Columbia Crest has always had a populist outlook—well-crafted wines at mostly affordable prices. A solid business model has evolved into a beacon, as these wines stubbornly retain their thrifty price tags while remaining paragons of high quality. It has become second nature to expect the terrific value that represents this winemaking team in Washington State.
In honor of its 25th anniversary, the winery is holding a "Silver Solstice" celebration on June 21, explaining why this non-Californian wine property has achieved such stellar results. Could one explanation be that the winery hovers on the 46 parallel, the same latitude as Bordeaux? Could it be that, unlike Bordeaux and most of the rest of the earth, its vineyards remain planted on original rootstock, with no need to graft vines because they have always been free of the devastating Phylloxera louse? The grapes, planted among the Horse Heaven Hills in the Columbia River Valley, have been winning accolades for years. Many people assume that Washington State wineries hug the coastline, as they often do in California and Oregon. But the best sites in Washington are actually located in the eastern part of the state, protected from the gloom and heavy rainfall that grip Tacoma and Seattle but are diverted from the vineyards by the imposing Cascade Mountains.
I have always had a soft spot for Columbia Crest, because its business model resembles my own from my retailer days: Charge the lowest possible price and make your money in volume rather than high markup. But whereas all I had to do was "discover" worldwide bargains for resale, Columbia Crest succeeds yearly in fashioning exciting models despite the vagaries of weather. No wonder then that Columbia Crest has been named "Best Winery for Value in the United States," one of the "24 Best Value Wineries" and "Top 5 U.S. Wineries" by the nation's most-read wine publications.
Naturally, there are naysayers. These vineyards only receive 6 to 8 inches of rainfall a year. Therefore, the grapes receive controlled-drip irrigation during the growing season. Many respected wine minds insist that a vine that does not have to struggle and dig deeply into the soil to receive water and nutrients is lazy and can never achieve complex and individual greatness. It's a damned good argument, but I prefer to exult in the joy that Columbia Crest can and does achieve. Undoubtedly these wines tend to produce soft bouquets and mouth textures. But an intense vineyard management and winemaking technique that maximizes the potential of these circumstances should never be underestimated, but rather, thoroughly congratulated.
I recently had the opportunity to taste through its entire lineup, ranging from suggested retail prices of $8-$30. The best wines are listed below. My notes are further proof of the consistency and abiding value they offer. Columbia Crest is clearly approaching its next quarter-century head on.
2006 Pinot Grigio Grand Estates, $11
Crisp grassy note, straw, sweet pea, allspice and citrus. Flinty, personality-laden mouth feel with a soft middle palate and just enough acidity.
2006 Sauvignon Blanc, Two Vines, $8
Lively, bright, ripe fruit nose. Spic-and-span flavors presenting a mouthful of grapey-ness. Balanced and refreshing.
2006 Grand Estates Sauvignon Blanc, $11
Deep, luscious fruit aromas with mountain fields, salt spray and beguiling honeyed apricot nose. Full-mouth feel that turns crisp and lip smacking. Reminiscent of a Bordeaux Blanc.
2005 Chardonnay, Two Vines, $8
Calm, fresh-picked pineapple, honeydew melon and licorice nose. But it's subtle, not a fruit bomb. Substantial oily, grainy mouth feel and long finish.
2006 Chardonnay Grand Estates, $11
Understated, lightly buttery Macoun apple nose. Medium-bodied textbook chardonnay with dapper fruit, hazelnut and creamy mouth texture. Lovely style. Great value.
2006 Riesling, Two Vines, $8
Bright, light bulb-like floral impressions. A soft, easy, yet varietally expressive drink with some residual sugar. A pleasing patio wine.
2006 Riesling Grand Estates, $11
Deep, penetrating fruit-basket nose. Soft yet beautifully balanced flavors with just enough acidity to keep it a choice food wine.
2006 Gewurztraminer, Two Vines, $8
A delicate, understated Gewurz with spring-like spiciness. Not overdone or funky like so many American examples. Kiss of sweetness on the palate, making it perfect for Indian or Thai cuisine.
2005 Semillon Reserve, Ice Wine, $28 (half-bottle)
Ethereal scents of dried apricot, peach and honey-nut impression. Silky, lip-coating flavors. Incredible honeyed sweetness, yet it's wispy and airy—light on its feet and keeps the sugar in perfect harmony and balance. Cannot think of another ice wine that can challenge at this price. A triumph.
2007 Rose Wine, Two Vines, Vineyard 10, $8
A gorgeous color with cool strawberry and raspberry nose. Highly refreshing flavors, well-balanced and lingering. Nicely done. (A new wine in the portfolio.)
2005 Merlot-Cabernet, Two Vines, $8
Earth, iodine, mushroom and leather scents reminiscent of Rioja. Robust first flavors but not too heavy a texture with nice kick of acidity.
2005 Merlot, Grand Estates, $11
Lithe, cedary, very ripe nose with a prune element. Solid, dark berry flavors that improve with aeration.
2003 Merlot, Two Vines, $8
Chalky nose with plummy, black cherry, Chianti-like bouquet. Supple flavors on a medium frame. Lovely summer red.
2006 Shiraz, Grand Estates, $11
Dark, deep nose of mint, black cherry, pepper and olive. A brick of fruit focus. Full-bodied drink but tangy and refreshing on the finish. Will improve with bottle age. Drink now-2011. ()
2005 Red Wine, Two Vines, Vineyard 10, $8
Another new offering for 2008. Briary, "roasted slope," pinpoint powerful nose. Sumptuous fruit flavor, excellent balance and a richly endowed aftertaste. (Syrah, Sangiovese, Cabernet.) Best buy.
2004 Syrah Reserve $30
Opaque color on this succulent yet staid wallop of focused plum, dark chocolate and layer upon layer of bouquet. Mouth-filling yet energized. A gorgeous effort that reminds one of a top Gigondas. Drink now to 2013. ()
To top this all off, I went into my own cellar and brought up a bottle of 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon, Grand Estates. I knew this was a good vintage (one of the reasons I bought it in the first place), but did it ever show well at 9 years of age. Fully evolved nose with tobacco, black currant, spice and vanilla. Flavors mirrored the black currant theme with sweet herb and warm cedar finish. I gave it four stars, and it taught me a valuable lesson: I should have bought more!
Arturo welcomes questions, comments and ideas at email@example.com.