When winemaker Mike Januik left Chateau Ste. Michelle to start his own winery, his employers sent him off with something better than the traditional gold watch: They authorized him to buy grapes from the company's own Cold Creek Vineyard east of Yakima.

Cold Creek, wedged between the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and the Army's Yakima Firing Range, doesn't look like much to a tourist eye, but its arid slopes are a winemaker's Eldorado. "I'm convinced that Cold Creek grapes produce wine with more character than any in the state," says Januik. "I don't think you could find a winemaker around here to disagree."

Fermented in traditional Burgundian fashion in new French oak, aged unfiltered, and stirred up every few weeks during its 10 months in barrel, Cold Creek Chardonnay acquires the creamy quality reminiscent of classic whites from the Cotes de Beaune. Januik lucked out with his first release under his own label; he says, "1999 may be the best year we've ever had in Washington for chardonnay, certainly the best since 1987."

Only 300 cases of 1999 Januik Cold Creek Chardonnay were made, and they're going fast at $30 a bottle. Januik believes his wine will age well, but he also believes that it's ripe and ready to drink now. "There's a myth that a wine worth aging isn't worth drinking young. I agree with what a Bordeaux vintner told me years ago: Great wines should be ready to drink pretty much right away. What matters is the structure, the balance of all the qualities that make a fine wine. If you don't have that to begin with, you're not going to have it in five years, either."

Branded bubbly

It's not unusual for a restaurant to offer a "private-label" champagne under its own name, usually purchasing an inexpensive nonvintage brew and spending the real bucks on packaging. That's not the route taken by the Space Needle. They've contracted with premium California sparkling wine maker Iron Horse to produce a signature Space Needle cuv饮 The 1994-vintage bottling, made in traditional champagne fashion from a 60/40 pinot/chardonnay blend but featuring just a touch more softness than a typical "brut," went on sale this week in the Needle restaurant at about $40; take-home bottles will appear in the gift shop in due course.

Upcoming events

Red Mountain Wine Dinner—Six wines from the state's newest vineyard appellation paired with six courses from chef Christopher Fernandez in a benefit for FareStart: Stars, Pacific Place; reservations 264-1112. $95. Wed 3/14, 6:30pm.

21st International Wine Fair—Choose from six seminars on wine varieties from around the world, with free snacks and sips, and more substantial fare for sale. Enological Society of the Pacific Northwest, Seattle Center; reservations 323-3553. $30. Sat 3/24, 2:30-8:30pm.

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