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Food & Drink : Value vino


Great wines for under $15

Geology is writ large across the face of Eastern Washington State. Its high rolling plateaus, seasonally golden with wheat, are rent with basalt-gird coulees and dotted with isolated, “eccentric” boulders, both testimony to massive glacial movement. But as an impressionable child, making the yearly trek from the far greener side of the Cascade Mountains to my grandparents’ wheat ranch, it was the smells of dust and sagebrush that most attracted attention — and linger in memory.

The dust and wheat are still very much a part of those undulating hills, but a new presence has come to bear on the once-sere surroundings: grapes. The state’s largest American Viticultural Area, the Columbia Valley appellation, flanks and straddles Woodie Guthrie’s river from Lake Chelan in the north to the Oregon border in the south, and much of the landscape has been transformed. It is in the fertile Yakima Valley that the vegetable and hop-growing Hogue family, in 1974, planted their first vines, six acres of riesling. Brothers Mike and Gary Hogue graduated from selling the grapes to others to making their own wines in 1981. The Hogue Cellars basic line (Genesis and Reserve are two more-select categories) now comprises 11 different varietals and blends, and total production is nearing 500,000 cases per year.

Louisiana-born, Texas-raised winemaker Co Dinn is in charge of the Hogues’ white-wine program. “An acre of land `in Washington` costs around $15,000 with water — it’s 10 times more in California,” he claims. He’d likely be among the first to admit that cachet contributes to higher prices for Napa and Sonoma wines as well. But Washington’s hot days and cool nights bolster a growing reputation for Merlot and Syrah; the region’s northerly location (on a level with Bordeaux and Burgundy) allows for success with varietals such as riesling; and the growth of the industry as a whole means more awareness in the market. Get ’em while they’re (not) hot, in other words. The following wines should retail for $10 or less.

The Hogue Columbia Valley 2005 Fumé Blanc offered smoky, oily aromas at first, giving way to lemon and grapefruit peel. Lemon persisted on the palate, as did a slight fizz from a possible secondary fermentation that supported the citrus but suppressed softening from the wine’s semillon component. Worth trying another bottle. The big surprise was the crisp and snappy quality of the 2004 Columbia Valley Chardonnay, showing aromas of spice and jasmine and flavors of lemon and green apple. A touch of oak from partial barrel fermentation added creaminess and a hint of vanilla. Impressive.

I had been expecting an impressive showing from the 2004 Columbia Valley Gewurztraminer and was not disappointed. Smoke and petroleum are again present in the aromas, with dried fig and a faint hint of rose petal adding head notes. The flavors are of honeyed peach, apricot, and pineapple spiced with a grinding or two of white pepper. The wine is slightly sweet and somewhat floral, but zingy acidity keeps it all aloft. Adding about five more bucks to the pot will get you a second-tier Genesis Riesling. The Washington 2005 bottling has many of the same honeyed, fruity characteristics as the gewurz (minus the pepper), but adds layers of nuance and a whiff of minerality.

The Genesis 2002 Merlot and Cabernet are both worth the extra bucks, too, with the cab being the outgoing sibling; its bright, cherry-cassis fruit and soft tannins make it immediately approachable. But if the merlot is the slightly shy child, it will soon prove its worth in firmly structured fruit (blueberry and currant) and the smoky-sage characteristics that tie this wine to its surroundings. Even the basic Hogue 2003 Columbia Valley Merlot ($8.49 at Central Market) gives the lie to the Sideways set, its firm core of black cherry fruit with brown spice underpinnings making it very much a product of wild-horse hills under cloudless skies.

- Ron Bechtol

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