That’s Columbia with a ‘u’—not to be confused with Colombia with an ‘o’, though both have, over the past half-century, taken a recreational drug and elevated it from an obscure local habit to a conspicuous worldwide habit, founding, in the process, a multinational Buzzopia.
Of course, one is illegal unless you require a topical anesthetic or a fiber tube optical examination, and the other is legal unless you’re young, incarcerated or on parole.
Being none of the above, I can freely choose today’s topic for dissertation:
Columbia, the Gem of the Desert…
Columbia with a ‘u’.
Remember how you fell asleep during that eight grade Social Studies lesson on high desert irrigation? Well, today you can fall asleep via copious quantities of Columbia Valley wine because of those very feats of engineering: parts of the valley in the rain shadow of the Cascade mountains get less than six inches of annual rainfall, making it—you guessed it—a high desert.
However, around the middle of the nineteenth century—thanks to irrigation ditches dug by Missionary Oblates—wonderful stuff, including grapes, started growing there.
So much of vino-history is owed to the Vatican that I’m left with conflicting emotions: Despite nine bloodthirsty Crusades, a misogynous hierarchy and making me kneel on bottle caps in high school, when it comes to wine, the Catholics have always managed come through in a pinch. In the early part of the twentieth century Columbia Valley was known as ‘America’s fruit bowl’ and today produces more wine grapes than any other state beside California. Early on, winemakers realized that though judicious application of drip methods, they could control ripeness, lack of sugar dilution, canopy management and bullied dehydration at vital moments through the growing season—manipulations impossible in non-desert vineyards. The result has been lots and lots of perfectly ripe grapes, tanker-loads of them, in fact—something that has sometimes worked against Washington’s wine reputation, as in the past, they’ve overproduced an occasionally one-dimensional product.
Since the mid-nineties or so, Washington winemakers have been dead set on reinventing themselves, experimenting with new varietals, focusing on food-friendly styles, displaying ingenuity with yeast strains. They’ve got a handle on it, apparently—Wine Spectator’s # 1 wine for 2009 was Columbia Crest’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, 2005—a sleek selection price in the mid-twenty dollar range. Thirteen other wines from Columbia Crest’s massive parent, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates (responsible for half of Washington’s wine output), made the top 100 list.
Me, I’m all lovey dovey with Covey
Here’s an open-ended question: Why does riesling, an easy enough grape to grow, generally fail to produce exceptionally delicious wines outside of the Rhine or Alsace? Probably simple: It’s a quality hard-sell inside the Rhine too—they’ve just been at it longer. That’s why I was recently humbled by a bottle of Covey Run riesling—in a blind tasting (that excruciatingly leveler; a wine person’s answer to flagellantism) I identified the 2008 Quail Series as being of German origin, without question. I’d have bet the farm if I’d had one, and then I’d have bought it back, moved it to Yakima and planted riesling. The wine possesses all the creamy lemon-meringue and apricot of a mid-level Rheinterrassen beneath a Mosel Granny Smith nose, and for under ten dollars, too. It
hollers springtime, and wants nothing more than a patio and a bit of the sunshine it recalls from its Columbia Valley youth, where it’s cloud-free three hundred days a year.
Single-handedly, Covey Run has brought home twenty Wine Spectator ‘Best Value’ awards, and currently, that sole hand belongs to winemaker , whose sole commission is to win souls for Washington wines.
As of now, she’s won mine—and BTW, that’s ‘soul’ with a ‘u’.
Covey Run Riesling, Columbia Valley, 2009, about $9: Honeysuckle and green apple on the nose with some ripe pear stirred in; the palate is amazingly succulent and concentrated for this price point, showing creamy peach and some botrytised honey on the finish. I’d like to pair it with a covey of quails in fruit sauce—so long as the winery doesn’t object.