Tuesday, December 13, 2011

What to like in Woodinville

Welcome to Silver Lake!
Photo by Meg McKenzie
When I was in Seattle a few weeks ago, I made sure to budget some time in Woodinville, which is just east of the city and consists of a lot of wineries clustered along Route 202 (via many confusing roundabouts). It being Thursday, several of the ones I was most eager to visit were closed, which surprised me as it was the week after Thanksgiving. It now being December, many are only open on the weekend, so check ahead before you go (Silver Lake being the exception: It's open every day!).

Of course I hit the huge ones (see my previous post), Ste. Michelle and Columbia, first. But if you've been following my blog, you'll know I tend to view the huge corporate wineries as necessary evils, luring wine lovers to a destination that then offers up its small, delectable tasting rooms for your wine-drinking pleasure.

Silver Lake's holiday display
Photo by Meg McKenzie
And thus it was in Woodinville. 

My first stop was at Silver Lake Winery, which also has a sister winery in Zillah (see my earlier posting on the Zillah Fruit Loop outside of Yakima, Washington). The Woodinville branch is in a handsome, modern building just off Woodinville-Redmond Road not far after you turn off 405; inside, it's clean, nice-looking and dotted with merchandise. I arrived just as a couple was completing a purchase. As I waited for the pourer, a quirky dude named Frank, I chatted up an affable gentleman of Asian extraction who seemed quite conversant on all things Silver Lake and had a pretty good sense of humor (after we both tried 2006 Leone Vin Dolce Cab Franc, he suggested we call the pourer "Cab Frank.")

According to Cab Frank, Silver Lake was started by three professors at the University of Washington and is now owned by 1,200 shareholders. With 60 varieties, it is one of the state's largest locally owned wineries. Its primary source of grapes is in Zillah, in the Rattlesnake Hills AVA. 

Now you see him, now you don't: "Cab Frank" ducked
below the counter just as I snapped this photo.
Photo by Meg McKenzie
I gave Cab Frank my blogger card and requested to take a picture. And he did something really weird (something I guess he's done before, since it happened in the blink of an eye). As I aimed the camera and pushed the button, he ducked below the counter quick as a bunny, so all I got was my Asian pal leaning against the bar. Ha ha! However, he did give me an industry discount on the tasting, so I guess I'll just chalk it up to quirky Cab Frank's irrepressible hijinks.

The tasting flight offered that day consisted of five tastes for $5 and 12 tastes for $10 -- which, considering you get four measly samples for $10 down the road at Ste. Michelle, is a really good deal. The wines ran the gamut from the gold-medal winning 2010 Silver Lake Riesling (awfully sweet, which Rieslings tend to be) and the 2007 Silver Lake Syrah (really dry but with a nice bouquet). Other choices include several Merlots, a Pinot Gris, a 2006 Sangiovese and the aforementioned Cab Franc.

Silver Lake has a wine club with two levels (Discover, with two bottles, $10-15 each, shipped each quarter from the cask series) and (Voyage, with two bottles, $15-25 each, from the cask or reserve series).

Apple Farm Village
Photo by Meg McKenzie
As this was my first stop in Woodinville, however, I pressed onward, ever onward. And I was glad I did, because my last stop of the day was, in fact, my favorite. I stopped off for lunch and dallied at the big two, then headed east.

Here lay a busy commercial stretch with another confusing roundabout, which shot me north. But as I sped past, I spied a quaint wooden ("woodin"?) building, called the Apple Farm Village Shoppes, that looked to host a variety of different wineries. I turned back and parked, then headed down the steps to the first cute place I came to, which was Cougar Crest. 

As I toured the small but adorable tasting room, a light bulb went on over my head. I had tasted Cougar Crest wines in Walla Walla at their ginormous new tasting room! This was familiar territory, and I was here for new experiences. However, Sam Worden, the handsome tasting room manager, graciously poured me two tastes of their Estate Merlot to test a theory of mine -- that 2007  seemed an incredibly better year than 2006. Sure enough, the '07 Merlot ($35 retail) sang, while the '06 merely hummed. Thanks, Sam!

Zerba tasting room manager Shawn Chandler and Blue
Photo by Meg McKenzie
I took my leave and continued down the steps to the next cute shop I found, which turned out to be Zerba Cellars. I was met at the door by a huge shaggy Australian shepherd-border collie mix named Blue (for his bluish eyes, I guess) and greeted from behind the counter by Shawn Chandler, the personable tasting room manager, whose card says "Family & Manager." 

With its twinkling fairy lights, folksy atmosphere and Adele playing on the stereo, Zerba's atmosphere is like being invited down to the cellar of a (well-off) friend and getting to sample the best bottles they have. Which is my favorite kind of tasting room experience! As I tasted, we chatted. Shawn told me a lot of people think it's Zebra wine and not Zerba wine. I wanted to say, "Maybe it's because there's a zebra on your label," but I wisely kept my trap shut (for once). (Actually, the zebra is only on the bottle I got; the rest have a big, huge "Z.")

