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Washington state wines offer delicious diversity

I have to admit up front that of the three major wine-producing states in the U.S. — California, Oregon and Washington — I know less about the wines, wine regions and wine producers of Washington state.

My lack of knowledge was one of the reasons I wanted to write this article, and I’m so glad I did.

I gleaned quite a bit of information about the wines of Washington and the folks who produce them. If there was one overriding theme here, it was diversity: diversity of regions, grape varieties, styles of wine and much more.

Let’s kick things off with a little Washington wine history, which goes well back, especially by New World standards.

Washington’s first wine grapes were planted at Fort Vancouver in 1825. The industry didn’t exactly flourish, but by the early part of the 20th century, wine grapes were growing in areas throughout the state.

However, Prohibition and a lack of water — yes, much of Washington is actually classified as a desert and is not rainy like Seattle — held the wine industry back. Still, there were 42 wineries in Washington, though the state didn’t see its first commercial plantings until the 1960s.

The real growth in the wine industry started in the mid ’70s, but it was nothing compared to today’s explosion where a new winery opens in Washington nearly every 15 days.

All of that growth has led to this: Washington has 43,000 acres cultivated in eight separate growing regions, more than 750 wineries and more than 350 wine grape growers.

All in all, the wine industry has an annual economic impact of $8.6 billion. I told you I’d gleaned a lot of information.

Now the fun part, the wines are good and getting better all the time. I tried wines from a number of different growing regions, a half dozen or more wineries, made from a wide range of grape varieties. What follows are my completely arbitrary, non-scientific and totally subjective notes.

I mention only the wines that grabbed my palette’s attention and hope they might some day grab yours. Some of the most exciting wines out of Washington are coming from lesser known regions, at least, lesser known until fairly recently.

One such region is the Yakima Valley in the south-central part of the state. There, I discovered the wines of Mercer, which boasts that it has been family-owned and operated for more than 125 years.

Mercer produces wines from both the Yakima and Columbia Valleys — the Columbia Valley being much better known. Mercer, a fifth generation company managing the same property in Washington since 1886, has three tiers of wines: Mercer Reserves, Mercer Estates and Mercer Canyons.

I sipped and sampled wines from all three levels and enjoyed them all. However, the one wine that really got my attention was the Horse Heaven Hills Reserve Rhone, a style blend called Ode to Brothers.

The Ode to Brothers is a Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre blend made in the style of a Chateauneuf du Pape, but with a brighter mouth feel and more upfront fruit.

The resulting wine is an well-balanced, drinkable wine that definitely has the stuffing to age. Packing 14.3 percent alcohol, the Ode to Brothers also requires some serious cuisine — a pepper-crusted fillet seared medium-rare on the grill should do nicely.

One more Yakima Valley American Viticultural Area stunner that I had the good fortune to try came from the Andrew Will winery. Founded by Chris Camarda in 1989, and names for his son, Will, and his nephew, Andrew, Andrew Will has long held the reputation for producing some of Washington’s finest wines.

The Two Blondes Vineyard Bordeaux blend will do nothing to tarnish that reputation, and serves as a great example of the versatility of the state’s wine growing regions — showcasing a Rhone blend from one winery and a Bordeaux blend from another in the same appellation.

The Two Blondes is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Malbec, and features ripe, yet soft, fruit and beautifully balanced tannins and acidity.

The wine can definitely be enjoyed sooner rather than later, but it will definitely reward wine drinkers who exhibit some patience. Good luck with that, though, as the Two Blondes is pretty tasty right now.

One final wine visit in Washington brings me to the heart of wine country — the Columbia Valley — and MaryHill Winery.

The 2009 Washington Winery of the Year as named by the Wine Press Northwest was founded by a husband-and-wife team along with two other family partners in October 2000.

With views of both Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge, the scenery could easily overwhelm the wines if the folks at Maryhill aren’t careful. Ah, but they are careful, crafting a wide range of white and red wines that all express an excellent sense of terroir.

Since I’ve loved up the red wines of Washington so far, I thought I’d throw a little love toward a couple of white wines Maryhill offers — the Viognier, 100-percent Viognier sourced from four different vineyards, and the Winemaker’s White, a delightful blend of Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Semillion and Sauvignon Blanc.

Both wines hail from the Columbia Valley and both offer great balance and surprising complexity. I can’t say if I prefer one over the other as they are vastly different wines with different functions.

The Viognier is deeper, richer and more viscous, while the Winemaker’s White is light, bright and breezy. Try the Viognier with a roast chicken and the Winemaker’s White with some lighter cheese, and I think you’ll be pleased with the Maryhill wines specifically and the wines of Washington in general.

I can’t wait until my next article on the wines of Washington so I can do even more research and more tasting.

Dave Eckert is the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS-TV and Wealth TV for 12 seasons, or nearly 300 half-hour episodes produced on six continents. Eckert is also an avid wine collector and aficionado, having amassed a personal wine cellar of some 2,000 bottles.

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