When it comes to wines and wineries, Spokane is the Woodinville of Eastern Washington. Their wineries and tasting rooms are close to consumers...
When it comes to wines and wineries, Spokane is the Woodinville of Eastern Washington.
Their wineries and tasting rooms are close to consumers, not vineyards. Passionate newcomers have set up shop in the past few years, making very exciting and often very affordable wines, in a range of styles. Older, anchor wineries — specifically Arbor Crest, Latah Creek and Mountain Dome — continue to offer excellent value and reliable, consistent quality. Spokane’s winters are a bit too raw for grapevines. Though some equally northern vineyards are planted farther west, the Inland Empire, at least to my knowledge, has not found a way to grow good wine grapes. There is no Spokane “terroir” or even a unifying style. The wineries purchase from widely separated vineyards, and each winemaker has marked his/her own unique stylistic territory. After tasting dozens of new releases, I was pleased to find that they offer, taken all together, a full range of Washington best grapes and strengths, and a few surprises as well. Here are some highlights.
Founded in 1982, this is the region’s biggest producer. Its spectacular tasting room is Cliff House, a national historic landmark. The winemaker is Kristina Mielke-van Löben Sels, daughter of one of the founders. Arbor Crest makes a full line of bright, sappy red wines and consistently one of Washington’s best sauvignon blancs. (Northwest Wine Co. distributes)
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Arbor Crest 2003 Sauvignon Blanc; $8. A firm, succulent style of sauvignon blanc, lightly toasty, with good fruit flavors that fall right on the cusp between citrus and stone fruits.
Arbor Crest 2002 Cabernet Franc; $16. Smooth and chocolatey, with supple cassis and plum fruit. Tannins are thick but soft, tasting of roasted coffee, leaf and stem.
Pick of the week
Townshend Cellar Vortex Red; $15. This warm, ripe blend of cabernet, merlot and cab franc mixes fruit from four different vintages. It’s pre-cellared and ready to enjoy, a big, rustic, ripe cherry-flavored wine that finishes with a sweet streak of brown sugar. (Alaska)
Greg Lipsker and Michael White made their first wines just four years ago but are moving quickly to turn Barrister into a 2,500-case operation. A new winery building — a three-story brick warehouse in Spokane’s rapidly improving Davenport Arts District — was purchased in 2004; the renovated tasting room is open on weekends. Cabernet franc has been their most successful wine to date, but the latest releases of syrah, cabernet sauvignon and merlot are every bit as good. (Self-distributed)
Barris ter 2003 Syrah; $26. Sensational fruit, co-fermented with viognier, explodes with whiff after whiff of mineral, bacon fat, wild berry and citrus rind. Flavors follow in a glorious rainbow.
Barrister 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon; $29. Barrister’s first cab, it’s tarry, smoky, dark and dense. Black cherry, ripe berry and espresso are wrapped together and spiced up with sniffs of fresh-cut tobacco.
Caterina winemaker Mike Scott brought steady improvement to Caterina wines during the 1990s, until a complicated turn of events led to his departure to start his own winery (Lone Canary). Since then, Caterina’s red-wine releases have backed up. Monica Meglasson is now winemaker, and her new vintages of viognier and sauvignon blanc show real promise. The jury is still out on the reds. (Self-distributed)
Caterina 2003 Willard Family Vineyard Viognier; $20. Pretty lime, tangerine and orange peel scents lead into soft and smooth fruit flavors of rose petals and orange peel.
Caterina 2002 Sauvignon Blanc; $15. A dry style, which begins with plenty of herbal components, then develops some pretty cotton-candy scents as it warms in the glass. Drinking at its best right now.
Grande Ronde Cellars, begun in 1997, maintains a focus on red wines from Walla Walla vineyards. Michael Manz (of Mountain Dome) is the winemaker. Though the red wines are sourced from excellent sites, it was the winery’s chardonnay that stood out in my tastings, perhaps because California’s David Ramey is the consultant. (Self-distributed)
Grande Ronde 2002 Chardonnay; $20. A California-style chardonnay, with a creamy, textured mouthfeel. It’s still quite fresh, though the youthful acidity is rounding out a bit.
Mike Conway made wine at Parducci, Worden and Hogue before opening Latah Creek in 1982. His wines have always been value-oriented, everyday, everyman wines, and they show a confident, veteran hand at work. Most recently, the winery’s best efforts have been its rieslings, muscats and lovely, Prosecco-style Muscat Canelli. (Vehrs distributes)
Latah Creek 2004 Johannis-berg Riesling; $8. A classic Washington riesling, bright, fresh, crisp and clean, with a sweet background wash of honey under the ripe peach and apple flavors.
Latah Creek 2004 Muscat Canelli (Washington); $10. This fruity delight has lots of spritz and peaches. It’s both sweet and tart, and very lightly bubbly, almost like a Prosecco.
Mike Scott is a veteran Spokane winemaker who started his own winery in 2002. Originally destined to be named Wild Canary, a nickname for the goldfinch (the state bird), Scott ran a-fowl of another alcoholic product named for a wild bird. Hence, Lone Canary. His sensitive, low-key, European approach to winemaking often recalls the similar style of Columbia’s David Lake. (Vehrs distributes)
Lone Canary 2003 Rosso; $20. Mostly sangiovese, this delicious red blend is nicely graced with leafy, herbal tobacco flavors, much like true Chianti.
Lone Canary 2004 Sauvignon Blanc; $10. An elegant, creamy style. Though light, it is neither thin nor watery, just unassuming and very food-friendly.
Michael Manz and his son Eric share winemaking duties at this dedicated producer of méthode champenoise sparkling wines. Outside of Oregon’s Argyle, they are making the best bubbly in the Northwest, and occasionally rise to Champagne-quality level. (Unique distributes)
Mountain Dome NV Rosé; $25. The rosé is barrel-fermented, barrel-aged pinot noir. It shows fine, pretty bubbles and a nice core of sweet cherry fruit.
Mountain Dome NV Brut; $16. This lush, fruity blend is mostly from the 2001 vintage. A delicious sparkling wine with crisp, fleshy, green apple flavors.
Robert Karl Cellars hit a home run with their first wine, a ’99 cabernet sauvignon, and have been knocking it out of the park ever since. Sleek, compact and polished, their Bordeaux blends and varietal red wines consistently draw rave reviews. Their claret is one of the top five under-$20 red wines in the state; unfortunately, the 2002 is sold out and the 2003 won’t be released until spring. (Grape Expectations distributes)
Robert Karl 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon; $26. Dense, firm and muscular, it’s layered with cassis, berry, cherry, cranberry and more. Give it extended airing and it delivers rich, thick flavors of red and black fruits, streaked with smoke, anise, herb, soy and chocolate.
Robert Karl 2002 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon; $33. Tight and austere, tasting of cassis, plum and cherry fruit. Put this one in the cellar for 10 years.
Don Townshend was (and still is) a seller of commercial cooling equipment. Bitten by the wine bug on a sales call to a winery, he began home winemaking just a decade ago. It seems he has a natural gift. His first commercial vintage was 1998, and he gives his self-described “big red wines” up to 30 months in new oak and a year in bottle before release. I found quality across the board. (Alaska distributes)
Townshend 2004 Riesling; $10. An off-dry style, perfectly balanced, with just enough sweetness to offset the puckery acids.
Paul Gregutt is the author of “Northwest Wines.” His column appears weekly in the Wine section. He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.