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A Washington State Of Mind 

Tasty, affordable wines from the Northwest

Quick Word Association Test: What do you think of when you hear "Washington State wine"? If nothing comes to mind, then you're in the unfortunate majority. Unfortunate ...absolutely...since you're missing out on some really tasty, easy-priced wines. Washington State's 200-plus wineries drip with value and quality, but the lack of buzz hasn't created the love connection with consumers. Washingtonians appear to be a humble, quiet folk trying to compete with the marketing machine that is California, who has a few more years of experience under its belt. Before 1980, essentially none of the current Washington wineries existed, with the exception of two wineries. But with Cali prices skyrocketing in the past several years, it's time wine lovers get to know the relatively unknown, immense growing wine area of Washington State.

Chances are you've tasted a few Washington wines; you just didn't know it. They're not boastful, but easily could be. If you've tasted the popular Columbia Crest label -- the state's largest producer -- you've experienced easy-on-the-wallet, yet well-made wines with depth and character. So many of California's juices in the lower price range lack flavor, finesse and personality, but the value wines from Washington really have that pizzazz I seek out in the under $15 range.

You might wonder about the climate in Washington. When people think of the Evergreen State, they visualize Seattle and its drippy conditions, but most of the state sweats in the heat, getting very little rain. In the vast eastern part of the state lie the sprawling Yakima, Columbia and Walla Walla Valleys, where the majority of the wine grapes are grown. Given plenty of irrigation, grapes thrive in these conditions, even with the cold northern winters. Names like Merlot, Chardonnay, Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Cabernet Sauvignon seem perfectly happy in the sometimes harsh weather in those parts. Washington also grows an obscure red grape called Lemberger, the darling of many in-staters, so the rest of us see little of this light, fruity, Beaujolais-like wine. Hogue Cellars releases a few hundred cases, so seek it out if you're craving something fun and interesting.

Despite the natural obstacles, the Washington wine industry continues to grow like a weed, content with their piece of the consumer pie. For now. But watch and see them kick some Cali ass. We're the ones who'll win.

Recommended WinesChateau Ste. Michelle 2000 Syrah A really impressive Syrah for only $11. Lush blackberry, plum and hint of spice. Priced low enough for school night enjoyment. 1/2

Sagelands 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon A Cab for silky smooth, jammy wine lovers. It sports a slightly oaky, musky kind of finish, but a bright raspberry fix on the way down. $16

Columbia Crest 2001 Semillon-Chardonnay Best for value and taste. Easy, smooth drinking with exotic flavors like pineapple and melon. Don't ponder it... just drink lots of it. $7

L'Ecole No. 41 1998 Merlot An extraordinarily smooth, well crafted Merlot, worth twice the price. The black pepper and cherry caress your nose then douse your tongue in an elegant wave of sexy berries. Fabulous. $35 1/2

Hogue Cellars Genesis 2000 Syrah A veritable fruit salad of flavors. Kickin' with cherry, black pepper, blackberry and even plum. $20

The Wine List

Carolina Wine Club Apr. 8- Italy: Wines of the Veneto and Montalcino; Apr. 15- Italy: Wines of Chianti and Piedmont; Apr. 22- Sake: Sparkling Ciders and Fruit Wines; Apr. 29- Summer Wines, Sparklers and Spritzers. Tuesdays, 6:30-8 p.m. $30 per class; $100 series of any four. Mint Museum of Craft & Design, 220 N. Tryon St. 704-344-8027.

Chardonnay Around the World Taste chardonnays from several areas and learn the difference between each country's wines. Located 3 miles south of Ballantyne. Wed., April 9, 7-8:30 p.m. $20. Southern Spirits, Hwy 21. 803-548-8888.

Four for Friday Four premium wines are featured in four ways: 2 oz. sample, 5 oz. glass, by the bottle or in a flight. Fridays. $20. Reid's Fine Foods, 7th Street Station. 704-377-1312.

Italian Wines presented by Vino Vino at a free wine tasting. Sat., April 12, 1-5 p.m. Kee-Kee-Rikee, 219 Main St., Pineville. 704-889-5333.

Stimson Lane Dinner with special guest, Chris Baker. Premium selections from Washington State paired with a menu offered by Nobles Restaurant in Southpark. Presented by Reid's Wine Club. Tue., April 8, 6:30 p.m. $70 per person, all inclusive. Noble's, 6801 Morrison Blvd. 704-367-9463.

Washington State Wines Held from 6:30-8pm. Light snacks and bread served. Credit card required at registration. Cancellations accepted until one week before class. Tue., April 8. $20. Arthur's Restaurant & Wine Shops, 4400 Sharon Rd. 704-366-8610.

Wednesday Night Flights Very informal. Three wines tasted each week. Wednesdays, 5:30-7:30 p.m. $10. Reid's Fine Foods, 7th Street Station. 704-377-1312.

Wine & Food Tastings Third Wednesday of every month, 5:30-8 p.m. Something Classic at the Villa, 715 Providence Rd. 704-347-3666.

Wine Classes Apr. 5- Chardonnay; Apr. 19- Pinot Grigio. Great for beginners. Every month on the first and third Saturday, 12:30-1:30pm. $15. Dean & Deluca Wine Room, 6822-G Phillips Place Ct. 704-552-5283.

Wine Dinner Featuring the Australian wines of Old Bridge Cellars. Thu., April 10, 7 p.m. $55 per person includes tax & tip. The Meeting House Restaurant, 801 Providence Rd. 704-334-6338.

Wine Tastings Wednesdays, 6-8 p.m. $10. Barone's Wine Room, Birkdale Village, Huntersville. 704-987-0011.

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