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Seattle Wines, without Vines

Although the wines are good, Seattle is not the next Napa Valley.

By Mark Ashley

With the increasing popularity and quality of wines from Washington, interest in wine tourism in the region has been growing rapidly. Travelers to Seattle will find brochures touting wineries at their concierge’s desk, and with well-known names like Chateau Ste. Michelle in the area, wine tourists might assume that Seattle is the next San Francisco – a big city with a beautiful wine country a short drive away.

They’d be wrong.

While there are indeed wineries near Seattle, travelers hoping for a miniature Napa Valley will be sorely disappointed. The real Washington wine country is far to the east, separated from the nearest major city by hundreds of miles. (The closest airport is the Tri-City Airport in Pasco, WA.)

However, if you’re less interested in “Napa style” and more interested in wine itself, with some great natural vistas thrown in, then greater Seattle does indeed offer some worthwhile tastings.

The Woodinville area, a half hour’s drive north of Seattle, offers the best wines in the region. The irony is that none of the grapes that are crushed in Woodinville wineries’ presses are actually grown here. Rather, they are picked in eastern Washington, loaded onto trucks, and driven 3 to 4 hours west to be vinted in Seattle’s suburbia.

Why go through this trouble? Why have the winery so far removed from the vineyards? In a word: Marketing. Tourists have not discovered eastern Washington yet, so the wineries have come to where the tourists already are many in town before or after their cruise to Alaska. For the larger wineries, having the facilities closer to the masses is an exercise in brand building, while the smaller players who sell all of their wine directly to the consumer are simply maximizing their odds of a sale.

Some wineries, such as Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia, inhabit grand structures that create the illusion of a long, cherished history of winemaking at this location. Some have planted a few token vines out front to signify that this is indeed a winery. There is even a dinner train, much like in Napa, which winds along Lake Washington to its final stop adjacent to Columbia’s facility.

Chateau Ste. Michelle has the most elaborate grounds, which are often rented out for weddings, corporate functions and even the odd concert including Natalie Merchant and Kenny G at the 4,000 seat (!) amphitheater. You are encouraged to picnic here, weather permitting, of course. To taste their wines, you must take their 45-minute tour of the facilities, where most of their wines (but not their sparklers) are produced.

Though our tour guide was informative, I thought he got on a bit of a high horse during the guide-managed tasting he insisted on teaching everyone about how to taste wine, from how to hold the glass, to how to swirl, to the search for particular flavors in the wine. Well-meant, perhaps, but tedious, frustratingly slow, and not optional. In the end, the visit wasn’t worth it, from a tasting perspective. Four of their large-production wines were served as part of the complimentary tour, with the cabernet sauvignon being the best, but none were particularly interesting, unusual, or difficult to find in the local Safeway. The reserve tastings, for a charge, offer a better option, and allow you to skip the tour.

Just across the street, and a stone’s throw from the vaunted (and pricey) Herbfarm restaurant, Columbia Winery offers tours as well, but doesn’t require them for entry to their tasting room. Try to avoid the tasting bar when the wine train arrives with its passengers: Not only will you get space at the bar, but you’ll actually have a longer (and better!) list of wines to choose from. I found the German-varietal whites to be particularly good here.

Forgoing a neo-chateau for their facilities, other producers have taken a less ostentatious approach, choosing to make their wines in the backs of corrugated-walled warehouses, with a purely functional tasting area that consists of a bar and a cash register. Still others have simply built full-service tasting rooms behind the drab exteriors, with all the knick-knacks for sale as in the most commercialized Napa winery.

Perhaps the best of the “warehouse wines” is Facelli Winery, a small family operation where owner and chief winemaker Louis Facelli pours his handicraft from behind a spartan bar on weekends. His reds are especially worthwhile, and include some quirky wines. While I didn’t care particularly for the Lemberger, a fairly uncommon varietal that originated in Austria, I really enjoyed the late harvest syrah. This was far and away the most memorable wine that any Woodinville winery poured, and it is a wine that Louis is particularly (and justifiably!) proud of. This inky dessert wine was a real surprise, a complex, fruit-forward concentrate, without being syrupy-sweet. (My wife still grumbles that we left without buying a bottle.)

