Seattle Wine Country

A diverse urban setting is home to some of Washington's best wineries

Ben Smith emerges from Cadence winery and waves across the huge parking lot to a visitor. There are no vines providing a bucolic backdrop, only a row of warehouses. A few blocks away, traffic rumbles past on Seattle's main freeway, Interstate 5. The city skyline looms only a mile distant. In this urban setting, only an upturned barrel out by Sixth Avenue South signifies a winery.

A sign on the building reads "Service Center," a remnant of the previous occupant, an automobile mechanic. "Quite literally," says Smith, "I am a garagiste," riffing on the French term for the new wave of Bordeaux vintners who make their wines in small quarters instead of lavish châteaus.

Smith isn't alone in Seattle. His is part of a unique collection of some three dozen wineries that have popped up in and around Washington's largest city, which is about 200 miles from the nearest vineyard producing substantial quantities of quality grapes.

Choosing a traditional wine region to visit in Washington poses challenges. On the dry side of the Cascades in eastern Washington, where most of the vineyards are rooted, tourist facilities are limited. Granted, Walla Walla has recently succeeded in creating an ambience that approaches what visitors expect from wine country in California or Europe, but most of the surrounding terrain is stark desert. In the Yakima Valley, the landscape is a bit more pastoral, but quaint inns and restaurants are few and far between. Seattle, on the other hand, is a visitor's paradise, bustling with activities and boasting a formidable selection of good restaurants.

Chateau Ste. Michelle, one of Washington’s largest producers, built its classically designed winery in Woodinville, home to the region’s densest concentration of wineries. Indeed, in all respects but the presence of grapevines, Seattle qualifies as an appealing wine-country destination. You may need to make an appointment to open a few of the doors, but there are a dozen visit-worthy wineries and tasting rooms within easy driving distance of the city's core, and the list includes some of the state's hottest up-and-coming producers, and some of its most famous.

The Tasting Room at the Pike Place Market, in the heart of the city, offers samples from numerous small urban wineries, including Camaraderie and JM Cellars, as well as some from wineries in the eastern part of the state, including Wilridge, Wineglass, Apex and Brian Carter. In the eight miles or so south of downtown toward the Sea-Tac Airport lie three wineries whose bottlings regularly score 90 points or better on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale: Cadence, O•S Winery (formerly Owen-Sullivan) and Nota Bene. Hedges, whose winery facility is located on Red Mountain in eastern Washington, maintains a well-appointed tasting room in Issaquah, about 15 miles east of downtown.

The densest concentration of wineries in the region is centered in Woodinville, a suburb about 20 miles by car northeast of the city center. It is home to Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia Winery, two of the biggest producers in the state. They welcome visitors seven days a week at their beautifully decked-out wineries literally across the road from each other.

Within a few minutes' drive are a dozen other wineries and, next door to Columbia, the Red Hook Brewery, with its bustling restaurant serving craft brews and pub food. If you want to stay in the area, an excellent choice is Willows Lodge, an 86-room luxury inn on the banks of the Sammamish River. Willows shares the grounds with two restaurants-the highly regarded Herbfarm and the more casual Barking Frog. Trails paralleling the river are used extensively by walkers, joggers and cyclists. Surrounded by piney woods, it's idyllic, not at all suburban.

Many of the smaller wineries can be visited by appointment. Some are open regularly on weekends. And there are more to come. Silver Lake Winery, which grows grapes and makes its wines over the mountains in Yakima Valley, is building a new retail complex at Hollywood Corner, a few hundred yards down the road from Willows Lodge. Due for completion in 2007, the Northwest Wine & Culinary Village will have restaurants, gourmet shops and more winery tasting rooms. Some of the smaller producers now operating in industrial parks are thinking of moving there, and a similar venture, Woodinville Village, is also in development. In the meantime, you can still visit Silver Lake's tasting room.

Two small wineries open regularly are Di Stefano, on weekends, and Matthews, on Saturdays. Both are also open by appointment. Di Stefano has built a nice little winery in a small industrial park near Woodinville. Matthews has a plain tasting room and a utilitarian winery building. But owner Matthew Loso has plans to carve an aging cave into the hillside of his 6-acre property and front it with a tasting room.

Most of the wineries, even those usually closed to the public, open their doors for Passport to Woodinville, a two-day open house held annually over the first weekend in April. Some by-appointment wineries around Seattle also welcome guests on the weekends when they release their wines. Check winery Web sites for dates.

Despite the lure of Woodinville and other suburban locales, hardcore urban vintners such as Ben Smith are remaining steadfast, for now. "My wife and I don't want to live in the country. We love Seattle too much, and this is two miles from home for us." So he keeps the mechanic's sign on the building he has leased through 2007. "Then," he says, "we'll see."

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