Zerba's lineup of tasty wines
Photo by Meg McKenzie
Zerba Cellars, Shawn told me, is actually an Oregon winery located just over the border from Washington in the Walla Walla Valley. It was started by Cecil Zerba. The talented winemaker is Doug Nierman, a UC Davis grad who worked at Pepper Bridge before joining Zerba.

I have to say, there wasn't a wine there I didn't like. The '07 reserve blend ($50 retail) called Equilibrio had a peppery Sangiovese kick to it. Another big seller is their '06 Late Harvest Syrah Port ($30). But the wine I warmed to (and in fact ended up buying a bottle of) was their 2008 Wild Z Red Wine, a Northwest Bordeaux blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Petit Verdot ($20 retail). Thinking about that yummy bottle makes me wish I'd bought two!

Zerba holiday display
Photo by Meg McKenzie
Zerba Cellars
14525 148th Ave. NE
Woodinville, WA 98072
www.zerbacellars.com; (425) 806-BRIX
Open Friday-Saturday, 11-6, Sunday noon-5 p.m.

Small, intimate, charming -- with a down-to-earth, knowledgeable pourer, and the fluffiest, most disarming dog in the world. All this and delicious wine at reasonable prices. What more could a person want?

Cougar Crest Estate Winery
14545 148th Avenue, Suite 211
Woodinville, WA 98072
www.cougarcrestwinery.com; 9425) 806-1700
Open Thursday-Saturday, 11-6; Sunday-Monday, noon-6 p.m.

A quaint, charming offshoot of the huge Cougar Crest winery in Walla Walla. Sam, the tasting room manager, is cute and nice. The wine is fairly priced, dependably good with that oomph you can only find from Walla Walla vintages.

Silver Lake Winery
15029 Woodinville-Redmond Road
Woodinville, WA 98072
www.silverlakewinery.com; (425) 485-2439, ext. 109
Open Monday-Saturday, 11-5, Sunday noon-5 p.m. (tastings end at 4:45 p.m.)

Silver Lake Winery is definitely worth a stop if you're in Woodinville wine country. It's easy on, easy off the well-traveled Woodinville-Redmond Road and open daily. A dozen tastes for $10 is a bargain, and "Cab Frank" is a hoot

My ratings go from one grape (poor) to five grapes (excellent) and are based on accessibility, ambiance, overall experience and, of course, the wines.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Into the Woodinville Wonderland

Chateau Ste. Michelle in Woodinville -- or is it France?
Photo by Meg McKenzie
Imagine a city of theme parks -- as if such a thing existed! -- and there were two gi-normous ones right across the street from each other! One would be named Disney World, the other Universal Studios. The two parks are almost identical. Almost. One is the stately original, greeting guests with classic castles and tradition. The other is a brash clone, beckoning visitors with new-fangled rides like Harry's Wizarding World. Oh, and classic castles and slightly less extensive tradition.

Such was my dilemma upon turning onto Route 202 in Woodinville, Washington. Left led to Universal, I mean Columbia Winery, and to the right was the big dog, Chateau Ste. Michelle. Being Idaho Wine Girl meant there were good reasons to visit both: Ascentia Wines owns Columbia Winery AND Ste. Chapelle, the local big dog in Idaho. On the other hand, several of Idaho's best winemakers have made wine at Ste. Michelle, among them Melanie Krause, whose Cinder Wines just outside of Boise have been garnering awards by the barrelful. Plus, with its long, French-looking avenue leading to its large, French-looking buildings, Ste. Michelle had the edge in grandiosity. I turned right.

The entrance to Ste. Michelle's tasting room
Photo by Meg McKenzie
It was a cold, damp day at the end of November when I made my pilgrimage -- great for evocative photos of fog but not so much for hanging out on their impeccably groomed grounds. I scurried inside and what did my wondering eyes behold? A huge hall of merchandise, lavishly strewn with Christmas baubles, and beyond that, the many tasting rooms of Michelle, which was founded in 1934 and is the oldest winery in Washington state, though I guarantee the building is more recent. 

I was there for the wine, not the wine-themed dog sweaters, so I kept heading back, past the wall of single varietals (where I had a cute but rather awkward exchange with a Japanese tasting room employee named Ritsuko) to a barrel room where a tour was just ending at the bar. There were barrels reribboned for the holidays, a glowing Christmas tree and a bizarre yet cool little enclave encased in glass where the Col Solare wines, a pricey collaboration with Italy's Antinori, are meant to be tasted at premium prices.

