Big Red

A patch of Washington farmland reaches for legendary status.

The other day, a colleague dropped by our regular Friday office wine tasting. He's not a regular attendee. In fact, I suspect he's a little abashed about his taste for wine, as if it's something not quite dudeish enough for a newspaperman. But he's got a good palate and knows a fine red wine when he tastes one. On this particular occasion, he'd just returned from a trip to the South, where he'd seen Washington-made wine in all the stores. "So, this Washington wine thing," he asked, swirling a slug of 2002 Betz Père de Famille in his glass, "I guess it's, you know, real, huh?" Yes, Chuck, it's real. It's really real. For two decades at least, serious wine fans have recognized that the finest Washington producers make quality wine competitive with the greatest wine regions round the world. That's not exaggeration. It's not hype. Remarkable as it sounds, it's plain fact. And even more remarkable: Look at the back label on some of Washington's most highly prized bottles and you'll learn that many of them are made mostly or entirely from fruit grown on one tiny patch of hillside not far from Richland, Wash. A LITTLE OVER 30 years ago, there was nothing on Red Mountain but dirt, rock, and sagebrush. In 1975, a couple of hobbyist engineers from the Hanford Works to the east planted a few acres of grapes. The 10 acres each devoted to chardonnay and riesling yielded nothing to boast of. The 10 assigned to cabernet sauvignon, the grape identified with the Bordeaux region of France, paid off from the first vintage, producing powerfully flavored wine, dark colored, pungent with tannins, tangy with acid. Further plantings confirmed it. White wine grapes could be grown on Red Mountain, but reds grown there got exceptional results. By the early 1990s, winemakers began adding the names of Red Mountain vineyards—Kiona, Klipsun, Ciel du Cheval, Taptiel—to their labels, as a kind of additional certification of quality. In the late '90s, Red Mountain–sourced wines consistently began to score near the top of the ratings published in journals like Wine Spectator and in the private newsletters of Robert Parker and Stephen Tanzer. In 2001, after years of negotiation, the federal authorities carved out 3,500 acres (about 5 and a half square miles) of the sprawling Yakima Valley wine district as the Red Mountain "appellation." The land rush was on. Today, there are 500-odd acres of fine wine grapes on the mountain, mostly red, spread across the gentler southwest-facing slopes along the Yakima River. Another 500 acres are plowed or planted, some of them owned by Washington wine giant Ste. Michelle, late to the table but determined to have a piece of the action. Ground is slated to be broken on steeper, harder-to-farm slopes high up the mountain. If you think 1,000 or 1,500 acres is not much room for serious agriculture, think again. In the Margaux region of Bordeaux, there are 3,200 acres of grapes, which in good years produce some of the greatest—and most expensive—red wines in the world. The key phrase there is "in good years." Bordeaux is near the stormy Atlantic coast and is often hit by chilly weather or sodden downpours at unpredictable times, even in summer. Dry weather is almost a given on Red Mountain. It rained once in the last 10 growing seasons, so growers can give the vines just enough water to promote production and not a drop more. Extreme heat (over 105 in August) and cold (well below zero in winter) are greater dangers, but 30 years of practice have taught growers how to avoid the worst effects of both. This year, Red Mountain achieved another milestone. The Golitzin family's 2002 Quilceda Creek cabernet sauvignon, sourced in the main from Red Mountain fruit, was awarded a 100 point rating by Robert Parker's Wine Advocate. Numerical ratings probably hurt more than they help genuine appreciation of fine wine, but the 100 rating is still significant. It means that in the opinion of Parker's taster, the '02 Quilceda Creek is . . . perfect. Chateaux Margaux can do no more. HOW CAN A WINE region barely 30 years old be rated alongside or ahead of one under intense cultivation for 1,500 years or more? (The poet Ausonius boasted in 310 A.D. about Rome's admiration for the wines of his vineyard near Bordeaux.) Climate, of course, soil, and endless, meticulous care every day of the growing season, ensuring the perfect balance between leaf and fruit, plays a great role. From a crude marketing standpoint, a great deal of credit has to go to the appellation's name: strong, simple, perfectly suited to its products. (If white wine had turned out to be the area's forte, I don't think it would be half so well known or admired.) But there is still an X factor to be accounted for. Christophe Hedges, scion of Hedges Family Estate, one of the most beautiful properties on all the mountain, makes explicit something that other grape growers know well but prefer not to voice. "Romance," he says. "Without romance, without a good story to tell, wine isn't all it can be. I think there may be a hundred potential Red Mountains in Washington state, where the soil and exposure and climate are just as good as ours. But we were lucky enough to be first, and to find a way to tell the world our story." So there you have it, Chuck. Washington wine at its best is not only real, it's world-class, something that seems to matter a lot to our town's provincial self-doubt. So while other people name-drop Mount Rainier or Pearl Jam, save your props for Red Mountain. Oh, and drink it yourself, confident it's every bit as good as it tastes.

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