by Susan Hamilton

The film Sideways has opened up the heretofore-complex world of wine appreciation to the average Joe and Joan. It's also made wine geekdom hip. You may not wax rhapsodic about pinot noir like Miles, who called it "haunting, brilliant and subtle," but you can come to appreciate wine. You may even agree with Maya, Miles' love interest in the movie, when she explains why she likes wine. "A bottle of wine is actually alive," she tells him. "And it's constantly evolving and gaining complexity. That is, until it peaks. And then it begins its steady, inevitable decline."

Behind the Scenes -- Novice wine connoisseurs and serious oenophiles alike can taste wine way before it hits its decline at this weekend's Spring Barrel Tasting, held at 10 local wineries and tasting rooms. The free, annual event features young wines that are tasted straight from the barrel as well as newly released wines.

"Normally only winemakers taste wines from the barrel," says Mike Conway, winemaker and owner of Latah Creek Winery. "Spring Barrel Tasting gives the public a chance to understand the aging process and an education to see how wines change with age."

The red and white wines aging inside oak wombs offer a sensory glimpse of how the next generation of wines are shaping up. Spring barrel tastings were originally held to generate interest in future wine sales among brokers. Prospective buyers made the rounds of wineries to preview young wines and draw impressions on how wines would taste as they aged and overcame their juvenile awkwardness. Nowadays, these tastings let the public in on what goes on behind the scenes in winemaking. Wine drinkers will also come to understand the flavors the oak barrels add to a chardonnay or cabernet.

Here in the Inland Northwest, Spring Barrel Tasting began in the Columbia Valley, where most of the grapes used in our luscious Washington wines are grown. The Spokane Winery Association has been holding Spring Barrel Tasting since 1990.

Why spring? "Barrel tasting coincides with the beginning of a new growing season and celebrates the fruits of previous years," says co-owner and winemaker Greg Lipsker of Barrister Winery. "It's a matter of timing. We bottle in January, our wines spend 16 months aging in oak and our new releases are ready in May."

"It's an opportunity to show people which wines are up and coming," says Jim van Loben Sels, general manager and viticulturist for Arbor Crest Cellars. "There are a lot of good wines being made here, including merlot," he adds, referencing Miles' disdain for merlot in Sideways.

Taste and Nosh -- This weekend, wine aficionados have a chance to taste wine at different stages of development and see what foods it pairs well with at area wineries, many of which are family-run. It's also a great opportunity to talk with winemakers and winery staff about their craft.

Arbor Crest Cellars offers barrel tasting of 2003 and 2004 petite Syrah, a new varietal for the winery. Four wines will be released -- a 2003 Sangiovese, 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon, 2004 Riesling and 2002 Syrah. Picnic fare by Catered for You and Very Berry Strawberries will complement the wines being tasted. With thousands of tulips and daffodils in full bloom on the winery's grounds overlooking the Spokane River and Valley, you'd be hard pressed to find a more picturesque spot this Mother's Day weekend. This is also one of the few times that the winery's Florentine-style Cliff House, built in 1924, will be open for tours.

At Latah Creek Winery, also in the Valley, visitors can sample award-winning wines paired with pulled pork roast or cheese fondue, among the tasty food items. New releases include a 2002 Merlot and Cabernet as well as a 2004 Moscato d'Latah, a slightly sparkling, sweet wine.

Knipprath Cellars' winemaker Henning Knipprath is branching out from his German roots to embrace Spain with his new release, Sangria de Columbia. Knipprath is also releasing a 2004 Sauvignon Blanc, 2003 Matrix ruby port and 2003 Lagrima white port at Spring Barrel Tasting. Delicious dessert wines are a signature of this winery. Those whose tastes run sweet will not be disappointed with Knipprath's Au Chocolat and La V (vanilla) dessert wines.

