A tasty dash through Northwest wine country

Among the highlights: the wineries in the new Lake Chelan appellation, where a cooler climate is producing Alsatian-style whites.
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Benson Vineyards, in the new Lake Chelan wine district

Among the highlights: the wineries in the new Lake Chelan appellation, where a cooler climate is producing Alsatian-style whites.

If you love wine, it'ꀙs easy to spend a week sniffing and sipping through a wide variety of viticulture regions in Washington and Oregon. While most wine tourists concentrate on one area, such as Woodinville or the Yakima Valley, my wine buddy Shari Gherman and I spread ourselves wonderfully thin. There were many stunning sights and tasting surprises.

The wineries Shari and I visited ranged from well-known Oregon producers with big Wine Spectator scores to fledgling wineries in the new Lake Chelan appellation. Shari was scouting wineries to participate in her third annual American Fine Wine Competition in South Florida this fall.

At the beginning of the week, we marveled at the gorgeous views from wineries located on Lake Chelan. That'ꀙs Washington'ꀙs newest American Viticulture Area. It'ꀙs only been planted for about a decade. Now there are about 20 wineries, some of which are releasing their first estate wines.

With their cooler climate, Chelan-area winemakers tout their Alsatian-style whites, including Riesling, pinot gris, and viognier. But we were surprised by the quality of some of the reds, including syrah and malbec. Nearly all the wineries have patios and tasting rooms overlooking the spectacular lake, with their vineyards sloping down below. Several have restaurants or limited-menu cafes.

Some of our more memorable tasting experiences were with Larry Lehmbecker at Vin du Lac Winery, Jeff Benson at Benson Vineyards, Heather and Dean Neff at Nefarious Cellars, Julie Pittsinger at Karma Vineyards, and Bob Jankelson at Tsillan Cellars. Vin du Lac'ꀙs 2006 Barrel Select Chardonnay won best of show in last year'ꀙs American Fine Wine Competition.

Following a beautiful three-hour-drive to the west on Highway 2, we sipped and spat our way through Woodinville, home of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, by far Washington'ꀙs biggest producer. Ste. Michelle'ꀙs head winemaker, Bob Bertheau, guided us through some of his company'ꀙs well-made cabernet sauvignons, merlots, Rieslings, and other wines.

But we were also impressed with the work of newer, lesser-known Woodinville winemakers such as Chris Sparkman of Sparkman Cellars, who poured us his beautiful, minerally Chardonnay and a deep, balanced cabernet sauvignon. Other notable tasting visits were with Greg Lille of DeLille Cellars, and at the Gard Vintners and Smasne Cellars tasting room (Robert Smasne is the winemaker for both brands).

Next we raced to the heart of Washington state winegrowing — the Yakima Valley. Stopping at my home in Yakima to pick up a third palate, my wife Deborah, the three of us made several satisfying tasting stops in the Valley with David and Linda Lowe at Wineglass Cellars, Wade Wolfe at Thurston Wolfe, Sean Gilbert at Gilbert Cellars, Damon Lobato at the Wines of Washington tasting room, and Susan Bunnell at Bunnell Family Cellar.

Ron Bunnell, former chief red winemaker at Ste. Michelle, is known as one of Washington'ꀙs top makers of Rhone blends. His wines did not disappoint, pairing beautifully with the gourmet, wood-fire pizzas his wife Susan spread out before us in the Bunnell'ꀙs new bistro, Wine O'ꀙClock. It'ꀙs located in Prosser, in the midst of a cluster of wineries known as Vintners Village.

The next day, Shari and I drove four hours through the Columbia River Gorge to Oregon'ꀙs Willamette Valley, home of some of this country'ꀙs best and most famous pinot noirs. We were fortunate to taste at Lemelson Vineyards, Chehalem, Owen Roe Winery, Archery Summit, Domaine Serene, De Ponte Cellars, Trisaetum, Bergstrom, and Ponzi, among others. Mostly we sampled wines from the 2007 vintage, which everyone agreed was a very challenging vintage due to the unusual fall weather.

At Lemelson, we met proprietor Eric Lemelson and winemaker Anthony King, talking at length about Lemelson'ꀙs organic and sustainable agriculture approach. At De Ponte'ꀙs tasting room, winemaker Isabelle Dutartre was pouring her own pinots, since the rest of the staff was taking that Monday off. And at Trisaetum, we sipped Rieslings with proprietor James Frey and winemaker Greg McClellan, then walked through a gallery of Frey'ꀙs striking, vineyard-themed photographs and paintings.

We were so intent on hitting as many good wineries as possible in our two days in Oregon that we had to pass up Willamette Valley'ꀙs many noted restaurants. Shari almost cried when we concluded we didn'ꀙt have time to dine at a restaurant called the Joel Palmer House in Dundee, whose menu is devoted to local wild mushrooms and truffle oil made by the proprietor. Oh well, next time.

The sybaritic highlight of the trip was our visit to King Estate Winery, Oregon'ꀙs largest producer, located south of Eugene, which we reached after a two and a half hour drive on the prettiest two-lane roads imaginable. After tasting through the well-made wines, including an incredible $12 dry Riesling, we were shown to the guest house Shari wangled for the night. It was huge, with four bedrooms, two porches, a billiards room, and a refrigerator stocked with filet mignon and other goodies.

After dinner, Ed King, who was staying with his family in their summer home less than 100 yards away, called to see if the accommodations were satisfactory. I told him they were, just barely.

On our way home to Yakima, we still had time to hit a few wineries in the Columbia Gorge. The Gorge is a new and promising area for wineries, with some cooler areas on the Washington side that are friendly to pinot noir. Proprietor/winemaker Luke Bradford at Cor Cellars poured us his cabernet sauvignon.

On our final stop, at nearby Domaine Pouillon, Shari finally got her wish. We had a long visit with winemakers Alexis and Juliet Pouillon. Alexis told us about his famous parents, the late French Africa news broadcaster Pierre Pouillon and pioneering organic restaurateur Nora Pouillon, who runs Restaurant Nora in Washington, D.C.

Finally, we walked to the barrel room, and Alexis pulled out his wine thief. This is what Shari had been waiting for the whole trip. We sipped the Pouillons'ꀙ juice from 2008, a warm year which yielded big fruit and tannins. We could easily have spent another hour or two there because the couple wanted to taste from almost all the barrels to see how the wines were developing. But the end of our wine tour was closing in and we had to leave them there, happily drawing and sipping.


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