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Tuscan Soul 

by Christina Kelly & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & fter 11 years of winemaking, Col Solare has remade itself as a brand-new winery, complete with a new state-of-the-art facility on Red Mountain, a recent 90-point wine release and a renewed sense of purpose.





Col Solare is a global winery jointly owned by Piero Antinori of Tuscany, Italy, and Ste. Michelle Wine Estates of Woodinville. Despite the Italian influence, the winery only uses Bordeaux-blend grapes -- cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot, malbec and sometimes syrah. The wine is made near Benton City, west of the Tri-Cities area. Winemaker Marcus Notaro is the winemaker in residence, while Renzo Cotarella, who has been with the Antinori family for more than 25 years, comes to Washington a few times each year to help with the blending.





"For the most part, I handle the day-to-day business in and out of the vineyard," says Notaro, who worked at Columbia Crest before his move to Col Solare. "Renzo comes over maybe four times per year and is involved with all the blending. He is a practical man of the vineyard and the cellar, and a man I have the utmost respect for."





Ste. Michelle Wine Estate owns 13 wineries in Washington and California. Col Solare only makes one wine, the Bordeaux blend. The closest exception is Northstar Winery, a merlot-only winery producing two wines from Walla Walla and the Columbia Valley.





Piero Antinori, a 26th generation Italian winemaker, was introduced to Washington's Columbia Valley wines by legendary Napa Valley winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff, who was a consultant at the time for Ste. Michelle Winery and a friend of Antinori. After touring Eastern Washington vineyards and tasting the wines of Ste. Michelle, Antinori proposed a partnership with Ste. Michelle. The Antinori family would invest 25 percent in a new winery venture -- Col Solare. Without a brick-and-mortar winery, the wine was made in different wineries owned by Ste. Michelle Estates, starting with the first vintage in 1995.





Even though many of the Col Solare vintages received high marks by wine critics over the years, the winery still lacked a strong identity outside of winery insiders and wine enthusiasts. There wasn't a winery to visit to help boost the brand, and the general consumer was confused about what was in the bottle. The first Col Solare was a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah. Many consumers thought the wine was a blend of Italian varietals such as sangiovese.





Despite the confusion, the Antinori family continued to see the value in making the wine. A few years ago, they upped the ante and their investment in the wine to a 50/50 partnership.





"It was at this time when everyone realized how serious we were about Col Solare," says Keith Love, vice president for communications and corporate affairs for Ste. Michelle Estates. "We knew it was time to build a winery, and Antinori wanted modern technology and a winery that would reflect the origin of the grapes."





Cotarella, who is the director of winemaking for Antinori, agreed it was time for Col Solare to have a place of its own.





"The potential for Washington wines is unlimited, and we are especially pleased to make Col Solare with Chateau Ste. Michelle," Cotarella says. "It is a wine worthy of this beautiful new winery on Red Mountain."





Cotarella is involved with Antinori's other wines, including Tignanello, Cervaro della Sala, Guado al Tasso and Solaia. Ste. Michelle Wine Estates is handling the distribution of many of the Antinori wines stateside.





Piero Antinori knew it was time to take the partnership to a higher level and increase production.





"We know from experience that to make the very best wine you must have a winery solely dedicated to it," Antinori told Wines Northwest, an online guide to the Northwest's wine industry. "Building this winery on Red Mountain shows our commitment to this project and to the state of Washington as a superlative, emerging wine region."





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & C & lt;/span & ol Solare (it means "shining hill" in Italian) now occupies 20 acres near Hedges Cellars. An estate vineyard will be planted this year. The current blend comes from Red Mountain and Horse Heaven Hills grapes. The $6-million winery, still under construction, is not yet open to the public, but is custom-designed to be both a top winery and a tourist destination, featuring a subterranean barrel room and an expansive courtyard. Industry watchers believe the project is the largest European investment in the Washington wine industry.





The current release of the 2003 Col Solare is winemaker Notaro's first vintage, and right out of the gate the wine received 90 points -- Outstanding -- for his first effort. He is just as excited about what he has in barrels.


"It's all about balance," says Notaro, who graduated from the University of Washington in industrial engineering, but was bitten by the wine bug soon after college. "Our goal is to make one of the best cabernet sauvignon-based wines, one that is complex and elegant. I believe we've done


that."

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