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The Pioneers

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Developing a world-class wine-producing region always takes a few pioneers. Washington State has quite a few. David Lake (Columbia Winery), Mike Sauer (Red Willow Vineyard), Chris Camarda (Andrew Will Winery), Scott Morris (Kiona Vineyards & Winery), Rick Small (Woodward Canyon), and Patricia Gelles (Klipsun Vineyard) are just a few of the individuals who have nurtured the industry into what it has become and what it will develop into.

Recently, I was lucky enough to spend a week in this beautiful state sipping on some truly outstanding wines as part of the Washington Wine Road Trip 2009. The Columbia Valley of Washington is a near-perfect grape-growing region with its arid, high-desert climate and rocky, mineral-laden soils. Each sub-region of Columbia Valley has a unique expression that ends up in the glass. Walla Walla Valley's Syrahs are meaty and rich, with an iron-like minerality. Red Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blends are deep, dark, brooding, and powerful. Yakima Valley Cabernet Francs are luscious, sensual, and hauntingly aromatic.

A very pleasant surprise was the level of honesty and transparency. Winemakers and grape-growers never once hesitated to answer any inquiry, no matter how prying the question. At Spring Valley Vineyards, winemaker Serge Laville discussed how one certain block of vines wasn't as healthy as the others. This was due to less-than-stellar irrigation techniques that at the time of implementation were thought to be the best. Laville poured us a glass of wine made from that block, and, yes, it wasn't very good. That encounter underscored that Washington winemakers meet their obstacles head-on and adapt.

Later, Laville poured us glasses of some barrel samples as well as finished bottles of his wine from healthier blocks. The wines were astoundingly good. Not only was Laville's honesty echoed throughout the week but also his modesty and humble nature.

Scott Morris led us through his estate vineyards to pick grapes for ripeness testing. His vines are sandwiched between Klipsun Vineyard and Ciel du Cheval Vineyard, two of the most heralded sites in Washington, if not the world. As we walked the rows, Morris shared his family's experience as early pioneers on Red Mountain. Down in the barrel room, he snatched samples for us to taste, and I was astonished by how delightfully expressive his wines were.

During a blind comparison tasting of Washington's and other regions' Syrahs at Red Willow Vineyard, I tasted a wine that nearly made me gasp. After a week in Washington, I knew that I was sampling the region's finest. However, I was unaware at first sip that the wine I was tasting happened to be David Lake's last vintage, made on this very site. Earlier in the week, Lake had passed away after a long illness. Sipping on the last wine he ever crafted was sad, yes, but also energizing. Those of his generation and the next are more than capable of continuing what he helped to begin.

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