Holiday-decorated barrels
Photo by Meg McKenzie
Since I wasn't part of the tour, the blonde gal behind the bar just totally ignored me. Finally, a girl sitting at the cash register scared up a person to serve me -- Ritsuko! 
Rit, as I will shamelessly refer to her, ushered me back into the other room, shook me down for the $10 tasting fee and gave me a menu of four wines to try. I opted for their sparkling (2005 Luxe, $23 a bottle retail) since I'd read it had bested France's finest Champagnes in a blind tasting. I have to say, it was fine. 

Ritsuko pouring at Ste. Michelle
Photo by Meg McKenzie
As I was mulling my next choice, a rich-looking couple from California (I knew, because they told Rit, "We're from California!") arrived at the bar, and Rit went over and spent time with them. I heard her mutter something about a Reserve tasting they could sign up for, and they departed. Then she came back to me and poured my next request, the 2008 Indian Wells Chardonnay ($18 retail). No mention was made of Reserve tasting to moi. I felt like I'd just been pre-qualified, like at a car lot. (I would have paid, honest!)

To her credit, Rit was knowledgeable and polite -- she whipped out a huge laminated map to show me where Ste. Michelle sources it grapes (Columbia Valley, out near Walla Walla) and even slipped me an extra taste of the 2007 Cold Creek Merlot in addition to the two reds I tried (the $25 2008 Mourvedre and $30 CSM Red Wine blend, both of which were earthy and jammy and all those good things Washington wines are meant to be). The $30 Merlot was also very good.

The wrap-around porch at Columbia Winery in Woodinville
Photo by Meg McKenzie
However, similar to the feeling you have when departing Space Mountain through the Space Mountain gift shop, I was itching to get onto the next ride, so I took my leave and hightailed it across the street to Columbia. It was equally huge and grand, though a little less French chateau and a little more Southfork Ranch. Outside, a cute chef was cooking crostini at a 600-degree oven, and I stopped and chatted with Joshua, who is getting his degree in sustainable practices and was really nice and friendly. Inside, the tasting room was smaller, but equally as gift-laden as Ste. Michelle. And there at the bar was the California couple! Arrgh!

I went back outside and asked a passing workman what the enormous building next-door was that I could see through the trees. He told me it was the Red Hook brewery which served great food. It being lunchtime, I decided to postpone my Columbia experience and go have brats and beer at Red Hook. Which I did, and it was cheap and delicious. (Word to the wise: the restaurant is way in the back of the brewery by the delivery docks, so don't park in the front and walk a mile through the cold like I did.)

The restaurant at Red Hook - yum!
Photo by Meg McKenzie
Returning later to Columbia, after warming myself at their crackling fireplace, I was greeted warmly at the bar, given an industry discount for my bloggery and treated to an assortment of their wines. They were apparently having a case sale for the wine club, because right next to me was a crowd of members who were getting the full treatment from the other bar man -- "This one is going to literally talk to you!" he advised them. "When I come back, I'll find out what it said!"

I tried Columbia's 2009 Viognier, which was almost overpowering in its floral/orange blossom goodness ($26 retail), its 2010 Rose of Syrah (again, a big floral nose of roses and strawberries, $20) and the 2009 Sangiovese, which had the cherry thing going on ($30). They didn't speak to me (in English, anyway) but all smelled and tasted very good.
Columbia Winery display ... there's that California couple!
Photo by Meg McKenzie
So which was the best in Woodinville? Neither of these behemoths, I have to say. They were both very good, but a little lacking in that intimate winery feel I crave. You'll have to wait till my next posting to find out -- coming to the blog soon, I promise!

Chateau Ste. Michelle
14111 NE 145th, Woodinville, WA 98072
(425) 415-3300, www.ste-michelle.com
Head winemaker: Bob Bertheau

☻☻☻ Chateau Ste. Michelle Wine Estates has all the bells and whistles, including a bit of a snobby attitude, which I guess some wine geeks crave, but not me. It's a lovely destination during the holidays -- all it needed was a dusting of snow to look postcard perfect. They offer a four-grape experience except for that $10 tasting fee -- ouch!!! I guess the pained grimace as I pulled out my ten-spot disqualified me from being asked to join their Vintage Reserve Club!

"The wine will talk to you!" 
Columbia Winery, Woodinville
Photo by Meg McKenzie
Columbia Winery
14030 NE 145th St, Woodinville, WA 98072
(425) 488-2776, www.columbiawinery.com
Winemaker: Kerry Norton

 ☻☻☻ Columbia Winery was founded in 1962 and touts itself as Washington's first PREMIUM winery. Not sure what that means, but they welcomed me with an industry discount, which means they'll probably cut a nice deal for most people on bottles and cases of their premium wines. Their tasting room with its wide wooden porch and crackling fire reminded me of a fancy ski chalet. Nice!

Note: My ratings are based one grape for poor and five for excellent and are based on accessibility, ambiance, overall experience and, of course, the wines.