Bee Here Now

The fates have a nasty habit of smiling most on those already fortunate. As winemaker for the prestigious Walla Walla label Canoe Ridge, John Abbott was already respected and envied for having achieved such prominence in the wine game while still a young man. But Canoe Ridge is just one limb of a multinational conglomerate, the Chalone Group. And after nearly 10 years at Canoe Ridge, Abbott was still young enough to long for independenceand not just independence, but enough capital to make wine exactly the way he thought it ought to be made, and damn the expense. Enter Ken Harrison. Harrison made his money in banking: quite a lot of money, in factenough that when he retired after 35 years in business, he was both ready and able to indulge his lifelong passion for good wine by trying to produce some good wine himself, and damn the expense. The result is Abeja, a state of the art winery housed in the outbuildings of a 100-year-old farm property on scenic Mill Creek Road just east of Walla Walla. Comprising the Harrisons' home and a high-end bed and breakfast as well as the winery, the complex has been so sumptuously and tastefully renovated that the fourth-generation scion of a great Bordeaux property might wish his chateau were as classy as this one. But the raison d'ĂȘtre of Abeja (Spanish for bee) is wine, so interest was high indeed when Abbott released his first bottling under that label this month: a cabernet sauvignon laced with an 8 percent dash of merlot, vinified just two years ago from Seven Hills and Conner Lee vineyards fruit. Far from setting out to challenge the ruling cabernets of Walla Wallathe Woodward Canyons, Quilceda Creeks, and L'Ecole No. 41sAbbott has produced, as befits a debutante, a wine of almost demure finesse. Its agreeable but restrained bouquet doesn't prepare one for the savory ripe-fruit impact of the first sip; the flavor's so genteel you're tempted to check the bottle to make sure this is a cabernet. Only after a satisfying swallow do the firm, suave tannins emerge from their veil of fruit. If you can restrain yourself for a second sip long enough, a remarkably self-effacing acidity finally emerges. Abbott's maiden effort for Abeja is so civilized that it's hard to believe the nearly 14 percent alcohol content; that the acidity is well over 6 grams per liter; or that three-fifths of the cooperage it aged 18 months in was brand-new (and hence maximally flavorful) oak. Abbott attributes the wine's gentility to picking only when the fruit tastes fully ripe, not when a chemical assay says it is; then to rigorous care in eliminating anything that could contribute harsh, green tanninsstems, jacks (the little twiggy things connecting grape and stem), and underripe berries. The resultant wine, after six months in the bottle, definitely hasn't yet "come together" entirely, but it's supple enough to drink right now and is not ashamed of letting down its own guard to marry well with food. It's also, at around $30, a bargain by Walla Walla cab standards. With only 650 cases made, Abeja cab was fully allocated to restaurants and wine shops before it was released, but if you move now, you can still find a bottle to sample. If you miss out . . . well, Abbott promises 1,600 cases next year.

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