Jul 7

Every summer I venture away from the Baja California wine country up to the Pacific Northwest for a family reunion, to cruise our vintage rat rod in the Car d’Alene Car Show and to research the wine industry of Washington and north Idaho. In past years I brought samples of my favorite Mexican wines to share with family and friends in the wine industry, but finally realized that even though everyone loved the wines, it was almost impossible for them to purchase the wines in the U.S. So, this year I limited my cache of Mexican wines to Viognier and Nebbiolo from L.A. Cetto, one of a few wine producers in Mexico who has wine available in almost every state and several countries. In addition, the Cetto family is the largest producer of wine in Mexico and very serious about business, fully understanding the value of exporting and international marketing. It’s also important to note that Mexico’s wine industry produces outstanding wines, but is a small wine producing region with most wines eagerly consumed nationally - mostly in Mexico City.

L. A. Cetto’s Private Reserve Viognier and Nebbiolo wines stunned wine lovers and enthusiasts in Oregon, Washington and north Idaho. Cetto’s Viognier drew lots of attention because this varietal is gaining popularity among wine growers and winemakers in eastern Washington. Wine connoisseurs in this region know wine intimately and fully appreciated the quality and value of this Mexican Viognier. In fact, most people were blown away by both of these Baja California wines. It’s amazing that most people still don’t know that Mexico produces wine. The 2001 Nebbiolo from L.A. Cetto was the talk of this wine country safari, winning approval and admiration from some of the northwest regions top growers, producers, winemakers and sommeliers. At one of the top wineries and restaurants in Washington, we matched the 2001 Nebbiolo with grilled elk steak, topped with wild morel mushrooms and herbs. Needless to say, it was a superb match and a positive event in public relations and marketing for the Mexican wine industry. Unfortunately, I was forced to sell both cases of the Nebbiolo at $50 a bottle, or be held hostage!

Wine tasting research is one of the hardest elements of my lifestyle, so many options, so little time! Well, it’s not the toughest homework assignment, but one of my projects on this wine country safari was to explore Viognier and Syrah in Washington and north Idaho. My interest was based on the fact that some wineries in Baja California are experimenting with both grapes and getting some positive results with award winning wines. In addition, I’ve lived and worked in both wine regions and am familiar with the conditions that enable these areas to create and produce excellent wines. Each region is distinct and it’s a very interesting exercise in experiencing both grapes and wine created under completely different growing conditions.

This wine country safari led me to one of the top producers of Viognier and Syrah in the northwest at Coeur d’Alene Cellars in north Idaho. Winemaker Warren Schutz and winery owner Kimber Gates create some of the best wines in the region. Their 2003 Syrah was selected as “the best Washington State Syrah at any price” by the San Francisco Chronicle. It was rated at 90 points: “with a powerful and complex bouquet, this bold Syrah melds ripe cherry/berry fruit with spicy bittersweet chocolate and a trace of truffle. Barrel aging lends a smooth mouth feel and a bold, smoky finish. Good structure and firm tannins promise great aging potential.” Wine Enthusiast June 2006. In addition, Wine Spectator rated their Coeur d’Alene Opulence Columbia Valley 2003 at 91 points: “rich, polished and effusive in aroma and flavor, but it’s also refined enough to pull it all together into a gorgeous bead of red cherry, blueberry and plum fruit that just doesn’t quit.” This wine retails for $42.

Fortunately, after drinking several samples of their premium Syrah, I didn’t have to leave my chair to sample some of the best Viognier in the region. So, with a quick glass change we moved right into a serious evaluation of this fantastic white wine. (In Idaho, we hillbillies drink our reds first) My first impression was that the quality was very comparable to L.A. Cetto’s Viognier, but with unique and distinct flavors. Wine Spectator rated this Coeur d’Alene Sarah’s Cuvee Washington 2004 with 90 points and states it best: “lithe, juicy and fragrant with pear, quince and clove aromas and flavors that persist onto a lively finish.” Wine Enthusiast magazine rated their other 2004 Viognier with 90 points: “bright citrus and floral aromas of wisteria, jasmine and orange blossom surround a core of nectarine, apricot and peach fruit. Creamy vanilla and buttery toast notes add complexity but don’t overpower the fruit. With lots of complex fruit flavors, this wine is a wonderful expression of the fine art of wine.” The 2004 Viognier retails for $18.

The wine industry in eastern Washington is producing excellent, award winning wines at ridiculously low prices. My impression is that this region is hugely under-rated considering the quality and value of the wines. Also, if you take into consideration some key elements of the habitat, you begin to understand the factors that allow for the fullest expression of the grapes. The quality of the water is unsurpassed, the soil was deposited by the historical Missoula flood leaving behind rich soil, loam and beds of gravel, plus the Columbia River flows below south facing slopes providing perfect conditions for Syrah grapes. The river basin creates weather conditions that favor grape growing (hot days and cool nights) and the constant winds blow harmful insects up into Canada and Montana! It’s no wonder that 99% of Washington’s wine grapes come from eastern Washington’s Columbia Valley and that a new winery opens every 13 days in this state!

Many of the grapes purchased by Coeur d’Alene Cellars are from Horse Heaven Hills AVA. This region is naturally bounded on the north by the Yakima Valley appellation and on the south by the Columbia River. About 6,000 acres are planted with Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. This AVA borders the Columbia River and has a distinct topography that blesses the region with moderate temperature extremes and provides south facing slopes for optimum vineyard locations with quick draining silty loam soils. The elevations slope from 200 feet to 1,800 feet. The first growers arrived in 1972 and now this AVA is home to four commercial wineries and over twenty vineyards. Stillwater, Rob Andrews, Alder Ridge, Saddle Mountain and Elephant Mountain vineyards provide Coeur d’Alene Cellars with premium grapes.

The future looks bright for Washington State wines. According to local experts and winemaker, Warren Schutz of Coeur d’Alene Cellars: “2005 was the winemakers dream come true, great year, long extended ripening period with temperatures in the 80’s allowing for long hang time.” Both the Viognier and Syrah grapes fully expressed their best qualities with a textbook growing season! Wine from Coeur d’Alene Cellars can be shipped to California by contacting the winery at: (208) 664-2336 or at www.cdacellars.com

It’s great to live and work in Mexico’s premier wine country and to enjoy the wonderful wines of Baja California. Life is good and flavorful when one can travel to other wine regions of the world exploring and exposing your palate to diverse sensations offered by the global wine community. And remember, the best wines in the world - are the wines you enjoy! Next issue, we’ll continue with the series about Ensenada’s wine culture.

Article by: Steve Dryden
Published in: Baja Times news Paper

Steve Dryden is a tour director and travel writer living in Guadalupe Valley where he guides private wine tours. He can be reached at (619) 300-4976 U.S - (646) 118-9801 MX cell or

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