In 2003, Doug Gore handed over the Columbia Crest winemaking reins to oversee all of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates' production.
A decade later, he is getting back into winemaking with a new label that pays tribute to the Columbia River's history and focuses on the important and remote Wahluke Slope.
Last fall, the Northwest's largest wine producer launched Seven Falls with three wines and Gore in charge.
"This is an opportunity to get back into winemaking," said Gore, who remains executive vice president for winemaking, viticulture and operations for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates in Woodinville.
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For the first release of Seven Falls, Gore and his team made more than 50,000 cases of wine at Columbia Crest in Paterson, where Gore is based. He made Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot from the 2010 vintage and Chardonnay from 2011. The wines are sold primarily at restaurants in Washington and Oregon, though they also can be purchased online at www.sevenfallswine.com.
All three wines retail for $15.
The grapes for Seven Falls come from the Wahluke Slope, a 13-mile-wide bench southeast of Ellensburg along Highway 243. It is one of the warmest areas in the state for growing wine grapes, and it is remote, with just a small number of wineries in the region.
"I like it a lot," Gore said of the Wahluke Slope, as he pointed out it consistently is one area of the Columbia Valley that can easily ripen grapes even in cooler vintages such as 2010 and 2011.
Gore first visited the area around 1986, when just a few vineyards were planted. Today, the Wahluke Slope has about 6,000 acres of wine grapes planted on the 81,000-acre stretch of land. It's one of the least-expensive areas for growing wine grapes, and there's ample water.
The only thing Gore doesn't like about the region? "Cell phone service is a bit spotty," he said with a chuckle.
The name Seven Falls refers to seven waterfalls that existed on the nearby Columbia River before Priest Rapids Dam was built in the 1950s. The river went over the seven falls in a nine-mile stretch, dropping 72 feet. Today, the Columbia is tranquil as it flows past the towns of Mattawa and Desert Aire, tamed by the dam that provides electricity and irrigation to the region.
Marketing for Seven Falls has focused on a tech-connected, mobile audience -- a different tactic than any other Ste. Michelle brand. The website is optimized for smartphones, and each wine has a QR code on the back label. A quick click of your phone will bring up YouTube videos on the wines and region, along with food pairings and tasting notes.
We recently tasted the three Seven Falls wines. Here are our notes:
Seven Falls 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, Wahluke Slope, $15: It is a smooth, supple red that is eminently approachable in its youth and priced to enjoy any night of the week. It opens with aromas of ripe raspberry, Belgian chocolate and black licorice. On the palate, it unveils plush, delicious flavors of boysenberry, black pepper, ripe plum and dark chocolate. Moderate tannins provide plenty of intensity on the entry and ample structure throughout.
Seven Falls 2011 Chardonnay, Wahluke Slope, $15: This delicious white tastes more expensive than it is, thanks to luscious aromas of butterscotch, baked apple and spice, followed by rich flavors of orange, dried pineapple and oak. It has surprisingly lively acidity, considering the amount of oak and butteriness.
Seven Falls 2010 Merlot, Wahluke Slope, $15: This smooth, delicious Merlot shows off aromas of Bing cherries and exotic spices on the nose, followed by smooth, elegant and approachable flavors on the palate. Supple tannins combine with ripe red fruit for a classic, easy-drinking Merlot.
*Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman run Great Northwest Wine, a news and information company. For more information, go to www.greatnorthwestwine.com.