Good project equals good product

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Curious wine shoppers may be noticing a proliferation of wine "projects'' -- not made by actual wineries -- whose bottles are filling retail shelves and restaurant wine lists. Some in the industry complain that these projects take away from those who do the real work laboring in the vineyard, fermenting the grapes, aging, blending, bottling and only then selling the wine.

A more realistic view is that this is how a free market works. If someone is smart enough to take advantage of a surplus of grapes or juice, and put together a good product at an attractive price, it's simply smart business.

The Northwest Vine Project is a good example. Begun in 2003, it offers a portfolio of value-priced wines through its parent company, distributor Triage Wines. The Triage website says it represents wines that are "authentic expressions of the world's vineyards.'' What is authentic? For Triage it means handcrafted wines made with natural (noninterventionist) techniques -- wines that convey a sense of place.

In general these are small-production wines, many from unusual grapes. The Northwest Vine Project sources grapes from vineyards more likely to yield wines with lower alcohol, higher acid and terroir-driven flavors. For this reason, it favors marginal (in a good way) growing zones such as the Columbia Gorge and Oregon's Coastal Range.

Multiple winemakers are drafted; among them David O'Reilly, James Mantone, Andrew Rich and Laurent Montalieu -- all of whom have excellent track records. Packaging is simple, the varietal names emblazoned in yellow or red type across a plain label. White wines in traditional 750 ml bottles sell for $10; red wines for $15.

They are also sold to select restaurants in recyclable kegs and poured by the glass.

I tasted through the current releases (all made by Solena's Montalieu) and found them quite attractive. The white wines include a ripe, pear-fruited pinot gris, a crisp, apple-flavored riesling, and an especially well-made chardonnay, sourced from the Elvenglade vineyard in Oregon's prestigious Yamhill-Carlton appellation.

The two reds are a fragrant and pretty Willamette Valley pinot noir and a ripe, slightly raisiny cabernet sauvignon from Washington's Goose Ridge vineyard.

Also in the Triage portfolio are the wines of Cor Cellars. I first tasted Luke Bradford's wines on a swing through the Columbia Gorge a few years ago. His first vintages were a work in progress, but have steadily improved. The new releases are far and away the best yet.

Cor Cellars 2009 Alba Cor White; $16

Bad pun, fine bottle. Roughly half pinot gris, half gewurztraminer, from the Celilo vineyard. Scents and flavors of citrus (lime and orange).

Cor Cellars 2009 Underwood Mountain Vineyards Riesling; $16

From another important Columbia Gorge vineyard, this is scented with petrol and pine. It's a high-acid riesling that offers citrus rind and tart fruits.

Cor Cellars 2008 Alder Ridge Vineyard Cabernet Franc; $22

Done in a style reminiscent of chinon, you'll note blood and rock aromas and compact, dark fruits -- cassis, berry and herb.

Cor Cellars 2008 Momentum Red; $18

Cor's Bordeaux blend is a dark, earthy, coffee-scented wine, smooth and supple, the fruit flavors sharp and tart.

Cor Cellars 2008 Malbec; $20

Bright, effusive fruit flavors of raspberries, strawberry pastry, black cherries and plums. A most inviting, fruit-driven malbec.

Cor Cellars 2008 McKinley Springs Vineyard Petit Verdot; $20

A lovely mix of floral scents, dark black fruits, baking spices and fine-grained tannins.

The revised second edition of Paul Gregutt's "Washington Wines & Wineries'' is now in print. His blog is www.paulgregutt.com.

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