Doing the swirl-and-sniff at the Auction of Washington Wines.

"REMEMBER," SAID GUEST AUCTIONEER Mardi Newman, "the more you spend on wine, the better it tastes," and while that sentiment certainly flies in the face of just about everything I believe in, just a few hours before, I had been sipping champagne in a white stretch Hummer limo, so I really wasn't in any position to be making moral objections. I also wasn't in any position to be bidding, so Newman's choruslike cries for "one thousand dollars more" were lost on me, too. Yes, I was a little out of place at one of the nation's biggest charity wine auctions, the 17th annual Auction of Washington Wines black tie gala at Chateau Ste. Michelle. Had I, all on my own, wanted to attend, the ticket would have set me back $500, but that's where the Straw, who graciously buckled under pressure when I implored him to make me his date, comes in. The Straw is a great friend of mine whom I introduce to other friends by saying, "He knows everybody." "Ah, so he's the straw that stirs the drink," surmised one friend upon meeting him a few weeks ago. Indeed, and the name stuck. But at the wine auction—as well as at PICNIC, the decidedly more casual but almost equally exclusive event that took place on the Thursday prior—there is no stirring, only swirling and sniffing—and, thanks to the Straw, much shaking of hands and exhausting of the phrase, "Pleased to meet you." Perfecting the act of pressing palms with one hand and swirling my glass of wine in order to set free the stuff's aromatics with the other, I met winemakers, wine growers, sommeliers, and members of the board and faculty at Children's Hospital—the organization that has benefited greatly from the $13.5 million that the auction has raised over the past 17 years. I also met chefs, which I don't always get to do, because typically I'm as undercover as I can be, but there is no undercover when the Straw is around. PRIVATE CATERER LISADUPAR was actually on the line on Thursday night at PICNIC, which meant she was outside assembling the fabulous fennel seed crusted salmon sandwiches and hoping, along with the rest of us, that the gray clouds weren't going to follow through with their threats. I meant to find Dupar again to inquire about the secret ingredient in the spiced-and-sweet stone mustard that was served at the gourmet condiment bar, but it must have slipped my mind. I blame the swarming hordes of winemakers who, jockeying to get at your palate and into your empty glass, circulated the grounds with bottles of their wares at a constant half-tipped position. Early on Saturday night, only a few sips in, I almost wanted to kiss Ray's Boathouse chef Charles Ramseyer for introducing me to samphire, the sea cliff-growing herb redolent of sea salt that spiked his warm king crab and asparagus salad. Had I met the chef/instructor Diana Dillard (Seattle Central Community College), I would have gushed over her seared scallop, which came atop a button of local chèvre and surrounded by dabs of elegant, airy Meyer lemon riesling foam. Although not all the evening's chefs, who had each volunteered their time and energy, used the auction as an opportunity to utilize wine as an ingredient, the Hunt Club's Brian Scheehser not only prepared pheasant Véronique (with roasted grapes) but whipped up a merlot reduction to go with it. Where there's a theme, I say run with it. Or, alternately, stir it up a little as the Straw did, dropping one of his Straw Stats: In the major grape-growing regions of France and Italy, approximately 90 percent of the wine consumed by the locals is wine that was grown locally. Here in Washington, we imbibe an embarrassingly low 20 percent of our own harvests. What gives? Having been lured back from my summer of whites by Cadence Winery's rich but soft-spoken 2002 Coda and yet seduced into staying for a few months more by, of all things, a chardonnay (Woodward Canyon's), I, for one, have been converted.

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