Besides Woodinville, there are wineries to the west of the city, on the Olympic Peninsula in Port Angeles, Sequim, and Port Townsend, as well as on Whidbey and Bainbridge Islands. As in Woodinville, most of the wine is produced from grapes trucked in from the east. However, some do grow their own grapes on tiny plots nearby, from relatively unknown varietals better suited to the difficult climate, such as Madeleine Angevine, and many make wines from honey, berries or other fruit. Production is tiny, usually with less than 2000 cases per producer per year.

For the most part, these wines are unfortunately not very good. For example, Greenbank Cellars on Whidbey Island touts their wines as “Alsatian style,” but their whites were high in acid without a balance of minerality. The nearby Whidbey Island Winery’s wines were far superior overall, though generally unremarkable. Whidbey’s rhubarb wine (!!) was an odd surprise. I would love to see this wine in a blind tasting competition, just to see what contestants would guess it to be. Produced by first freezing the rhubarb, which causes the cell structure to break down, the resulting wine is a light, fairly dry rose with an unexpected but not entirely unpleasant finish. Stump your friends! Alas, Whidbey asks $2 tasting fee for its wines.

I cannot wholeheartedly recommend a trip to these western maritime areas just for the wine. (These producers have combined to form the North Olympic Peninsula and Islands Winery Loop Association, www.wineryloop.org, which offers details on each of its members on the website.) But the small wineries are indeed charming, and a brief visit is a nice way to break up a day of hiking in the beautiful surroundings.

On the other hand, the Woodinville area is indeed worth a short drive. I would certainly go back on my next trip to Seattle, to sample some of the smaller family-owned wineries’ offerings. To visit these tasting rooms is truly to come for the wine. You’ll find natural beauty–including vineyard charm–elsewhere in the state.

***

Here’s a link to Seattle area wineries. Yowza. I wish I had that list before going…

http://www.weekendwinery.com/Wineries/Wineries_WA_Seattle.htm

Free wine tastings in Napa Valley

Please note that this posting is from 2003. Almost all wineries in Napa now charge for tastings thus the information here is likely outdated; please verify before visting.

By Mark Ashley, Senior Free Wine Correspondent
See his travel blog, Upgrade: travel better

Napa Valley isn’t Sonoma.

This doesn’t just apply to the wines, but to their business practices. While Sonoma is the land of free wine, and it would take a week to cover all the great wineries that serve it up without asking for a penny, Napa is mostly business. Most of the wineries in Sonoma County still pour their wines for free (though this is starting to change). The norm in Napa is to pay for the privilege.

The majority of Napa wineries will charge tasting fees that range from $3 to $12 for the standard tastings. Reserve or library edition wines will cost you more.

But have no fear! I’ve assembled a list of 25 wineries that will pour their wine for free. Things change, of course, so please bear in mind that I’m writing this in July 2003. If you have additional wineries in Napa to add, or if some of my information needs updating, post a comment below.

Some general advice: If you can, go on weekdays. The folks doing the pouring seem to be more generous when there aren’t as many tourists around.

Also, even though free is free, and free wine is fantastic, you should probably indulge in a few select wineries that charge a tasting fee, especially if you’re itching to try their wine.

Plus, some wineries offer other perks, such as the Hess Collection Winery, which stands at the low end of the price range ($3) for a tasting of 3 current releases, but offers an extensive art gallery with free admission. (It may not be wine, but it’s free!).

Finally, check the NapaValley.com website for promotional goodies and coupons before you go. You can click HERE for the full list of comp stuff. Some wineries, such as Luna,
offer a coupon for free reserve tastings (with the purchase of a regular tasting).

Happy Tastings!
—————

Acacia Winery (Carneros
region)
2750 Las Amigas Rd.
Napa, CA 94559
(707) 226-9991
info@acaciawinery.com

Monday-Saturday, 10:00 a.m.-4:30 p.m.; Sunday, 12 noon-4:30 p.m.
Complimentary tour and tasting, but by APPOINTMENT ONLY. Reserve tastings will cost you $10. Specializing in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Bayview
Cellars

Tastings are held at Napa
Valley Traditions
, a downtown Napa food/wine/gift shop.
1202 Main St.

