Success Story

Wine legend is replete with origin myths. Most (how Dom Pérignon discovered champagne, for example) are historically dubious at best. But one such just-so story can be satisfactorily nailed down to a specific day in October 1983: the day that winemaker David Lake and his Columbia Winery cellarmaster, Peter Bos, discovered Cellarmaster's Riesling. Riesling was the first grape variety to draw widespread attention to Washington's potential as a wine-producing region, and Lake, who joined the then Associated Vintners in 1979, was one of the winemakers who earned that attention. In the two decades since, other grape varieties have nudged riesling from the spotlight: first merlot, then cabernet sauvignon, now syrah. But riesling has continued plugging along in the background, and Cellarmaster's Riesling, now in its 21st vintage, is one of the unsung success stories of the industry—unsung because it's not the kind of wine that attracts much notice from the fad-driven mavens of the wine press. Lake gets far more ink for the dozen-plus other wines he supervises for Columbia—though Cellarmaster's Riesling routinely is picked as a Best Buy, which, at about $9 a bottle, it assuredly is. Cellarmaster's Riesling came about by chance. In 1983, the fashion was for bone-dry rieslings, and in hot, sunny Eastern Washington, that meant there was a lot of sugar to be turned into alcohol. But sometimes the yeast gods don't cooperate with winemakers, and that year a batch of riesling stubbornly "stuck" with 6 percent of the grapes' sugar unconsumed. Lake, who does not hold the title of Master of Wine without reason, recalls being irritated and frustrated, until cellarmaster Bos tentatively suggested that, dry or not, the contents of the fermenter tasted pretty darn good. His taste buds reoriented, Lake realized that though the emergent wine didn't fit his preconceived plans for it, it had virtues of its own. "It had enough acid to balance the residual sugar, so despite its sweetness, it was refreshing, not cloying. And since we weren't entirely satisfied with our rieslings at the time, we decided to bottle what nature had given us." That first vintage produced just 650 cases of wine. In 2003 the total was 80,000 cases: an astonishing half of Columbia's total wine production. "What I like most about the wine is the way it bridges the gap between sophisticated wine drinkers and beginners," says Lake. "Entry-level wine drinkers can just enjoy it, while more experienced wine drinkers appreciate the way it balances acid and sugar and fruit like a good riesling from Germany's Mosel region. And because it's so low in alcohol—9 or 10 percent at most—it's a very food-friendly wine, and works particularly well with the growing range of complexly seasoned Asian dishes in the American diet. Above all, it's not a wine that you have to brood over. It's all very well to take one's wine seriously; sometimes it's nice just to relax and have a glass of wine, don't you think?"

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