Watch Out California, Washington Is the Value King

The winning wines of Columbia Crest have little competition from the Golden State
Dec 14, 2011

Overdeliver isn't officially a word, but I can't think of a better way to describe a wine that's truly a great value. It overdelivers on quality relative to price, whether the bottle is $10 or 100 bucks.

Those are the sort of wines I try to write about in this blog as often as I can, and whenever I do, readers in their comments regularly champion one label: Columbia Crest. The Washington state winery has a devoted fan base for a reason. It's that rare winery that overdelivers across the board.

My colleague Harvey Steiman covers Washington and reviews Columbia Crest, but like many of you, I've been enjoying the wines for years. The wines are consistently drinkable, with whites that are crisp and lively and reds that are soft, supple and have considerable complexity.

Except for a few reserve wines, most bottles sell for $15 or less, and there are three tiers: Horse Heaven Hills, Grand Estates and Two Vines. Consider the Columbia Crest Cabernet Sauvignon Horse Heaven Hills H3 2009 (90 points, $15), which is focused and refined. The Merlot Columbia Valley Grand Estates 2008 (89 points, $12) is graceful and on the lighter side, while the Two Vines Vineyard 10 White Washington 2009 (88) is a fresh and vibrant blend that's a bargain for $8.

For those of us who live in Napa and Sonoma, where it's increasingly hard to find wines of that quality at those price points, we have to scratch our heads wondering how Columbia Crest does it.

It helps that its parent company, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, owns more than 3,500 acres of vineyards in eastern Washington, and has contracts on another 17,500, which accounts for about half the grapevine acreage in the state.

Columbia Valley is a big region with many different microclimates, but unlike rainy Seattle and the coast, eastern Washington is more of a desert climate. That means the growing season is long, with warm daytime temperatures and cool nights and only about 6 to 8 inches of rain a year. The mighty Columbia River provides all the water the vineyards need.

Winemaker Juan Muñoz Oca, promoted to head winemaker at Columbia Crest earlier this year, grew up in Argentina and says Columbia Valley reminds him of Mendoza. In the winery, Oca and his crew generally crush the grapes with 20 percent whole berries to boost the fruit and even the $8 Two Vines wines are aged in French and American oak barrels.

Columbia Crest makes a lot of wine—there are more than 200,000 cases of the Grand Estates 2008 Merlot alone—so it's widely available around the country. With so much mass-produced dreck out there it's good to know that someone is taking value wines seriously.

Have Columbia Crest wines proven to be a good value for you? Do you have any favorites or disappointments? What other value brands do you enjoy?

Values United States Washington

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