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Report From The Left Coast Or California Here I Am!

by Marlene Rossman

The climate is awesome, the scenery is great and the wines cannot be beat. And the wines are plentiful and available everywhere. The local category killer "pharmacy and health/beauty aids" chain, has a better selection of wine than some upscale wine shops in New York. From the huge supermarkets to the little corner bodegas, great wine is there for your drinking pleasure.

California is the state where Two Buck Chuck became a household word and drink. Long story to short: A wine marketing pro who knew that there was a surplus of grapes got together with Trader Joe’s chain of quirky supermarkets and hatched the idea of selling passable wine for TWO bucks. Now, little old ladies (from Pasadena and elsewhere) are wheeling out cases of Two Buck Chuck (real name of brand; Charles Shaw) like it was discount Maalox. Charles Shaw accounted for 20 percent of all California wine sales for the first three months of this 2003 according to the owner of Bronco Wines, Chuck’s parent company.

I used to have trouble getting the California wines that I wanted in New York wine shops. Now, I am wild about California wine and a lot of awesome wine is made here, but I also adore Oregon and Washington State wines. I thought it was going to be a slam dunk getting Pacific Northwest wines in California, since it is so close to Oregon and Washington. However, they are nearly impossible to find in Southern California. So, I order most of it online, which takes the fun out of it for a wine writer. For me there is nothing better than going into a wine shop and browsing and schmoozing with clerks and other customers. But since my faithful readers deserve the best, I have done a good deal of "research" on Pacific Northwest wines.

Oregon has over 130 wineries, Washington claims well over 200 producers. Also, IDAHO! Idaho? Aren’t they better known for their potatoes? Yes, but look at geography. Idaho borders both Washington AND Oregon! There are at least 15 wineries in Idaho. I have not had the chance to taste an Idaho wine, but if you see one anywhere (outside of Idaho), let me know. Some Idaho wines have gotten very good reviews.

But in my quest for the best wine at the best price, it looks like Oregon and Washington State really are taking the lead in great wine values. Oregon with it’s awesome Burgundian varietals—Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris and Washington State for deep, smooth Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and red wine blends.

OREGON is the un-California. Founders of the modern Oregon wine business, trekked north from California. The climate was perfect for pinot noir, and all its Burgundian clones (pinot gris, pinot blanc, pinot meunier, etc, etc.

Ken Wright Pinot Noir Willamette Oregon 2001/2002 about $40
I have been drinking Ken Wright’s wines for years. I first discovered his aromatic white wine, Melon de Bourgogne (see White Wine Archives column) about 6 years ago and bought as much of it as I could find. Of course, as it is with most things I adore, they stopped making it in 1998. Melon is probably related to the Loire Valley’s Muscadet (not Muscatel) Ken Wright’s Pinot Noir’s are so popular that he sells FUTURES in them, just like in Bordeaux. Any and all of Wright’s many single vineyards bottlings are ok with me. They ooze succulent dark cherry and vanilla flavors. Wright’s pinots have great structure and a long finish. The only thing that’s wrong with them is that they are too expensive and hard to find to drink every night!

Patricia Green Cellars Pinot Noir Yamhill Oregon 2002 $30
Somewhat similar in style to Ken Wright’s wines are Patricia Green’s various bottlings. Patty Green used to be the winemaker at Torii Mor. She recently went out on her own and is producing some of the most earthy, aromatic and well balanced pinots in a style halfway between New World and Old World burgundies. These are hard to find, but well worth the trouble.

Argyle Willamette Oregon 2002 $16
Now we get to the affordables! Argyle makes some pricey awesome reserves and special bottlings like their Nuthouse (I swear!) but they are a good deal more expensive. This is a great intro to the Burgundian style of Pinot Noir with a delicious taste of Oregon turf ("terroir" as the French and my wine writer colleagues call it) nice fruit, elegance.

The delicious Oregon whites; Pinot Gris (Pinot Grigio in Italian) and Pinot Blanc (Pinot Bianco) are descended from Pinot Noir. Quite a few years ago, I was having dinner at a lovely restaurant with a no -longer friend (who was really hammered) when she loudly asked for "another glass of that nice Pinot GRINGO. The Hispanic waiter was not amused and I wanted to crawl under the table. Oregon Pinot Gris is very different from the lighter Italian PG with a flinty, rich and sexy aroma of stone fruit.

