Something of Value

A few weeks back in this space, a colleague opined that wine "values" were few here in Washington state. Reaction, both pro and con, was swift and vehement. On the con side were representatives of the wine "industry"; pro comments came primarily from foot soldiers of the tradethe salespeople who have to move the product and find themselves, whether they like it or not, pointing consumers to wines from Chile, Australia, or southern France when they're asked for their best combination of price and quality. This doesn't mean there are no good values among local wines; only that the ever-broadening range of choices and the worldwide wine surplus is offering Washington state producers unprecedented competition. Still, some wineries, both large and small, earn high marks from the sales force. Here are some bottles that came in for particular praise in a recent round of calls to serious wine departments. We specifically asked for wines listing for $10 or less. One that came in for universal praise was the 2002 merlot from Randall Harris Wines. Made at the Washington Hills winery by winemaker Brian Carter from fruit purchased from several premium locations on the Wahluke Slope, Red Mountain, and around the Yakima valley, the current offering, list priced right at $10, earned numerous variations on the phrase "great little wine." (Also broadly praised was Waterbrook Winery of Walla Walla's red blend Mélange, but at around $13 a bottle, it's too pricey for recommendation as "affordable.") Spokane's Arbor Crest Wine Cellars is garnering a lot of favorable comment for its Cliff House Red, released this summer; retailing regularly for around $10, it can sometimes be found for a dollar or so less. Stephen Carroll of Pete's Wines of Bellevue recommends Kiona's cabernet-merlot blend, which generally retails for under $9 as well as the winery's version of a grape variety called lemberger, which grows in Washington's hot desert climates and produces a particularly juicy and fragrant wine. Admiral Metropolitan Market's Kate Kirkwood pushes the patriotic envelope by recommending Castle Rock Winery's $9 cab-merlot blend, vinified in California but made from Columbia Valley fruit. On the white side, she touts the 100 percent native Barnard-Griffin's 2002 fumé blanc at around $8. The $8 riesling from nearby Bookwalter also rates a nod. Kurt Krause of Larry's Bellevue favors Snoqualmie's 2001 sauvignon blanc, regularly $9 but sometimes found as much as two dollars off that price. Beyond the wines mentioned, there's little consensus among experts we spoke to about what constitutes "value" at the $10-and-under price point. And that's likely to present an ever-greater hurdle for Washington winemakers hoping to establish local brand loyalty. The world's grape surplus is only going to get worse for the foreseeable future, as new vineyards planted during the flush times come on line. Optimists may believe that people won't be satisfied forever with synthetic industrial products like Trader Joe's Charles Shaw label. But even if they ultimately trade up, is it likely "up," for every day drinking, will be above $10? If Washington wineries want to stay in the game, something, surely, is going to have to give.

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