Washington wines comparable at better-than-California prices
When you generally have to pay dearly to get a quality California merlot, look to Washington's expanding array of choices for comparable quality at cheaper prices.
Special to the Seattle Times
Pick of the week
Columbia Crest 2006 Grand Estates Merlot; $11
A perennial home run, the current vintage of this delicious merlot is a riot of berry, cassis, chocolate and coffee flavors. Despite the huge production, it's full-bodied and complex. (Youngs-Columbia distributes)
A MARKETING-SURVEY company has released some telling statistics about wine drinkers. According to the Pointer Media Network, 7.5 million wine drinkers purchase 80 percent of the wine sold in this country. That includes wines at all price points, but the cheapest wines are showing the growth, while expensive wines are losing customers.
Another industry bellwether — Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates — notes that sales of California wines priced at $14 and below are still increasing at a healthy clip, while wines priced above $14 are dropping. So $14 has somehow become the magic number for consumers.
I was chewing on these stats while snarfling through a lineup of pricey California merlots and cabernets the other day, and wondering who actually buys these wines. Why they don't opt for something twice as good at half the price from Washington?
I have frequently opined that California merlots, for example, are almost always watery plonk unless you pony up at least $40 a bottle. The Three Palms vineyard merlot from Sterling Vineyards, perhaps the most iconic California merlot of the past three decades, is a pretty nice bottle of vino. It retails for right around 50 bones. It's also worth noting that, unlike most Washington merlots, it is blended with considerable amounts of cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot, presumably to beef it up.
In Washington it is usually the merlot that is blended in to beef up the cab, rather than the other way around. Most quality California cabernets start their pricing where the merlots leave off. The number of so-so $60, $80 and even $100 bottles being produced is staggering. One fine exception is the Hess Allomi Vineyard cabernet sauvignon, an estate-grown Napa Valley wine, aged in one-third new American oak barrels, meaty and substantial, and widely available (Noble distributes). It retails for about $24.
Being perfectly honest here, those looking for comparable quality in wines priced under $15 are not going to find it. But the Hess wines — their Su'skol Vineyard chardonnay is another gem — offer the sort of quality in the mid-$20 price range that I find in a growing number of Washington boutiques.
This state now can claim more than 600 bonded wineries. Not all have released wines, and not all are actual brick-and-mortar wineries. But as recent grand tasting events such as Taste Washington have demonstrated, dozens and dozens of newbies are proudly showing off their first vintage or two, and quality is generally very good.
It's happy hunting for those who enjoy new, obscure, locally produced wines that can challenge California products costing far more. There's just one catch: You won't find most of these new Washington wines stocked in your local retail outlet. These new wineries are too small to sell to the chain retailers, and only a handful of wine shops seek out and specialize in Washington brands. The wineries don't have the inventory, and they can pretty much sell out everything they make to tasting-room and mailing-list customers.
You want the wines, you have to go to them, and summer is a perfect time to do some exploring. Vintage Walla Walla, which takes place next weekend (June 5-6), includes seminars, vineyard tours, tastings of library wines and new releases. It's the perfect event for vin-adventuring. For tickets call the Wine Alliance at 509-526-3117.
If you go, here are some exciting new wineries to look for: àMaurice, Adamant, Cadaretta, Couvillion, DaMa, Dowsett Family, Dumas Station, Dusted Valley, Ensemble, Flying Trout, Mannina, Sleight of Hand, Stella Fino, Stephenson, Substance, Sweet Valley, Tertulia, Tranche, Trio, Trust, Tulpen, Watermill and Zerba.
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