Local Gold

It does one good to be slapped down every once in while. We Northwest wine buffs are used to thinking of ourselves as a mighty force in the U.S. market, and of our local vinous behemoth Ste. Michelle as a power to be reckoned with. So I guess we should be pleased with the attitude corrective provided in the latest issue of the trade bimonthly Restaurant Wine, featuring its annual "Top 100 Wine Brands" list for the year 2004. Granted, the list covers only restaurant wine sales, and "restaurant" means anyplace food is served, right down to that Italian place on the corner you've always been afraid to enter. Still, the statistics are daunting. Among the top 25 selling brands: Seven are owned by Constellation Brands, the biggest alcohol-delivery company on earth. Four more belong to Gallo. Another four are the Wine Group's, proud producers of Mogen David, Franzia box wine, and Two-Buck Chuck. The No. 1 position goes to Beringer Vineyards, now a beard for the Australian monster Foster's. Just squeezing in at No. 25 comes Washington's mighty Ste. Michelle. There are many more nuggets of interest in the article, including the appalling news that "fun brands" like Australia's Yellow Tail increased their share of the market by 36 percent during the year. But my original point is made. Even Ste. Michelle is, in national terms, virtually a niche producer. Its "large-production" wines, like the just-released 2002 Columbia Valley merlot and cabernet sauvignon (178,000 and 175,000 cases, respectively; both $16) deserve the designation "superpremium," which the trade applies to any wine costing more than $10 a bottle. The company's 2002 reserve merlot (100 cases at a list price of $36 a bottle) is the merest agreeable of bagatelles, proof to the trade that Ste. Michelle winemakers can hold their own with the boutiquiest of competitors. The funny thing is, they can. The '02 reserve merlot reminds you that properly vinified, merlot is what made Washington wine great—velvety, full-bodied without being the least heavy, with just enough tannin to retard its trip across your tongue, and discreetly fruity. In the opposite spot is the company's just-released 2004 Saint M riesling. Like the much and justly praised Eroica riesling, this wine is a co-production with Ernst Loosen of Germany's Mosel Valley. It's produced in substantial quantity: 50,000 cases in this, its second vintage. And it's terrific. Somehow, with Loosen involved, Washington state riesling loses its rather boring straightforwardness and saccharinity and becomes a little willful, mysterious, and intriguing. Saint M is a Cinderella, a disguised princess in a screw-top package. At $12 a bottle, she's not a bargain, but at that price, she kicks the American competition's asses and equals all but the finest of her Alsatian and German and Austrian competition. Give her a try. rdowney@seattleweekly.com

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