Napa, CA 94558
(707) 226-2044 or 1-800-627-2044
car@napanet.net

Monday-Friday: 7:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m.; Saturday 9:00 a.m.-5:30 p.m.; Sunday 10:30
a.m.-4:00 p.m.
Complimentary tastings at a store owned by the same folks that
own Bayview. Winery is offsite; no tours. Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewurtztraminer,
Cabernet Sauvignon.

Bouchaine Vineyards (Carneros)

1075 Buchli Station Rd.
Napa, CA 94559
(707)
252-9065 or (800) 654-9463
info@bouchaine.com

Daily, 10:30 a.m.-4:00 p.m.
Tours by appointment only, tastings don’t require an appointment. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Cain Vineyard and Winery
3800 Langtry Rd.
St. Helena, CA 94574
(707)
963-1616
winery@cainfive.com

Tastings are offered twice a week by APPOINTMENT ONLY. Otherwise closed to the public. Call or e-mail them to find out the dates and times, and to make your reservation. Cain serves Bordeaux style blends – 3 reds, 1 white – with names like Cain Five (mostly Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot), Cain Cuvee (mostly Cabernet
Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc), and Cain Musqué (Musqué clone Sauvignon Blanc).


Caymus Vineyards


8700 Conn Creek Rd.
Rutherford, CA 94573
(707) 967-3010
Tastings are free, but by APPOINTMENT ONLY. Be sure to call at least a week or two in advance.
Cabernet Sauvignon.



Chateau Potelle Winery

3875 Mt. Veeder Road
Napa, California 94558

(707) 255-9440
info@chateaupotelle.com

Daily, 11:00 a.m.-6:00 p.m.
Hours are shorter in the winter months; pouring
both Napa and Paso Robles vintages. Try the Zinfandel VGS.

Folie a Deux Winery
3070 North St. Helena Highway
St. Helena, CA 94574
(800) 473-4454 or 707-963-1160
tasting@folieadeux.com

Daily, 10:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m.; Free tastings ONLY from 10:00 a.m.-12:00 noon

Here’s the place to start your pre-lunch tastings… If you arrive before noon,
the tastings are free. After 12:00, you’ll have to shell out $5. The frugal taster
arrives early! Tastings don’t require an appointment, but you’ll need one for
cellar tours and the possibility of barrel tastings. Notable offerings include
their "Menage a Trois" blends and zinfandels.

Frank Family
Vineyard
1091 Larkmead Lane
Calistoga CA 94515
(800) 574-9463 or
(707) 942-0859
Tastings don’t require an appointment but if you want a tour,
you’ll need to call ahead. Tasting room Mon.-Fri. 10 a.m.- 5 p.m., Tours Mon.-Fri.
10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sparkling wines, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel.


Frog’s Leap
Winery

8815 Conn Creek Rd.
Rutherford, CA 94573
(800) 959-4704
or (707) 963-4704
ribbit@frogsleap.com

Monday-Saturday, 10:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m.
Tastings available ONLY at the conclusion
of a tour, and tours are by APPOINTMENT ONLY. Call or e-mail to make your appointment.
Merlot, Zinfandel, Cabernet, Sauvignon Blanc, and "Leapfrogmilch"…
a white blend. I hope the wine is better than the pun.

Graeser
Winery

255 Petrified Forest Rd.
Calistoga, CA 94515
(707) 942-4437

richard@graeserwinery.com
Daily, 10:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m.
Bordeaux style wines from the Diamond Mountain District. Tours possible; call ahead if you have a group. Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, red table wine.

Heitz Cellars
436 St. Helena Highway South
St. Helena, CA 94574
(707) 963-3542
Daily, 11:00 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
This is one of the wineries where I would gladly pay money to taste their offerings. But it’s free! The Heitz Cabernet Sauvignons are legendary, though you probably won’t get to sample their Martha’s Vineyard Cab. The tasting room is separate from the winery itself. In addition to Cabernet, they offer Chardonnay, Grignolino, Zinfandel, and a port.

