have no idea why, particularly if you’re from Alberta or Saskatchewan.  The biggest wine region, and the best reds are from the south-east corner of the state down around Kennewick and Walla Walla on the Columbia River. It’s closer to Calgary than Vancouver.

Coming out of the Nkí Mip Winery off highway 3 (gorgeous drive by the way),  I usually cut off the #1 at Medicine Hat and follow #3 all the way to the Okanagan and then points south. Toward Oliver you turn left at the light and you’re over the border in about 30 seconds.  After that it’s a straight shot down the highway and you’re in Walla Walla (in about five hours if I’m driving, six if you like to poke along).  You’re still only about a day and a half from Saskatoon or Regina on the return trip.

There are a huge number of great wineries worth a visit in the area:  My personal fave is Pepper Bridge, where Jean-Francois Pellet is making some of the finest reds in America (Keep an eye out for this label. It shows up on some restaurant wine lists across Canada).

The Boozemobile went further west, as the whole point was to visit Chateau Ste. Michelle.  CSM is one of Washington’s oldest wineries and makes some of the state’s best wines.  It also makes by far and away the best value bubbly I’ve ever come across.

The Winery is near Tacoma, just outside Seattle.  I consider the CSM tasting room a must-visit for any serious cork dork, but there are other reasons (i.e. wineries) to visit the region as well.  If you want to explore, around Seattle, you will find some really great Riesling from other vineyards.

Wendy Stuckey, the wine maker, gave me a tour of their whites.  (CSM also owns vineyards in the eastern part of the state near Walla Walla and produces great reds from them.) We started with the Eroica Riesling, a wine uniformly respected by wine makers throughout the US, with a lovely floral nose and tremendous brisk palate.  As a Riesling, of course it gets no respect, and is therefore a tremendous buy (usually around $20).

We ran through a mini-vertical of the Ethos Chardonnay, a wine made from natural yeasts.  Is it as fine as my memory?  Yes.  I buy it anytime I see it.  Ms. Stuckey’s attention to detail shows in this wine.  The ’05 was remarkably youthful, and I would expect it to age a minimum of another 10 years.

Washington wines are ubiquitous in all of the USA but seldom make it to Canada.  For reasons best only understood by liquor marketing boards (News Flash! Washington state just made the bold leap and dissolved their state liquor board and stores this year), wines that are available in Safeway and gas stations in Washington for $10 or less are swapped up through various wholesalers between Seattle and Saskatoon and arrive on the shelves in Canada at nearly double that after the various and sundry taxes.

Columbia Crest is a very serious winery making tremendous reds that are widely distributed.  In general the best wines I’ve had from the region are Cabs and Merlot, although there is also some great Syrah being made.

Columbia Crest Cabernet Sauvignon is serious indeed despite the value pricing. It has a great bouquet of fruit and earth, with a tinge of cloves.  The palate is fruity with slightly softened tannins and a touch of flavours from the barrel.  It appears regularly on Best Buy and Best Value lists of wine publications, and if you’re a Cab lover well worth a visit.

There is a new white here – Hot to Trot white blend – from CSM.  This is a really nice easy drinking white, primarily chardonnay, from vineyards around the state.  If you want to try to understand how seductive whites from the state can be it is a great place to start. It isn’t anywhere near as refined a wine as the flagship Chardonnay I was drinking with Wendy.  It’s a little sweeter, more easy going, the kind of wine that seems to suit lazy summer afternoons, but for all that casual Friday garb, inside this wine is the same attention to detail that can be found in CSM’s more expensive wines.

There are also a couple of fruit bombs from the state, wines that soaked up the production of less impressive vineyards, made from very ripe grapes. There’s a Hot to Trot red blend and Red Diamond.  These wines are being made deliberately at the moment.  The theory is that drinkers getting past their cherry coke and cooler phase are ready to learn about reds.

I don’t believe this will happen.  I’d bet very few drinkers with this sweet a palate will ever graduate to sterner stuff: That kind of a transition could put your tongue into traction.  Consumers adore these sweet wines –  sort of Yellow Tail on steroids style –  and if you think this describes you, give them a try.

Executive Summary: Buy any and all Cabernet and Merlot you see from Washington.  If you love Riesling, be sure to buy them as well.  The other whites are nice to excellent but spottier. In general stay cheap, but if you spot Ethos, buy a case and hoard it for special occasions.

Travel Note:  Re-enter Canada in AB or east!  The BC border is quite stern about small imports, whereas western border guards tend to wave three or four bottles through.


James Romanow writes about Wine and all things Boozy for the Spectator Tribune. Follow him @drbooze


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Eroica Riesling, Chateau Ste. Michelle Washington, 2010. *****


Ethos Chardonnay, Chateau Ste. Michelle Washington, 2009. *****


Columbia Crest Grand Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Washington, USA 2008. ****


Hot to Trot White Blend, Washington, USA, 2010. ****


Hot to Trot Red Blend, Washington, USA, 2010. ***


Red Diamond Washington, USA, 2010. ***