Monday, February 21, 2011

FoodTrek: Wine, Pizza and Memory Lane

I revisited the Columbia Winery in Woodinville recently, to admire their recent renovations as well as sip some of their wines and sample the new flatbread pizzas they're serving in their tasting room. As I was heading home, I realized that Columbia Winery was my first introduction to the world of wine when I moved to Washington. I left California before coming of age to really appreciate the wineries up north, and living in Arizona, I wouldn't say the desert heat and soil is particularly viticulture-friendly. It was a visit to Columbia Winery over a decade ago for a wine tasting event that started it all. While I've been back several times since that first visit, this post does have a sentimental feeling of coming full circle.

Newly renovated wine club room at Columbia Winery in Woodinville - Photo by Wasabi Prime 

Oenophile I am not, I'm simply a great enjoyer of wine and not always knowing the right descriptive beyond, "Yum. Another glass, please." But I do appreciate how experiential wine can be, not only in the drinking of it, but seeing where it's made and meeting the people involved in the process. Columbia Winery is the "old soul" of Washington wine, producing distinctive vintages since 1962, and growing into the state's largest winemaker. Even if you don't live in the area, chances are you've heard of them or seen their wines at your local stores. The winery is a favorite among the locals for weddings -- even in the chill of winter and our recent storms, it's still a popular place to hold a special event. I was told that over the previous weekend, a wedding was taking place at 6, and the power was knocked out hours before, but clearly Bacchus the God of Wine was smiling down upon the lucky couple -- the power managed to come back on at 5:30. I know they can't promise miracles in their event brochure, but apparently Columbia Winery has the good mojo working for it.

Follow the good advice of the wine barrel -- Enjoy! - Photos by Wasabi Prime 

I remember back when the Spirit of Washington train still ran, where you board a train in Renton and make your way out to Woodinville and wind up at the Columbia Winery. The train delivered you right in front of the picturesque Queen Anne-style building, you could tour the grounds, sample the wine, and get a glimpse of the winemaking process itself. I always took visitors on the winery train tour, and even when the train sadly had to shut down, I still took friends to Columbia Winery because they did such a lovely job of presenting the story of their wine with a really beautiful experience. Times have continued to change, and the wine production has moved closer to their grapes, out to Sunnyside in Eastern Washington. Yet the distinctive building remains and they're still doing the good work of being wine ambassadors, providing ample space to sidle up to the wine bar for a glass and a good story.

Hanging  out with Kerry Norton and Bill Collins shows how to charm the ladies - Photos by Wasabi Prime

I have to say, they crafted a truly cozy space to sit and just enjoy the evening with something delicious. A centerpiece fireplace, comfy leather chairs and sofas, and a blazing hot oven outside producing crispy flatbread pizzas are among the additions to the winery's tasting room. And really, as our college days have taught us well -- you can't beat pizza and wine. I was fortunate to be introduced to the gentlemanly charmer that is Bill Collins, one of their wine experts and keeper of wonderful wine tales. He gave a tour of the new Cellar Club tasting room with a beautiful copper ceiling -- a nice private tasting room that's a perk of being a wine club member. And he did a wonderful job of pairing wines with the pizzas. I was also very lucky to be there on a night that Director of Winemaking Kerry Norton was on this side of the state. Normally he's at Wine HQ in Sunnyside, but I was lucky to get a chance to talk with him and hear his thoughts on the winemaking process, and how the wine embodies the soul of the vine. He was describing how as a viticulturist, it's so much about the fine art of developing the vine, how depth of soil, amount of sunlight exposure and the push/pull of those (among other factors) can balance out the flavor of the finished grape. While different varietal blends can help balance out flavor, it always comes down to the grape itself and the care that went into it.

We sampled several wines, going from their 2008 Unoaked Chardonnay, to a sweeter Chenin Blanc and Riesling. A long line of red wines were sampled as well, with the 2003 Syrah from the Red Willow Vineyard being one of my favorites of the night. Bill Collins has a story for every type of wine, from how he learned the meaning behind "Malbec," to a memorable way of checking the true color of a wine, holding it against the light and letting it cast its hue on a white surface, but he put it best by saying the descriptive terms always sound better when using terms for gemstones and precious metals. Wiser words never spoken.

TGI Wine and Pizza Wednesdays - Photos by Wasabi Prime

Chef Jeff Lantz is the man behind the new food menu. A lawyer turned chef who's always had his heart set on the appreciation of wine and food, he's come up with flavor combinations that are both traditional and creative. The popular and perennial choice is their Margherita, the traditional pizza with tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella and a sprinkle of chopped basil. The ones to try are definitely their seasonal pizzas, which change out about every three weeks. I was able to sample the Great American Pie, a meaty combination of beef and bacon finely minced and spread over the thin crust, and the Apple Pie Columbia Style, with cinnamon apples, blue cheese, pecans and caramelized onion. Both were delicious, but I have to say the sweet/savory Apple Pie was my favorite, with its nice balance of ingredients, plus it paired so nicely with the wines Bill poured -- the Riesling and Chenin Blanc. The Great American Pie was wonderful with the hearty reds; I wouldn't normally drink a Sangiovese on its own, but paired with the pizza, it mellowed nicely and really became part of the meal.

It feels a little like revealing a secret, sharing this little gem of a hangout spot, but that's exactly what Columbia Winery has done with renovating their interiors and making it a place that's as much for the locals as it is for visitors. The place gets busy, so go early! The tasting room is open daily (except on Mondays) and on Wednesdays, they offer their wines by the glass and flatbreads at half off from 5 to 7pm, so even more of a reason to duck out of work a little early during the middle of the week. You can see their hours and contact information here on their site.

Many Wasabi Thanks to Bill Collins, Kerry Norton and the whole team at Columbia Winery for giving the grand tour and a lovely evening with such fine company!

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  1. What magnificent photos.
    Thanks for such an informative article, it's been very useful.


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