by Susan Hamilton

The sun that warms our tart fall days has helped make this a stellar year for wine-grape production in the sprawling Columbia, Yakima and Walla Walla valleys. The sun-warmed days contrast with crisp, cool autumn nights during the critical ripening time of harvest.

Now the crush is on, and this year's wine-grape harvest is giving yields that could be 8 percent higher than last year's record 90,000 tons of wine grapes. Washington's wine industry is preparing for its fourth banner year in a row.

"It's a record harvest, and it's extremely high quality," says Steve Burns, executive director of the Washington Wine Commission.

Vinefera (or wine) grapes are becoming one of our state's most important agricultural crops. After California, no state devotes more acres to growing wine grapes than Washington. The mild climate, sunny days, cool nights and rich soil in the Columbia Valley region produce high-quality vinefera grapes.

Vineyard managers stress the vines by controlling irrigation techniques and pruning, thereby creating the sugars that are eventually fermented into the wine's alcohol content. They produce optimal-quality grapes that are rich and lush, with their crucial acids intact at harvest time.

"Our industry is committed to raising the bar on quality," Burns says.

Vineyard-designated wines, also known as boutique wines, are gaining in popularity with savvy consumers and wine collectors nationwide. These are wines made from grapes of high-quality vineyards.

Much of Washington's wine industry growth has come from small boutique wineries that produce a few thousand cases of handcrafted wines. The state's winemakers utilize vinefera grapes from each harvest to make flavorful, balanced wines ranging from sweet, white riesling to lush, ruby merlot.

Washington's 170-plus wineries produce wines that are known for their value. These premium wines are priced sometimes 50 percent less than California and French wines of similar quality. Yet our wines win far more awards and competitions proportional to our production than any other wine region in the world.

But the wine industry isn't just about grapes. It's also about people who are known for their unmatched spirit of sharing and unanimity. With each winery producing unique wines, there is more cooperation than competition among them.

This weekend, you can taste a variety of local wines at the

Holiday Wine Fest. The seven wineries that comprise the

Spokane Winery Association are hosting the free three-day event. From 11 am-5 pm, Friday through Sunday, Nov. 16-18, the wineries are opening their doors for wine sampling, meeting with vintners, gourmet food tasting and browsing through gift shops.

Spokane's newest winery, Townshend Cellars, is debuting its first releases this month. A 1998 cabernet sauvignon, 1998 merlot, 2000 chardonnay and 1996 huckleberry port will be featured at the Wine Fest.

What makes Townshend wines unique?

"I prefer to age my wine in oak for a long time rather than aging in bottles," says owner Don Townshend. His cabernet is aged in barrels for 30 months, while the merlot mellows for 26 months.

Townshend makes limited quantities of all his wines at his Green Bluff winery. Each variety of wine displays a unique detail from an original watercolor painted specifically for the wine label.

Townshend Cellars will not be open this Friday for the Holiday Wine Fest and is charging a $10 tasting fee on Saturday and Sunday, which includes a leaded crystal wine glass.

In the foothills of Mount Spokane, not far from Townshend Cellars, is Mountain Dome Winery. Sparkling wines made in the French champenoise method are produced at this family-owned and operated winery.

Mountain Dome's sparkling wines have been called the best in the Northwest, with their depth and complexity. This year the winery is featuring a rare Pleasant Prairie pinot noir made from grapes grown in Columbia Valley's Crystal Pheasant Vineyard and a Grande Ronde from grapes of the Seven Hills Vineyard in Oregon.

During the Wine Fest, tours of the winery will show guests how sparkling wines get their sparkle. Samples of Mountain Dome's sparkling '95 vintage and nonvintage blend, '98 cabernet and merlot, as well as a new rose will be offered. Seasonal snacks and cheeses will accompany the wines being tasted.

As you leave the foothills heading south, the Cliff House estate is visible from its perch on a precipice high above the Spokane River. Here is where Arbor Crest Wine Cellars produces popular, award-winning wines.

The Florentine-style mansion is a National Historic Landmark surrounded by rock gardens, a stone pavilion, a life-sized checkerboard, an arched gatekeeper's house and champagne vineyards. Cliff House will be decked out for the holidays and open for guided tours during this weekend's Wine Fest.

Arbor Crest is also known for having one of only seven female winemakers in the state. Kristina Mielke-van Loben Sels' first vintage wines from 1999 will be available in Arbor Crest's tasting room this weekend. Chardonnay, cabernet Franc, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah, sauvignon blanc and Riesling are all debuting, accompanied by cheese platters.

Also in the Valley, Latah Creek Winery affords an opportunity to visit a picturesque Spanish Mission-style winery while tasting award-winning wines. The winery caters to consumers in Spokane, with 80 percent of its sales in the local area.

Asked about his philosophy of winemaking, owner and winemaker Mike Conway says, "Our major goal is to produce wines with natural balance and complexity that provide a perfect complement to food and absolute enjoyment by themselves."

This weekend, Latah Creek offers food stations with specific wines, such as carved roast beef with red wine and carved turkey with chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and merlot. Gift options for the holidays are also featured at the winery.

The historic Parkwater Schoolhouse built in 1913 houses Knipprath Cellars, another family-owned and operated winery just east of downtown Spokane. The handcrafted wines reflect the family's German heritage.

"As a symphony composer creates a moving piece of music, so we take all the variables of making wine and assess, interpret and assemble them to make memorable wines," says winemaker Henning Knipprath.

Knipprath Cellars will blend European and American traditional favorites at this year's Wine Fest with holiday food and wine pairings. An off-dry Summit Blush is complemented by turkey and cranberries, a cabernet-merlot with pumpkin soup and a Riesling with an Alsatian onion tart. Also featured is a spiced red Alpine wine, Knipprath's "Christmas in a bottle."

Located next to Riverfront Park, Caterina Winery's Italian-style tasting room mirrors the heritage and tradition of winemaking begun in the 1800s by Luigi and Caterina Barbieri.

Continuing its commitment to producing handcrafted premium wines is winemaker Mike Scott. His award-winning wines include Caterina's chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet rose.

This weekend at Caterina's open house, the entire line of wines will be available for tasting, paired with tasty appetizers. Holiday gift items as well as custom wine charms and stemware are also featured at the Wine Fest.

Wyvern Cellar's Bavarian-style log cabin tasting room and forest-like grounds lie on the outskirts of western Spokane. With its beginnings as Worden Winery in 1980, Wyvern is Spokane's first winery.

Wyvern's award-winning wines have grown from a few varietals to nearly 15 different wines. This winery was one of the first in the state to blend cabernet and merlot, making a softer red wine.

For the Wine Fest, Wyvern offers barrel samples of its 2001 merlot and syrah, Gewurztraminer and award-winning 1997 cabernet sauvignon, among others. Gourmet foods, pastas, sauces, and condiments complement the wines being tasted.

Maps are available at each winery: Arbor Crest Wine Cellars, 4705 N. Fruithill Rd. (927-9894); Caterina Winery, 905 N. Washington (328-5069); Knipprath Cellars, 5634 E. Commerce (534-5121); Latah Creek Winery, 13030 E. Indiana (926-0164); Mountain Dome Winery, 16315 E. Temple Rd. (928-2788); Townshend Cellars, 16112 N. Greenbluff Rd. (238-4346); and Wyvern Winery, 7217 W. Westbow Blvd. (455-7835).


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