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Originally published Saturday, March 5, 2011 at 7:03 PM

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Wine Adviser

Some good Washington wineries got away

In December, Nicholas Cole Cellars announced an indefinite hiatus on winemaking and future vintages of Nicholas Cole and GraEagle wines. More recently, the Olsen family announced that they were shutting down their Olsen Estates winery.

Special to the Seattle Times

Picks of the week

GraEagle RedWing 2007 Red; $25

Olsen Estates 2008 Merlot; $19

THIS IS a fine GraEagle from one of the best vintages of the past decade. A classy blend of merlot, cab franc, syrah, sangiovese and petit verdot. And the best merlot to date from Olsen Estates, generous and forward, with rich cherry and raspberry fruit.

THERE HAVE been surprisingly few casualties among the wineries headquartered in Washington, despite this long and difficult slog through a deep recession. In fact, there has been quite a lot of rather cheery news.

Two Washington wines — a Poet's Leap riesling and a Quilceda Creek cabernet — were served at a White House dinner for the president of China. The Liquor Control Board recently announced it had certified the state's 700th winery. Pacific Rim was purchased by Banfi Vintners, a strong vote of confidence. And locally owned Precept Wines just purchased Canoe Ridge and Sagelands wineries from British conglomerate Diageo.

And yet, behind the scenes, more than a few wineries are struggling. I get e-mails every day from wine shops and online retailers offering excellent Washington wines at prices as much as half off original retail. Costco and other big retailers have dozens of wines from almost all the major players — wines that a few years ago were limited to mailing-list customers and a few select wine shops.

Two relatively new wineries that had attracted very positive reviews with their early releases recently closed, and both will be missed.

In December, Nicholas Cole Cellars founder/owner Mike Neuffer sent out a brief message explaining that due to pressing family issues, he would be "placing an indefinite hiatus on winemaking and future vintages of Nicholas Cole and GraEagle wines."

Neuffer moved to Walla Walla a decade ago to pursue a winemaking dream. He planted a vineyard, partnered with Michael Corliss, and began making wines in 2004. "It's something I always wanted to do," Neuffer explained when we first met a few years ago. "It just basically was following my passion, my dreams. The first time I walked through the vineyards . . . and I'm popping these grapes and they're not quite ripe but they're sweet and delicious and the air smells fresh and clean and I'm thinking I'm going to get paid for doing this and I'm feeling terribly guilty!"

That enthusiasm still rings true, clear as ever, but the realities of the business were not kind. The partnership split up, the vineyards went to Corliss, and the wines and brand to Neuffer. The recession hit, and these were not cheap wines. A drop in price and a downtown Walla Walla tasting room helped, but not enough. Some Nicholas Cole wines are still in distribution, and at prices well below the cost of production. Over the years I've given them very high marks for their concentration and sheer power. The GraEagle Red Wing wines are especially well-priced. For purchase information, see http://www.nicholascolecellars.com/.

Still more recently, the Olsen family, longtime Yakima Valley grape growers, announced that they were shutting down their Olsen Estates winery. It was one of the first wineries to open at the Prosser Vintner's Village, and the first couple of vintages (2006 and 2007) showed immediate promise. By the time I tasted the 2008s, the winery was being shopped around, and now it's official.

No grapes were crushed in 2010, and the 2008 and 2009 wines will be the last from Olsen Estates. I spoke by phone with Larry Olsen, who admitted that closing was "a pretty bitter pill for the family to take. But we just didn't do a good job with sales and marketing. We should have been working with a good distributor from the beginning."

There is some good news to be shared. The vineyards will continue, and the 2008 and 2009 wines will be released into the market over the next year or so. Among them are some outstanding wines. Distributed by Vinum.

The revised second edition of Paul Gregutt's "Washington Wines & Wineries" is now in print. His blog is www.paulgregutt.com. E-mail: paulgwine@me.com.

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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.
paulgwine@me.com

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