How Grapeless My Valley

In Europe, some rivers and wines share a name so intimately that it's hard to think of one without thinking of the other: the Loire and Rh� the Rhine and Moselle. One day the modest Yakima and Walla Walla may evoke such impressions. The Sammamish Slough, however . . .

Still, it is a fact that both of Washington's largest wineries and an impressive number of its boutique-y best cluster along the banks of the Sammamish as it wends its sluggish way to join Lake Washington, and a fair number more lurk among the mini-malls and industrial parks of its exurban hinterland to the northeast.

Yes, there are wineries here in plenty; what you won't find in plenty, apart from a few weeks in autumn when the great trucks rumble nightly over the mountains to the east, is grapes. Wine grapes do grow west of the Cascades, but not on the damp and fog-bedeviled flats of the Sammamish, where the very mildew is subject to mildew. The Sammamish is wine country devoid of vines, and though most wine tourists couldn't tell a Dijon-clone chardonnay from a malvasia blanca, they like seeing vines in the background as they toddle or swerve from one tasting room to the next. Without them, the romance of wine doesn't seem so romantic.

The big guys, Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia, do what architecture and amenities can do to buff the patina (Ste. Michelle actually has a few rows of vines along its carriage sweep; God knows what they do with the grapes, or if they get any). Of the smaller operations, DeLille does the most to live up to tradition, providing visitors a sheep pen, a carp pond, and the closest thing the Sammamish Valley affords in the way of a view. But most of the rest remain resolutely utilitarian, counting on the type of consumer whose palate isn't affected by sampling the wares in a garage, an exservice station, or a warehouse in a strip mall.

If you're that kind of consumer, the coming weekend affords a once-a-year opportunity to visit those garages and warehouses, nearly all ordinarily closed to the public. For a flat $25 fee, your "passport to Woodinville" entitles you to sample current vintages (and sometimes barrel samples) at 14 wineries, including Di Stephano, Matthews, JM Cellars, Betz, and Januik. Along with your passport you get a map (hint: take a Thomas Guide along, too) and a souvenir wine glass to tote on your rounds. Wineries that aren't set up for visitors at all will present their samples at Willows Lodge, temptingly near both the Barking Frog (Washington Wine Restaurant of the Year) and the Herbfarm restaurants. Best of all, for those sippers better at the long haul than the sprint, you can return a second day to try offerings you were too topped out to try the day before.

Passport to Woodinville, 11 a.m.5 p.m. Sat., April 12, Sun., April 13. Passports can be purchased in advance (call 425-424-2902) or at any participating winery.

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