Cooper Mountain Pinot Gris Estate 2002 Oregon $13 (organic, but as my husband says, "it’s good anyway"!) Really delicious, with smoky citrus flavors. One of my faves and can usually be found at Whole Foods.

Elk Cove Pinot Gris Oregon 2002 $14 One of the best Pinot Gris I have have had, The wine has an a whole basket of stone fruit flavors, peach, pear, apricot perfectly balanced citrus, and a long, crisp, finish.

Sokol Blosser Evolution Non-Vintage White Wine $13 Don’t miss one of my old faves with a new upscale label, previously known as Evolution #9, ( probably named after a stoned cut on the Beatles' White Album). (see my Archives column ABC Whites)This unusual wine is a blend of nine varieties, including the obscure Mueller Thurgau; Gewürztraminer, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Sylvaner (Semillion, Muscat Canelli and Chardonnay. It is delicious and truly indescribable, so go out and get a bottle It is the affordable alternative to Caymus Conundrum, a similar mish -mash of delicious fruit costing upwards of 23 bucks. Evolution is also very food-friendly, especially with spicy ethnic foods with all their hard- to- match flavors like ginger, cilantro, chile peppers, mint, and wasabi.

WASHINGTON STATE I am not a fan of Chardonnay, especially not the over-oaked chards that California has been churning out over the past few years. If I want the taste of wood, I can suck on barbecue chips or kiss a tree. Many California Chard producers finally are cutting back on the use of oak, and that is a good thing.

The father of the Washington State wine industry, Walter Clore, recently died at 90 or so. Now, if that is not an endorsement for drinking wine (in moderation, of course), I don’t know what is! There is even a highly rated Cabernet Sauvignon/Bordeaux blend honoring Walter Clore, from the Columbia Crest Winery, called Walter Clore Private Reserve Red Table Wine 1999. Grab it if you see it.

Washington State's most important viticultural areas are the Columbia Valley, Walla Walla Valley and the recently designated viticultural area, Yakima Valley. Some of the world's best wine grapes are grown on Washington’s Red Mountain, at the eastern end of the Yakima Valley. Washington is known for its Bordeaux-style wines, producing explosive Cabernets and Merlots, plus Rhône varietals with Syrah that can "out Syrah" Aussie Shiraz!

Most of the Washington State Cabernet Sauvignon based wines have some percentage of other grapes blended in. The Bordeaux style blend (often called Meritage in the U.S.) is made from grapes traditionally grown in the Bordeaux region of France: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc (my most recent crush, get it?), Merlot, Malbec and Petite Verdot.

Columbia Crest Chardonnay 2002 $ 11
The winemakers notes say it all: "Apple and banana aromas mingle nicely with toasty oak. Immediately rich and lush on the palate, apple and a hint of pear then trail into a mouth-filling, supple finish, Doug Gore, Winemaker. " Yum, Yum, Doug, give me a plate of THAT fruit salad!

Chateau Ste. Michelle Riesling Eroica 2002 $20 A great wine and one of the best American Rieslings I have tasted. Floral aromas of pear and apricot. Rich, spicy and fairly dry, with nice acidity. Don’t even think of picking up a pricey French Domaine Alsatian or German Rielsing with their QbA, Kabinett, Spatlese and Auslese names; instead, zero in on this Riesling. How’s that for a buy -American ad from a born -on –the- Fourth -of -July Yankee Doodle Dandy!

Hedges Three Vineyards Red 2001 $20
A wonderful Bordeaux-style blend with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. It’s a really great value red wine from a small Red Mountain winery with a recent string of excellent wines are very reasonable prices. While this wine could age for years, you can drink it now and enjoy.

Covey Run Syrah 2002 $10
Wine Spectator’s "Wine of the Week" 5/12/03 rating 87 points. Wine Spectator says: "Crisp and lively, generous with bright blueberry and spice flavors, which echo nicely on the fine-textured finish." Marlene says, "look for this one!"

About the Author

Marlene Rossman - Marlene Rossman heads up the University of California-Irvine Corporate Wine Studies Program. She was a Sommelier at New York's French Culinary Institute and the Sommelier at Laguna Culinary Arts, Laguna Beach, CA from 2003-2006. Marlene won the Distinguished Instructor Award at University of California-Irvine in 2011 for her wine education classes. Marlene is the wine columnist for Chef Magazine.

Visit Marlene Rossman's Website