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Originally published Wednesday, September 13, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Wine Adviser

Striking, luscious releases from Washington wineries

Once again, as autumn peeks around the corner, new releases from dozens of noteworthy Washington boutique wineries come flooding into the...

Special to the Seattle Times

Once again, as autumn peeks around the corner, new releases from dozens of noteworthy Washington boutique wineries come flooding into the marketplace.

I will profile as many as possible in these pages, but be forewarned: There isn't enough room for all of them, and many are so small that the wines come and go in an instant. Your wine seller — assuming he or she carries a good stock of Washington wines — is always the person to keep in touch with regarding the latest wines from any of your favorites. It is always exciting to see new wineries, whose first vintage or two may have made a very favorable impression, follow up consistently with wines just as good, perhaps even a bit better. If you have ever watched a young forest grow, you know that in the beginning there are many trees packed together of equal height and girth.

Over time, they separate; a few stand taller than the rest, a few wither and die, most get by in the shadow of the leaders.

Young wineries are much the same. In the past five years, roughly 200 new wineries have appeared in Washington state. At first, each is unfamiliar in a sea of labels. As the vintages pass, the best of them succeed by virtue of exceptional talent, energy and persistence — the keys to steady, incremental improvement. They lock in excellent vineyard contracts, upgrade equipment, move from temporary to permanent quarters and build their technical knowledge as they experiment with the almost-infinite variables of winemaking.

Here are three that I believe will be industry leaders in the decades ahead. One almost qualifies as a veteran, another is right on his tail, and the last is a promising rookie.

Mark Ryan Winery

www.markryanwinery.com

206-910-7967

Mark Ryan continues to go from strength to strength. Comfortably ensconced in new, more expansive quarters, the winery's latest releases include a pair of white wines, a fine everyday red, a syrah and (soon) its hallmark Bordeaux blends, Long Haul and Dead Horse.

Mark Ryan 2005 Chardonnay; $35. Grape sources are Conner-Lee and Stillwater Creek, and as befits them, the wine was given first-class treatment: French oak, native yeasts, lees stirring, etc. The results are impressively rich and creamy, packed with tropical fruit, mango, pineapple, apricot — whatever you call it, it's yummy stuff.

Mark Ryan 2005 Viognier; $25. This wine goes right to the top of the heap to stand with the best Washington viogniers. The fruit is from Ciel du Cheval on Red Mountain, and winemaker Mark McNeilly has framed it in his own distinctive style. Big but not heavy, lush and textural, it's slathered in flavors of pear and caramel, with a lightly honeyed finish. Just 100 cases were produced.

Mark Ryan 2004 "The Dissident" Red; $25. A tremendous value, this blend of cabernet, merlot and syrah is named for a Pearl Jam song and matches that band's vigor and raw energy. Thick tannins and scrapey acids suggest why these grapes may have been cut from the final blends for the other wines, but they show plenty of firm, ripe fruit and tarry complexity.

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Mark Ryan 2004 "Wild Eyed" Syrah; $35 . Red Mountain fruit (from Ciel, Hedges and Kiona) creates this delicious syrah, laced with powerful flavors of coffee liqueur and chocolate. Satiny and citrusy, it maintains an elegant precision for a wine that offers such richness.

Mark Ryan 2004 "Long Haul" Red; $39. Also from Ciel du Cheval, this Pomerol-styled red was tasted a few weeks ahead of its planned November release. The black cherry fruit, with a dark mineral and graphite undercurrent, rides on a river of acid into the silky finish of coffee and buttery chocolate. Beautifully structured and — there's no better word for it — hedonistic.

Mark Ryan 2004 "Dead Horse" Red; $42. This wine somewhat inverts the Long Haul, with cabernet dominant rather than merlot. It is the most compact, vertical and indecipherable of the Mark Ryan wines, and the most potentially expressive of the magnificent Ciel du Cheval fruit. Black cherry, licorice, smoke and graphite add layers of darkness — a veritable Joseph Conrad wine — and it will require more age to reveal all of its secrets. Also slated for November release.

