by Susan Hamilton

It all began in 1825 with a planting at Fort Vancouver in the southwest corner of our state. Almost 100 years later, wine grapes were growing in most areas of Washington, following the path of early French, German and Italian settlers. This year's harvest, which concluded just two weeks ago, has yielded 109,750 tons of high-quality wine grapes.

"This is a spectacular vintage," says Rick Small, winemaker at Walla Walla's Woodward Canyon Winery and Washington Wine Commissioner. "The fruit is flavorful and the colors are some of the most intense I've ever experienced."

This year's crop's small berry size, well-balanced flavors and intense color pigmentation all indicate quality, which is the result of lower yields per acre. The 2002 harvest is the fifth consecutive high-quality vintage in our state.

With acclaim for local wine growing among wine opinion leaders, Spokane's wineries have also won accolades of late. The esteemed Wine Spectator magazine has recently given high ratings to wines from Mountain Dome, Townshend and Caterina wineries. Andy Perdue, editor of Wine Press Northwest magazine, was impressed with cabernet sauvignon samplings from Townshend and Robert Karl Cellars at this year's Savor the Columbia event.

Now it's your chance to taste some of the best wines of the Northwest at the Spokane Winery Association's Holiday Wine Fest this Friday through Sunday, November 22-24. The Inland Northwest's eight wineries will open their doors for wine sampling, food pairing and gifts from 11 am-5 pm each day.

Located in downtown's historic Broadview Dairy building adjacent to Riverfront Park, Caterina Winery is known for producing handcrafted, premium wines. The tradition of fine Italian winemaking has creatively evolved with winemaker Mike Scott at Caterina's helm. The winery's acclaimed Willard cabernet, popular second vintage of Voignier as well as its Riesling are a few of the 13 wines available for tasting this weekend. Appetizers and gift ideas from entry level to high-end will also be featured.

Just east of Caterina on Pacific Avenue, a 1912 fire station intended for horse-drawn wagons houses Robert Karl Cellars. Owners and winemakers Joseph and Rebecca Gunselman craft quality wines with long aging in oak barrels. The acclaimed and award-winning '99 cabernet sauvignon, Robert Karl's flagship wine, will be featured at the Wine Fest. Local breads and cheeses, gift baskets and work by local artists Renee Rigsby and Brent Heighton will also be presented.

Farther east, Knipprath Cellars makes its home in the former Parkwater Schoolhouse. Henning and Patricia Knipprath make handcrafted wines that include chardonnay, Riesling, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, lemberger and port wines. Knipprath's Alpine and port wines will be sampled at this weekend's tasting.

In the Valley, Latah Creek Winery celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. Winemaker Mike Conway produces award-winning chardonnay, muscat canneli, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, lemberger, syrah, Riesling and moscato wines at his Spanish Mission-style winery. This weekend, Conway is re-releasing his '96 cabernet and merlot for tasting as well. Food pairing, prepackaged wine gifts, wine racks and wine-related artwork will also be offered at the winery.

Perched above the Valley, Arbor Crest's Cliff House sports magnificent views and historic grounds. The mansion will be decked in holiday d & eacute;cor and tours will be offered this weekend. Arbor Crest will introduce its 2000 cabernet sauvignon and 2000 red wines, as well as a '99 cabernet franc and '99 Dionysus Meritage during the fest. Foods from the winery's tasting room, including domestic and imported cheeses, will be served.

In the foothills of Mount Spokane, Mountain Dome's winery produces French-style sparkling wines. This weekend's tours of the family-owned and operated winery will showcase how champagne is made. Mountain Dome's '97 vintage sparkling wine and award-winning '99 cabernet will be tasted along with cheeses and spreads.

Greenbluff's Townshend Cellars is another family-operated winery. Winemaker Don Townshend will be pouring late-harvest 2001 chenin blanc, as well as merlot, cabernet, chardonnay and huckleberry port wines at the Wine Fest. Mediterranean appetizers will complement the wines. Gift baskets (sporting locally crafted candles) and artwork by the designer of the winery's label will also be presented.

On the West Side, Wyvern Winery is well known for its red wines and has become a leader in private label wine. Its 2000 syrah has been a multiple award winner this year. The recently remodeled winery will feature tasting of all its wines this weekend as well as a variety of hors d'oeuvres, gift and food items, and tours of the winery.

Maps are available at each winery: Caterina Winery, 905 N. Washington St. (328-5069); Robert Karl Cellars, 115 W. Pacific Ave. (363-1353); Knipprath Cellars, 5634 E. Commerce Ave. (534-5121); Latah Creek Winery, 13030 E. Indiana Ave. (926-0164); Arbor Crest Wine Cellars, 4705 N. Fruithill Rd. (927-9894); 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).

Holiday Fun -- The following two weekends afford chances to partake in holiday festivals. From Nov. 29 to Dec. 6, Christmas Tree Elegance showcases custom-decorated trees and a variety of events at the Davenport Hotel. The public is invited to the tree-lighting ceremony at 6 pm on Nov. 29; family entertainment days are Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 from 11 am-4:30 pm; and "Cool Nights/Hot Music" runs from Nov. 30 to Dec. 5 from 5-8 pm. Tea, luncheons and vintage fashion shows, from Dec. 1-6, are $40 per person. A gala dinner dance on Friday, Dec. 6, featuring a champagne reception, gourmet dinner with fine wines and dancing to Big Band sounds is $125 per person. The 20th-anniversary event benefits the Spokane Symphony. Call 458-8733.

Metaline Falls, named one of the 100 best small arts towns in America, offers a step back in time at its Deck the Falls festival Dec. 7-8. The festival takes place from 10 am-7 pm Saturday and 10 am-4 pm Sunday at the historic Cutter Theatre. Deck the Falls is well known for its crafts -- from jewelry and stained glass to wreaths and tree ornaments. Holiday eats include homemade candy and jam, as well as soups, homemade bread and pie. The legendary Glen Yarbrough will sing "The Forgotten Carols" at three performances (tickets are $15). Wandering minstrels and Father Christmas will also make appearances during the festival. Call: 509-446-4108.

Northwest Winterfest @ Spokane County Fair & Expo Center

Fridays, 5-8 p.m., Saturdays, 4-8 p.m. and Sundays, 3-6 p.m. Continues through Jan. 1
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