Koves-Newlan Winery
5225 Solano Avenue, Napa, California 94558. (707) 257-2399. hospitality@kovesnewlanwine.com

Daily, 10:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m.
While Koves-Newlan charges for their tastings ($5 for 3 tastings or $7 for 4 tastings with a commemorative glass to keep) you can get FREE tastings of ALL their wines by clicking HERE,
printing out the page, and bringing it with you to the winery. (It says you can just say you saw it on the internet, but better to have a hard copy just in case…) Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Merlot, Cabernet.

Louis M. Martini Winery
254 S. St. Helena Hwy.
St. Helena, CA 94574

(800) 321-9463 or (707) 963-2736
info@louismartini.com

Daily, 10:00 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
Free tastings of current releases, $5 each for reserve tastings. Tours are free, no appointment required. Especially the Italian varietals such as Barbera and Sangiovese, but plenty of wines to choose from.


Mayacamas Vineyards

1155 Lokoya Road
Napa CA 94558
(707) 224-4030
mayacama@napanet.net

Tastings and tours are available free Monday through Friday by APPOINTMENT ONLY.
Small production (total of about 5000 cases) of mostly Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, some Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir.

Nichelini
Winery

2950 Sage Canyon Rd.
St Helena, CA 94574
707-963-0717

nichwine@nicheliniwinery.com

Saturday-Sunday 10:00 a.m.-6:00 p.m., Monday-Friday by appointment
Call or
write if you want a free tasting and tour during the week, or if you have more than 10 people coming on a weekend. You can even play bocce after you picnic. Cabernet, Zinfandel, Riesling.

Raymond
Vineyard

849 Zinfandel Ln.
St. Helena, CA 94574
(707) 963-3141

director@raymondwine.com
Daily,
10:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m.
Current releases are free, library/reserve selections
"for a modest fee." (Tasting fee for groups over 25.) BUT: If you click
HERE, print
out the page and bring it to the winery, you’ll get a FREE library selection!
Tours offered by appointment in the mornings only. Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel,
Merlot, Chardonnay.

Robert Keenan Winery
3660 Spring Mountain Rd.

St. Helena, CA 94574
(707) 963-9177
rkw@robertkeenanwinery.com

Free tour and tasting by APPOINTMENT ONLY, call ahead. Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon,
Merlot.



Rombauer Vineyards

3522 Silverado Trail
St. Helena, CA 94574
(800)
622-2206 or (707) 963-5170
Free tour and tasting by APPOINTMENT ONLY, call
ahead. Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot.

Round Hill Vineyards
1680 Silverado Trail
Rutherford, CA 94574
(707)
968-3200
Free tasting by APPOINTMENT ONLY, no tours. Producers of the Round Hill, Rutherford Ranch, and Van Asperen wines. Chadonnay, Zinfandel, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon.

Sutter Home Winery
277 St. Helena Hwy (Hwy. 29) South, St. Helena, CA 94574
(707) 963-3104
info@sutterhome.com

Daily, 10:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m.
Complimentary tastings of Sutter Home and M. Trinchero
wines. Be prepared for a corporate experience from the folks who invented white zinfandel…

V. Sattui Winery
1111 White Lane St. Helena, CA 94574
(707) 963-7774

info@vsattui.com
Daily, 9:00 a.m.-6:00 p.m. (5:00 p.m in winter)
Free tasting of 8 different V. Sattui wines, plus a cheese/deli plate to nibble on. Tours are self-guided. Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot…

Vigil Vineyards
3340 Hwy. 128
Calistoga, CA 94515
(800) 948-4445 or (707) 942-2900
vigilwine@aol.com

Daily, 10:30 a.m.-4:00 p.m.
Definitely call ahead to make sure they’re open, but reservations shouldn’t be necessary. Some of Vigil’s production is organic. Carignane, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon.

Vincent Arroyo Winery
2361 Greenwood Avenue
Calistoga, CA 94515
(707)
942-6995
info@vincentarroyowinery.com

Tasting and tours by APPOINTMENT ONLY. Proprietary blends (such as the Melange, based primarily on Gamay) or Joy’s Choice (Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec), plus Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Petite Sirah.

Not all Hungarian wines are rotten. Just the great ones.

