Ripeness is all

In Washington's tiny but intense boutique winery world, Chris Camarda is a star. When a tasting of his new releases is announced, the shop's sure to be packed. That's partly because Camarda makes very good wine, and with only about 400 cases bottled of each single-vineyard red under his Andrew Will label, supplies don't last long, even at prices averaging $50 a bottle. But there's something beyond quality at work, too. A lot of wine lovers have a secret dream, and Camarda shows that the dream can come true. In 1989, with no formal oenological training, he fermented his first barrel of wine, just for fun. The result was so tasty that in 1990 he decided to go into the business. By 1994, he was doing well enough to quit his day job. His '95s and '96s earned the blessing of the ultimate American arbiter of wine, Robert Parker: "Camarda's wines . . . are concentrated yet grateful, blend power with elegance, concentration with finesse, and supersweet fruit with definition. Chris Camarda is a brilliant winemaker." Camarda knows he's good at what he does. He attributes his success, though, not to brilliance but to willingness to listen and learn. Nearly 20 years in the restaurant business, primarily at Pike Place's legendary Il Bistro, exposed him to the finest wines the world has to offer. When winemakers like Alex Golitzin and Gary Figgins began making spare-no-expense wines in Washington, Camarda was there to taste the results, talk to the vintners, taste again. He learned too that the most gifted vintner can't make great wine without great grapes. He learned who grew great grapes and the particular patches of soil on which they grew them. Camarda's premium-priced Sorella is a blend, but the rest of his wines proudly bear the names of the acreage they grew on: Champoux, Klipsun, Pepper Bridge, Seven Hills, Sheridan. He looks forward to a day when such names are as recognized and admired as the great vineyard appellations of France or Italy. One more key element contributes to the balance of qualities Parker so admires in Camarda's wines: ripeness. "It isn't just you get more sugar as the fruit ripens; the amount of acid in the grape drops, too. If I want a softer wine, I have to wait until the grapes are ready. I don't try to tell the growers how to grow their grapes. But by now, they know what I'm looking for." Particularly enjoyed an adult beverage lately? E-mail

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