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Originally published Friday, September 21, 2012 at 11:01 AM

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Washington wines stronger with national muscle

Influential, out-of-state, family-owned players are doing more than just sniffing around. They are here, they are loving the quality and value they find in Washington, and they are likely to attract even more outside investment.

Special to the Seattle Times

Pick of the week

Sawtooth 2010 Skyline Red; $11

THIS SNAKE RIVER Valley, Idaho, producer scores with this lushly fruited red blend. It's mostly cabernet sauvignon, with small amounts of seven other grapes. Smooth and flavorful, it finishes with a dash of cocoa. (Distributed by Vehrs)

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STE. MICHELLE Wine Estates, the wine company whose numerous brands include Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Crest, Erath, Northstar, Spring Valley, Col Solare and a host of others, remains by a wide margin this state's biggest producer. But others are rising.

Family-owned Precept Wines has grown its production to more than a million cases annually, owns close to 4,000 acres of vineyard and shows no signs of slowing down. Recent investments in Washington brands by Gallo (Columbia and Covey Run), Banfi (Pacific Rim) and Foley Family (Three Rivers) — heavy hitters all — bring three more influential, out-of-state, family-owned players into the competitive fray. Clearly they are doing more than just sniffing around. They are here, they are loving the quality and value they find in Washington, and they are likely to attract even more outside investment.

I think competition at all levels is healthy and productive. Altria, the corporate owners of the Ste. Michelle Wine Estates portfolio (the company changed hands a couple of years ago), has seemed (from an outside perspective) to be as hands-off as was US Tobacco, the previous owner. This has been positive for the entire Washington wine industry, as Ste. Michelle's many brands have offered well-made wines at consumer-friendly prices to a national audience.

This state needs more than anything to ramp up its national profile, and that can only happen when more well-funded companies with national distribution have skin in the game.

Meanwhile, I rolled through a number of new releases from four of the five companies in recent weeks (it's too soon to see any Gallo impact on Columbia). Here are some favorites:

STE. MICHELLE WINE ESTATES

Chateau Ste. Michelle 2011 Riesling; $9. This textbook riesling is bursting with apricot and peach fruit goodness, and an excellent wash of minerality.

Columbia Crest Two Vines 2010 Sauvignon Blanc; $8. This fresh and clean-tasting sauvignon blanc offers a bracing mix of tree fruits with a touch of sweet herb.

Columbia Crest Grand Estates 2009 Amitage; $12. A blend of merlot and syrah, with a splash of cabernet franc, this spent some time in new oak, adding notes of dark espresso under soft and pretty red fruits.

PRECEPT WINES

Six Prong 2010 Chardonnay; $12. This crisp, clean, stainless-steel style of chardonnay brings cucumber, celery, lime and light melon flavors to its fresh and immaculate fruit mix.

PACIFIC RIM

Pacific Rim 2011 Dry Riesling; $11. This puts a spicy spin on citrus-rind and stone-fruit flavors of peach and apricot, with a hint of white pepper.

THREE RIVERS

Three Rivers 2010 Insania White; $25. This semillon-sauvignon blanc blend is made at Three Rivers for heavy-metal rocker Geoff Tate. It's a succulent, mouth-filling gem that should improve for another five years.

Paul Gregutt's email: 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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