Better days ahead for Columbia Winery

Columbia Winery has had a trying dozen years. The longtime Washington winery has changed hands three times since 2001 and now looks like it will enjoy some much-needed stability.

In mid-2012, E&J Gallo of Modesto, Calif., purchased Columbia Winery from Ascentia, a wine company that’s no longer in business. Ascentia had purchased it from Constellation Brands of New York in 2008, which bought it from Corus Brands (now Precept Wine) in Seattle in 2001.

Columbia was launched in 1962 by several University of Washington professors and was known as Associated Vintners until the 1980s. It was the first winery in the state to focus exclusively on European wine grapes.

In the late 1970s, founder Lloyd Woodburne hired David Lake, a British winemaker who had earned a Master of Wine degree.

Lake went on to introduce the state to Syrah and had a lasting effect on how wine is made here. Lake retired in 2006 and died in 2009 after battling cancer and heart disease.

Under Gallo, Columbia looks like a much different winery. It still resides in its beautiful tasting room in Woodinville, across the street from Chateau Ste. Michelle. But it has narrowed its focus to four wines that have been released in the Pacific Northwest and will go into national distribution this summer.

These wines total 80,000 cases in production; by comparison, Columbia made more than that in Riesling alone just a few years ago. With the new wines, Columbia also has unveiled a new label.

Winemaker Sean Hails came from California in 2012 to take over Columbia’s production.

The Ontario, Canada, native worked in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley before going for Gallo and headed up the company’s Livingstone Cellars operation in the Central Valley.

There, he processed 500,000 tons of grapes a year — more than double what the entire state of Washington produces annually. Last fall, he crushed 4,300 tons for Columbia.

In addition to the four wines reviewed here, Hails also is crafting 14 wines that will be available to wine club members and in the tasting room.

These four wines were tasted in the past few weeks. All are broadly distributed in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Alaska.

Columbia Winery 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley, $14: Here’s a luscious and classic Cabernet Sauvignon that opens with aromas of black cherry, black currant, black walnut and dark chocolate, followed by rich flavors of cocoa powder, pomegranate and black pepper. It’s all backed with moderate tannins, making this a great wine to pair with grilled meats or midweek pizza.

Columbia Winery NV Composition, Columbia Valley, $14: This nonvintage blend includes wine from 2010 and 2011. It leads with Cabernet Sauvignon (41 percent), followed by Syrah, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot. It’s rich and bold, with aromas of roasted coffee, boysenberry, dark chocolate and ripe plum, followed by deep, bold flavors of huckleberry, oak and rich spice. It has terrific length and should pair nicely with mushroom risotto, lasagna or spaghetti and meatballs.

Columbia Winery 2012 Chardonnay, Columbia Valley, $14: If you enjoy California-style Chardonnays, this is your wine. It’s a big, rich, buttery white with aromas of saffron, baked potato skins and cream, followed by bold flavors of ripe pineapple, pear, buttered toast and white pepper. Enjoy this as a cocktail wine or with eggs Benedict or butternut squash ravioli.

Columbia Winery 2012 Merlot, Columbia Valley, $14: It didn’t take Sean Hails long to figure out Washington Merlot. His first vintage in the state reveals a dandy of a wine. It is smooth and easygoing, with aromas of cherry, blueberry and vanilla cream candy, followed by fresh, bright flavors of high-toned red fruit, including cranberry, pomegranate and cherry. The sumptuous midpalate leads to a bright and luscious finish.

Eric Degerman and Andy Perdue run Great Northwest Wine, www.greatnorthwestwine.com.

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