By Ben Curtis

For most people, Hungary probably doesn’t immediately spring to mind as a great wine-producing country. Yet Hungarian wines have a tradition that goes back at least to Roman times, and a renown that was once second to none. France’s Louis XIV, for instance, famously referred to Hungarian Tokaj wine as “the king of wines and the wine of kings.” This royal reputation was unfortunately tarnished by forty years behind the iron curtain. Communism, with its unique ability to turn gold into lead, triggered a precipitous decline in the quality of Hungarian wine. Since 1989, though, Hungarian vintners have been avidly trying to repair that damage, and once again the fame of Hungarian wines is spreading beyond the country’s borders.

A visit to Hungary’s numerous grape-growing regions, then, is a chance to see vineyards not yet overexposed to globe-trotting enophiles, and moreover to enjoy some charming villages and lovely countryside, all at prices still very reasonable compared to those in Western Europe. The main problem is one of choice: wine is such a deeply rooted part of Hungarian culture that many areas are worth exploring, from the pastel-hued city of Eger in the north, whose Valley of the Beautiful Women produces the red Bull’s Blood wine, to the Villány-Siklós wine route in the south, with its Mediterranean climate. That said, though, there are perhaps two main regions that best reward a traveler’s time.

The first, not surprisingly, is Tokaj itself. This is a region of volcanic hills in the northeastern part of Hungary, dotted with vineyards and villages that are relatively little changed over the past hundred years. The area centers on the town of Tokaj: strolling along its Baroque main street, you’ll pass by any number of wine cellars where, besides tasting the local tipples, you can learn about the arcane Tokaj classification system of “butts” (in Hungarian puttony) designed to indicate how much sweet aszú grape nectar a given wine contains. Aszú in Hungarian means “withered,” and it refers to grapes that are left to ripen so long that they become shriveled but extremely sweet—or “nobly rotten” in wine parlance. The aszú nectar is what makes Tokaj unique.

Cellars here and indeed throughout Hungary are often simple, rustic affairs, definitely not as corporatized and shiny as, say, their Napa Valley counterparts, but with much more character. Tokaj cellars are particularly distinctive for their mould-covered walls, which are critical to the fermentation of Tokaj wine. Many of the biggest wineries around Tokaj are now in fact owned by French, Spanish, and German firms, and international investment has gone a long way to modernizing what the communists so long neglected.

All was not plonk in the Bad Old Days, though: the Oremus winery, today owned by the Spanish company Bodegas Vega Sicilia, produced in 1972 a vintage that was recently voted the best dessert wine in the world. Other names to look out for include the winery Disznókö, which has also recently won several gold medals, and almost anything from the vintner István Szepsy, whose wines often sell out quickly.

The other area most worth touring surrounds Lake Balaton in the western part of Hungary, about two hours south of Budapest. This lake—known somewhat jokingly as “the Hungarian sea” to ocean-starved central Europeans—sits at the heart of a region with many attractions. The village of Tihany, with its ancient Benedictine abbey and its location high on a hill extending into the lake, takes the prize for picturesqueness. At the southeastern end of the region there bubbles the separate lake and spa of Hévíz, fed entirely by geothermal water—it’s the second-largest geothermal lake in the world, but just one of Hungary’s many hot springs.

The town of Badacsony is the Balaton’s most famous wine center, known particularly for its Rieslings. Lying in a broad valley ringed by extinct volcanoes, Badacsony is very scenic, and if you have one too many glasses at all the wine bars in town you can walk it off on the hiking trails in the area. One of the best local wines is produced by the vintner Huba Szeremley; look for recent vintages of his Badacsonyi Szent Orbán to find out what you’ve been missing.

Finally, though no great wines come from Budapest, even on hillsides within the city limits you can see little family plots laced with grapevines. The capital is also a great place to taste and shop for wines from all over the country. Wine stores are plentiful, especially on the Pest side of the river, while smack in the middle of Buda’s castle district, in the cellars of a big neo-Gothic building, you’ll find the Museum of Hungarian Wine. Also in Budapest every September the Hungarian Wine Festival takes place. Growers, vintners, and wineries from around the country assemble to show off their stuff and talk business, accompanied by lots of tastings, competitions, folk music and dancing. It’s quite a party, but then they have a lot to celebrate, since Hungarian wines are once again making a name for themselves all over the world.

For more information on Hungarian wines and wine tourism, surf over to www.winesofhungary.com.


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