FINE & FUN
Maybe we wine writers have got it all wrong. Instead of rating wines, perhaps we should be rating the winemakers themselves. If that were the case, Don Corson would be a 100, without a doubt. For style, energy, dedication and sheer persistence, Corson winemaker and managing partner of Camaraderie Cellars deserves a perfect score.
"The best things in life are meant to be shared," he believes, and for Corson, his wife, Vicki, and partner Gene Unger (who keeps all things mechanical humming) that means wine and food and friendship. Hence the winery name.
Camaraderie began, as have so many of Washington's best boutiques, as a weekend hobby. In the fall of 1981, they bought 100 pounds of grapes, then made five gallons of cabernet sauvignon, and that very first wine won a gold medal at the Puyallup Fair in 1983. The hook was set.
"The next year we got 200 pounds of grapes and bought a 15-gallon barrel; then a year later, 300 pounds and a 30-gallon barrel," Corson recalls. "Before long, we were up to a ton of grapes." They turned professional in 1992, following a move to Port Angeles, where Corson still holds a full-time job managing real estate for a timber company. That first year he made 200 cases of a rich cabernet, with Mercer Ranch and Tapteil (Red Mountain) grapes. Boom! Another gold medal, this time from the Enological Society.
Then the trouble started "1993 was a terrible year, and '95 was awkward as well. We were doing a lot of learning. We discovered the impact of Lactobacillus kunkeei" (a bacterium that can stall or stop fermentations and create off-scents and flavors). "Then came '96 a winter from hell that killed many of the grapes; the wines were harsh, tannic and difficult."
Corson relates these trials with aplomb; one suspects that, to some degree, he welcomes them. An intense, dynamic man with a gift for teaching and an inspirational zest for wine, he has navigated the hurdles of his first decade of commercial winemaking and steadily grown the enterprise, which now produces around 3,200 cases of reds and 600 of white.
Did I mention that Camaraderie claims to be the farthest northwest winery in the continental United States? Apart from being a great trivia question to spring on your know-it-all, wine-geek friends, it tells you something about the winemaker. Moving grapes 300 miles over desert, mountain and sound in the midst of crush doesn't faze him. And it doesn't hurt the wines, either. Grapes and winemakers, it seems, don't need sleep.
Camaraderie's forté remains cabernet-based red wines. Top vineyards such as Champoux, Artz and Chandler Reach provide the raw materials, which Corson fusses over relentlessly. He wants his wines to be ranked among Washington's best, but he keeps his prices affordable.
"I think if you price the wine fairly, and it's good value; well, I'd rather go along that route than have a bottle of wine that somebody buys just one of, and then it rests in their cellar," he explains. "I want approachability, but I still want structure. We try to make wines that are fruit driven, rather than fruit forward, so that they will be at their peak at around five years."
I think he underestimates the aging potential, but the point is well taken. Wines should be consumed, not stored indefinitely, and Camaraderie's wines are immediately delicious. The 2002s, unblended and tasted from barrel in early July, were already good enough to drink. The 2001 red wines, which will be released this September, are right in line with the exceptional 2000s.
Camaraderie is one of five wineries partnering in the Tasting Room on Post Alley in Seattle's Pike Place Market, and Corson can frequently be found pouring his wares while expounding on such topics as the fine art of blending (a seminar he calls "Palette and Palate"). His wines are also on the list at many of Seattle's most wine-savvy restaurants.
The winery is a 10-minute drive south of Port Angeles, open weekends 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., May through October, and by appointment, 360-417-3564. It can be reached on the Web at www.camaraderiecellars.com.
Paul Gregutt is the author of "Northwest Wines" and a free-lance writer who regularly appears on the Wine pages of The Seattle Times' Wednesday Food section. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com. Barry Wong is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.
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