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Are you familiar with Vancouver’s nearest wine region? Have you noticed that reviews from prestigious critics like Robert Parker have gone through the roof? That the wines are almost universally regarded as the most exciting in North America? That even in a tough economy new wineries are opening every season? And that it’s 20 minutes north of Seattle? Whoa—come again? Point your car south and you’ll be in Woodinville, Washington, in half the time it takes to get to the Okanagan. There are no vines in Woodinville itself; the grapes are grown in the arid plains of the Columbia Valley (home to the maximum-security Walla Walla state penitentiary and little else), then trucked over the Cascades and processed in this lovely postcard of a town. Et voilà: a little slice of wine heaven.
Big isn’t always bad. The area’s massive enological anchor produces over two million cases of wine a year (compared with the Okanagan’s reigning gorilla Mission Hill at 100,000 cases). Yes, CSM is bigger than all the other Woodinville wineries combined, but its high-end wines regularly trounce competitors’ offerings at twice the price. Its value wines—especially those from the Columbia Crest label—may be the most consistent wine deal anywhere. Taste 2010 Eroica Riesling. CSM was built on Riesling, and this partnership with Germany’s Ernst Loosen (aka Dr. Loosen) is the Watch the Throne of winemaking.
Mike Januik is a classic Washington winemaker: he spent 10 years as head winemaker at CSM (everyone in these parts got their start there), he looks like a super-friendly cop, and he’s got a no-BS attitude. So it’s odd to see him ensconced in the area’s most modern, architecturally striking facility. (It’s shared with Novelty Hill, a winery owned by venture capitalist Tom Alberg, which may be the reason behind the fancy digs.) While Januik is a master of Merlot, almost any grape he touches turns to gold. Taste 2008 Januik Cabernet Sauvignon just made #18 on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list.
Winemaker Brennon Leighton makes Mike Januik look like a suit. Shorts are his year-round uniform, and he seems like he’d be more comfortable bouncing at a nightclub than crafting wines at what many are calling Washington’s next big thing. (Like Januik, he cut his teeth at CSM, where he was responsible for Eroica.) The tasting room is in an industrial park and it’s kitted out like a man-cave, but there’s nothing casual about the wines. Bonus: many private stores in Vancouver carry the label. Taste 2008 Efeste Final-Final. While Efeste’s Jolie Bouche Syrah snuck in three spots above Januik on the Wine Spectator list, this unorthodox Cabernet-Syrah blend best sums up this unorthodox winery.
Merlot has long been the king here and Syrah the crown prince, but winemaker Chris Upchurch has been nailing big, Bordeaux-style reds since 1992. (That’s downright ancient in these parts.) Delille’s wine is pricy by WA standards, which means it’s a steal by California standards, and the wines have garnered so many accolades that their inclusion is de rigueur for a proper Northwest wine list. Taste 2006 Grand Ciel is a balanced, powerful Cabernet.
Two of the area’s big stars, Betz (Betzfamilywinery.com) and Quilceda Creek (Quilcedacreek.com), aren’t open to the public but sell directly to those lucky few on their member lists. Collectors queue up for Betz’s minuscule production of great Rhône-like Syrahs, while Quilceda bagged Washington’s first 100-point score and has bona fide cult status as the producer of one of the world’s great Cabernets.
In the land of grapes, Woodinville Whiskey Co. (16110 Woodinville-Redmond Rd. NE, 425-486-1199. Woodinvillewhiskeyco.com), purveyor of handcrafted Washington bourbon, White Dog Whiskey, and vodka, is a cool detour.
Tucked away on five acres bordering the Sammamish River, this Condé Nast Gold List winner is walking/riding distance to everything but still manages to feel like a country retreat (albeit one with Bang & Olufsen stereos and Molten Brown toiletries to scoop; rooms start at $219). The excellent Herbfarm restaurant (which pioneered farm-to-table eating 35 years ago) is also onsite.
Chef Holly Smith’s take on Northern Italian cuisine has garnered her back-to-back James Beard nominations for the last two years. The voluminous, Italian-heavy wine list (oddly a relief after a day of Washington wine tasting) is stellar.