Just east of downtown, Lone Canary Winery showcases the talents of winemaker Mike Scott. Though originally from England, Scott has 15 years of Washington winemaking experience under his belt. Scott likes to focus on blends of red wines -- an American-style, super Tuscan-style and Bordeaux-style -- as well as Sauvignon Blanc. This weekend, Scott will be giving tours of the boutique winery as well as barrel sampling accompanied by light appetizers.

Robert Karl Cellars is housed in a restored fire station built in 1912 for horse-drawn fire wagons. Winemaker Joseph Gunselman is releasing a 2002 Claret and 2004 Cabernet Franc Rose. The winery's 2001 Claret was a gold medal winner at numerous prestigious wine competitions, so wine lovers are interested to see if the next vintage measures up. Local cheese and bread will accompany the wines being tasted. Beaded jewelry from Victoria's Baubels and PTM Design will be showcased at the winery.

Attorneys Greg Lipsker and Michael White are the winemakers behind Barrister Winery in Spokane's Davenport Arts District. They like to focus on premium-quality, handcrafted red wines. Though relatively new to Spokane's winemaking scene, Barrister wines have made an impact. Barrister's '02 Cabernet Franc took four top awards in a prestigious world wine competition and the '03 vintage just garnered best in show among 300 wines at a Northwest wine competition. Barrister is releasing 2003 Cabernet Franc, Walla Walla Syrah, Walla Walla Merlot and Red Mountain Merlot. The winemakers will offer comparative tasting of a 2004 Merlot aged in French oak, American oak and steel to explore the effect of oak on the taste and aroma of wine. Appetizers and the winery's signature chocolate truffles will be served with the wines.

Caterina Winery's popular wine bar will be the scene as Cabernets of different terroir are sampled. Yummy snacks and live music will accompany the wine tasting. General Manager Monica Meglasson will be on hand to explain the intricacies of Caterina's award-winning wines.

Grande Ronde Cellars' winemakers -- Dave Westfall, Michael Manz, John Mueller and David Page -- all have a history of winemaking. The winery's 2001 Seven Hills Vineyards/Walla Walls Valley Cabernet Sauvignon will be released this weekend. After the winery's 1999 cabernet sauvignon received high points from Wine Spectator magazine, this new vintage will be one to taste. Other wineries that don't have a presence in the downtown Spokane area offer their products for sale in Grande Ronde's tasting room. Five local artists will display their works at the winery.

For those who like the bubbly, Mountain Dome Winery is the place to be. This weekend, winemaker Michael Manz is releasing a 1998 vintage Brut which he says is his best so far.

Also in the Green Bluff area, at Townshend Cellars, winemaker Don Townshend offers tasting from two barrels of wine -- a 2002 Seven Hills Merlot and a younger Merlot -- to compare the difference aging makes on the wines. Light appetizers will also be served.

As you make the rounds of Spokane's boutique wineries, if you happen to hear anyone pronouncing a wine "quaffable but far from transcendent," as Miles did in Sideways, take to heart these words of wisdom from winemaker Lipsker: "It's not about pretension. You can just have a lot of fun tasting wine."

Spokane Winery Association's Spring Barrel Tasting * Friday-Sunday, May 6-8, from 11 am-5 pm * Maps available at each winery: Arbor Crest Wine Cellars, 4705 N. Fruithill Rd. (927-9894); Barrister Winery, 1213 W. Railroad Ave. (465-3591); Caterina Winery, 905 N. Washington St. (328-5069); Grande Ronde Cellars, 906 W. Second Ave. (455-8161); Robert Karl Cellars, 115 W. Pacific St. (363-1353); Knipprath Cellars, 5634 E. Commerce Ave. (534-5121); Latah Creek Winery, 13030 E. Indiana Ave. (926-0164); Lone Canary Winery, 109 S. Scott St., Suite B2 (534-9062); Mountain Dome Winery, 16315 E. Temple Rd. (928-2788); and Townshend Cellars, 16112 N. Greenbluff Rd. (238-4346).

Publication date: 05/05/05

American Original: The Life and Work of John James Audubon @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through Sept. 19
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