Ken Robertson

“So, what’s your favorite wine?”

That’s among the most frequently asked questions I hear from people after they learn that I write about wine, guide wine tours and serve as a judge in wine competitions around the Pacific Northwest.

And generally, I simply answer: “The one I have in my glass.” I admit that’s a bit of a non-answer. But, the simple question is really complex. After all, price, the variety of wine or blend of wines, the winemaker and the food I plan to pair a wine with, plus many other factors, may shape my reply. Over the years, I’ve had many favorite varietals: Gewürztraminer, Semillon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, Albariño, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and probably a few more.

And I have a list of a score or more favorite labels and winemakers, including some that have stayed on my list for well over a decade. They include the region’s giants, Columbia Crest, Chateau Ste. Michelle and Domaine Ste. Michelle (now Michelle); medium-sized to small producers, such as Abacela in Oregon’s Umpqua Valley and Barnard Griffin in Richland, Wash.; and rather tiny wineries such as Brandborg Cellars in Elkton, Ore., Coyote Canyon in Prosser, Wash., Wild Goose and Gehringer Brothers in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley and Bitner Vineyards and Koenig Vineyards in Idaho near Caldwell.

I could easily expand that list and likely have omitted some I respect highly and whose products I covet, but I think that short list makes my point. There is no simple answer. Some categories are simpler to make suggestions about, however.

For example, it’s easy with inexpensive Riesling. Dry, off-dry or sweet, try the world champion in total Riesling production, Chateau Ste. Michelle. You can find some of the world’s best in almost any grocery store, likely for about $10, maybe less if you catch a sale.

Rosé also has a surprisingly inexpensive suggestion — Barnard Griffin Rosé of Sangiovese. Who can argue with a decade’s worth of judges at the San Francisco Chronicle competition, where this wine has won a gold medal or better in nine of the last 10 years? (And the only year it didn’t win there, it won gold in several other competitions.) It often sells for less than $13.

Affordable sparkling wine? Michelle, whether it’s brut, rosé or off dry. All are consistently good and regularly win platinum awards in Wine Press Northwest’s annual competition. Again, they are about $12-$13 on sale.

But ask me about my favorite inexpensive red blend and I’ll have no answer. There are so many good ones and they have been proliferating so rapidly, I have no idea. And I feel the same about many other categories. I’ll readily admit, for example, that I could spend several years tasting Oregon’s hundreds of Pinot Noirs, and I doubt I could narrow the field to less than a couple dozen. I don’t believe I’m alone in this.

Over the last 20 years, I’ve met many people who make choices for the restaurant wine lists and the shelves of wine shops and grocery stores across the Pacific Northwest. They make recommendations every day for their customers. And I have yet to meet one who has said, “This is my absolute favorite wine.” So I don’t ask them what their favorite wine is. I ask instead, “What’s in your glass?”

Wine words: AVA

Some wine lovers toss this term around as casually as they sip Chardonnay at a leisurely Saturday lunch. For others, it’s as puzzling as nailing down exactly what perfect Pinot Noir should taste like. So, to simplify matters a bit, let’s unpack the acronym. AVA is short for American Viticultural Area.

Though the phrase has been around for at least 35 years, it remains little recognized outside of the industry. Typing the simplified “AVA” into Google, will get you to the American Volksport Association acronym well before it offers up “AVA wine.” The folks I guided on wine tours of the Red Mountain AVA last summer often asked for an explanation.

Briefly, it’s the American equivalent of the French AOC — or Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée. The French have used the term for centuries, but decided to crack down on American use of their beloved wine terms starting late in the last century and forced reforms. So we barbaric New World folks traded in the term appellation — unless we’re talking French wine — for AVA.

We have spent the last few decades developing our own American vocabulary for our wines, and perhaps because of the rather short history of our efforts, its words often are both arcane and confusing to the average grocery store customer just wanting a bottle for tonight’s dinner.

Washington’s first AVA was the Yakima Valley, recognized by the federal government in 1983, just ahead of the Columbia Valley, Red Mountain and Walla Walla AVAs. Oddly enough, at least to we who live on the West Coast, the nation’s first AVA, recognized on June 20, 1980, was the Augusta AVA in Missouri.

The designation was created to tell the consumer that a wine was made with grapes grown in a particular area with particularly significant characteristics, including climate, soil type and length of growing season. It’s not necessarily an exercise in exactitude. In Washington and Oregon, the Columbia Valley AVA consists of 11 million acres, where more than 40,000 acres are now planted in grapes. That’s not terribly specific. Washington’s smallest is the Red Mountain AVA, at 4,040 acres. In Oregon, the smallest is Ribbon Ridge at 3,350 acres. Both are pretty specific.

Anyway that’s a short history of AVA. The U.S. has about 210 at last count. Washington has 13 and Oregon 18, including its newest, the 3,767-acre Rocks District of Milton-Freewater, distinguished from the overlapping Walla Walla AVA by the basalt cobblestones found in a part of Oregon just over the border from Washington. The federal government blessed the Rocks earlier this year.

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