Gorman Winery

www.gormanwinery.com

206-351-0719

Chris Gorman, who has been working closely with Mark McNeilly during Gorman's first few vintages, has clearly moved into new territory, expanding on what began as an excellent rendition of the Mark Ryan style.

The newest Gorman releases are a big step forward, and Gorman's self-proclaimed goal — "the pursuit of texture" — has largely been realized.

These are lavishly endowed wines; big, but never awkward or unbalanced. They are somewhat reminiscent of Leonetti in that winery's formative years; wines so flat-out delicious you stopped analyzing them and just reached for the bottle to pour yourself another glass.

Production has almost tripled from last year's 450 cases, mostly due to the expansion of the red blend called Zachary's Ladder. All four of Gorman's wines, in my opinion, are must-haves for anyone who loves Washington reds.

Gorman Winery 2004 "Zachary's Ladder" Red; $25. No Zachary's Ladder was made in 2003, but there are 650 cases of this gorgeous 2004. Thick, smoky and exotic, it's a big and creamy wine with plenty of acid, plenty of spicy red fruit, and the friendly mocha flavors of new oak. Vineyard sources include Boushey, Alder Creek and Wahluke Slope.

Gorman Winery 2004 "The Pixie" Syrah; $30. From Red Mountain fruit, this tannic, earthy syrah blends its tart black cherry and raspberry fruit with a wash of ash, graphite and coffee grounds. Young as it is, you can already sniff out the roasted meats and herbs to come. Just 130 cases were made.

Gorman Winery 2004 "The Bully" Red; $35. "I love the oh-fours," says Gorman, "it was a pure year." He captures that purity perfectly in this full-bodied cabernet sauvignon, a beautifully structured, he-man style that is still balanced and well-defined. Flavors of berries, cherries, licorice and baking spices lead through a luxurious, long, smooth, silky finish. Just 288 cases were made; November 1st release.

Gorman Winery 2004 "The Evil Twin" Red; $50. Late-picked Red Mountain syrah and cabernet sauvignon are here combined into an exceptionally ripe, round and rich red wine. The tannins are ripe and smooth, the fruit tilts slightly into the pruney side, and the finish coats the tongue with chalk, tannin and pencil lead. Just 95 cases were produced; October 1st release.

Sparkman Cellars

www.sparkmancellars.com

425-398-1045

Christian Sparkman is the personable manager of the Waterfront Seafood Grill at Seattle's Pier 70. Through his ongoing series of winemaker dinners, he has fine-tuned his palate and made the contacts necessary to obtain the best possible grapes for his new winery.

"I'm in a position to call guys up who know what the hell they're doing," Sparkman explains in his beguiling Southern drawl. "They have been great to me."

Mark McNeilly has made the first couple of vintages for Sparkman Cellars, with predictably excellent results. Total production is less than 400 cases, so these wines will be difficult to find. But if you act quickly and give Sparkman a call, you'll be able to track them down.

Sparkman Cellars 2005 "Lumière" Chardonnay; $35 . Reminiscent of the Mark Ryan chardonnay, this leesy, textural offering mixes ripe pineapple and lemony fruit. Firm and forward.

Sparkman Cellars 2004 "Stella Mae" Syrah; $40. Spicy, brawny and a bit wild, this pure syrah from Red Mountain fruit offers hints of fresh herb in the nose along with substantial flavors of wild berries and red currant.

Sparkman Cellars 2004 "Ruby Leigh" Red; $40. A Bordeaux blend, firm and spicy, with lovely tart cranberry and pie cherry fruit and a chocolaty finish. Full-bodied and crisply defined.

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About Wine Adviser

My column is all about sharing the joy of exploring all the world of wine. I want to guide people to make inspired choices, and encourage them to try as many different styles of wine as they can. I will always seek out the best wines at the best prices. Wine Adviser runs on Sunday in Pacific Northwest Magazine.
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