Monday, November 24, 2008

Wine country

Yakima Valley and Rattlesnake Hills
November 23, 2008

The first time I visited the Rattlesnake Hills wineries, I did it on a bicycle with my friend Keri Robinson. We had planned our trip with the aid of a guide to Eastern Washington wineries and a map.

Maps are flat. Rattlesnake Hills should have been a clue that this small AVA in Eastern Washington is not. Duh.

It was a tough ride over big hills, but it was made managable - even enjoyable - by the consumption of small amounts of wine at each of the nine wineries we visited, the excellent weather and the friendly owner of the Hyatt Wineries who stopped to help us with some mechanical issues. He couldn't help with the bike, but it was the thought that counted - and the apples he gave us from his orchard.

Yesterday, I visited Rattlesnake Hills again, and this time, the hills were not an issue. My friend Kristine Kurey and I visited via the Explorer, stopping by the Wineglass Winery on the way back from a visit to several tasting rooms in Prosser.

More on the Wineglass in a moment...

We made the trip to Prosser from Suncadia, where Ben and I bought a duplex last summer. The boys were watching football, so we decided to make the most of a sunny but chilly Sunday afternoon and drive down to the Yakima Valley to restock our wine racks. (Neither of us is so much a connoisseur that we have "cellars" - just racks.)

We drove directly to the Olsen Winery tasting room right off the frontage road on I-90, looking for some of the Rouge de Coteaux that we had tasted last summer at the wine tasting event at the SAM Scuplture Garden in Seattle. It was my favorite wine of the tasting - rich, dark, dry and spicy. My memory of it was piqued on Saturday night at the Lodge at Suncadia. We had stopped in to share a bottle of wine in the 56 Degree Lounge (the temperature at which you are supposed to keep red wine, they inform me), and the Olsen Rouge was offered at $110. Yowie! I figured we could get it cheaper at the winery's tasting room.

I was wrong. Yes, it would have been cheaper - $33, in fact - but they had sold out. Argggh! Still, it was a commodious and pleasant tasting room, and I bought a couple of bottles of the Olsen Syrah, and we headed next door to Willow Crest.

Willow Crest has always been one of my favorite stops in the wine country because of its focus on Rhone-style wines. They make the one of the closest blends to a Chateauneuf du Pape in all of Washington (in all of the West Coast, maybe?) -- a wine they call XIII. WC's current 2005 vintage of Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah and Viognier rivals the higher-priced Cuvee Elena from Syncline to the south, but the substitution of Viognier for Cinsault produces a slightly brighter and fruit-forward version to this dark tradition. I'll have to admit that I think the Syncline version wins my vote - perhaps due to its more traditional blend - but $28 versus $35 makes the WC a winning option.

To add to the disappointment of not finding the Rouge at Olsen, WC was sold out of the Cab Franc and the Grenache, but I loaded up on a few bottles, including the half-bottles of spicy mouvedre (perfect for a solo dinner), the pinot gris and Collina Bella. Kristine opted for a similar collection, but added some Rockin' Red, which is a cab-merlot blend. Obviously Kristine is one of the millions of people who, unlike me, doesn't taste ear wax in merlot. In fact, I don't know anyone who agrees with me, and most folks adamantly maintain they have no idea what ear wax tastes like, but I know what ear wax tastes like - and I taste it in all merlot blends - even those that are seemingly overpowered by cabernet.

From Willow Crest, we moved next door to Thurston Wolfe, which in my book is famous for its PGV - pinot gris/viognier. We added nearly a case a piece to our collection, including the fabulous Lemberger Rose - very dry in the way that vintners often promise, but rarely deliver. We stopped briefly at Apex - a nice cab and syrah were my choices. I like Apex, but rarely find anything that surprises or delights - particularly price points that delight. Another quick stop next door at Florentino had me considering the rich malbec, but it's hard to justify a $38 malbec, when so many great Mendoza malbecs are available at QFC for less than $10. Yeah, I know ... "support your local wineries" ... and I do! I just want them to give me something that is so special or unusual that I don't mind spending three or four times my usual per-bottle budget to bring it home. Or charge a price that's a bit above my usual bottle budget, and I'll justify the additional cost by chalking it up to supporting our state's most compelling industry.

By now, you might have noticed that I said "next door" a few times in the preceding paragraphs. That's a clue: Prosser offers a great quick wine-tasting trip thanks to the Wine Village that's developed right there on the north edge of town, off the first Prosser exit as you come into town on I-5 from Seattle (or Suncadia). And, at the next exit, you've got the beautiful tasting room, shop and bistro at Desert Wind, and the rather industrial strip-mall tasting rooms of the likes of Alexandra-Nicole and Kestrel (among others). All told, you can quickly taste a variety of Yakima Valley vintages, chat with the friendly owners and staff, and get back on the road - even if you only have a couple of hours to spare. You miss the pleasure of winding down country roads through the vineyards, which you get to do in Rattlesnake Hills and all of Washington's AVAs, for that matter. But, when time is short, Prosser's tasting rooms are a great alternative.

Not only that, but the folks are friendly and never condescending. You don't have to be a wine expert and you don't have to pretend to like anything. As my friend Kristine observed, all of the tasting staff we met freely complimented their competitors, and suggested other wineries to visit in the area. Which is why we decided to stop by Wineglass; at least three folks mentioned Wineglass as we were tasting wines, so we decided it would be worth a quick detour off the highway on our way home.

But first, on the way out of Prosser, we stopped at one of several wine shops in town and found two bottles of Olsen's Rouge de Coteaux at $38. Not the $33 we had hoped for, but affordable.

Up on Bonair Road, north of Zillah, we pulled into the casual and rather industrial tasting room of Wineglass Cellars, and immediately launched into a discussion about dogs with another pair of customers - always a good sign. Their springer spaniel was waiting patiently outside in the convertible while we talked about him and the dozens of other dogs in our lives and began tasting Wineglass's retinue of cab, syrah, merlot and zinfandel.

Vintner David Lowe turned out to be the charmer of the day - and what we had intended to be a five-minute stop turned into a half-hour (and could have been much longer), as we discussed everything from how hard we all wanted to work in a day to soup recipes to whether merlot tastes like ear wax and whether it should be used to "throw back the earthiness of syrah," as was David's opinion. The award winning wines and the discount on the cab tempted us, but it was David's winning personality that probably sealed the deals. We added to our stash, and headed back up the mountain to show the boys our gatherings.

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