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,
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,
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.

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