by Susan Hamilton and Christina Kelly & r & & r & Au Chocolat! SWEETS & r & "Chocolate is the Answer. Who cares what the question is!" So declares a plaque in a new shop at the Flour Mill. At the Chocolate Apothecary, there are many indulgent, very chocolaty answers.

Owner Susan Davis says that before opening her shop last month, she went on a chocolate tour of the West Coast to see what chocolate lounges in Seattle were offering. She returned with ideas for a cornucopia of chocolate products featured in her shop -- from drinks and sweets to bath scrubs and books.

"Chocolate can cure most ills," Davis pronounces. And she should know. She was studying pharmacy at Eastern Washington University when she realized she needed to change her focus from chemistry to chocolate. "There was no place I could go around here for good chocolate," she explains.

By the looks of her well-stocked shop, there are cures for whatever chocoholics crave. Sit by the fireplace in a cozy seat and sip a silky, creamy dulce de leche with white chocolate and caramel. If you need a bit of heat, try the spicy Maya hot chocolate. Davis offers four more specialty hot chocolate drinks made with the real thing (not cocoa).

Davis also makes up sampler plates of chocolates. "It's fun to match people with chocolate," she reveals. Customers can also choose from the many chocolates in the shop and make up their own samplers, then savor them at the tables scattered at the north end of the shop.

So what can you choose from? There are handcrafted truffles from the Rose Hill Chocolate Company in Mukilteo. Lavender cheesecake (with milk and white chocolate), Mediterranean (with pistachio, orange and dark chocolate) and hazelnut truffles are a few of Rose Hill's many delicious choices. Cacao nibs, Belgian chocolate bars with various infusions, rich German chocolates and lean Italian chocolates are a few other gems.

Chocolate Apothecary's grand opening on Jan. 16-17 (open 8 am-8 pm both days) features special promotions and prizes to help you indulge your chocolate cravings. -- Susan Hamilton

Chocolate Apothecary, in the Flour Mill, 621 W. Mallon Ave., is open Mon-Thurs 10 am-6 pm; Fri, 10 am-3:30 pm; and Sun 12-5 pm. (Closed Saturdays.) Call 324-2424.

Better Than Beer WINE & r & Perhaps the end of ABC's Monday Night Football was the precursor to the end of beer as the dominant beverage in America. In 2005, wine finally eclipsed beer as the alcoholic beverage of choice.

According to a recent Gallup Poll, wine drinkers pulled ahead of beer drinkers in 2005 -- 39 percent to 36 percent. Gallup has conducted the poll since 1992, when beer drinkers outslurped wine sippers 47 to 27 percent.

Turns out, 2005 was a very good year for wine, locally, regionally and nationally. Estimates range from a 10 to 12 percent increase in sales nationally as people have more access to affordable wine and as health studies show wine consumption in moderate amounts has good benefits.

Washington now has a wine region in every corner of the state, with more than 380 bonded wineries. The way beer and wine is sold in the state is going to change, too, with the recent federal court decision that ruled Washington's system for distributing beer and wine violated the Constitution and the Sherman Act. Costco Wholesale Corp. won the lawsuit against the Washington State Liquor Control Board. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this year that states could not discriminate against in-state wineries, thereby opening the door for wineries to ship directly to consumers in other states.

And the United States is importing more wine than ever, especially from Australia and Spain, where bargains are ripe for picking. But these countries are following a U.S. trend to make wines higher in alcoholic content, thus making them less food-friendly. The higher alcohol trend has many wine buyers and sommeliers looked for more balanced wines to offer consumers, so you may see more Italian, French and South American wines on local menus this year. -- Christina Kelly

Newport Rodeo & Festival @ Newport Rodeo Grounds

Fri., June 25, 1-9 p.m. and Sat., June 26, 12-9 p.m.
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