A Winning Wine from Walla Walla

"My wife calls it my quarter-million-dollar PhD in grape growing."

This wry observation is Washington State wine pioneer Norm McKibben's take on his first, failed, attempt to grow wine in this dynamic new wine region—he planted the wrong grapes in the wrong place, and after nine years wound up tearing them out and returning the land to wheat.

McKibben, however, is an astute businessman, and he learned well from his mistake. So well in fact that he is now full or part owner of two of Washington's most famed vineyards, Seven Hills and Pepper Bridge. I repeat his self-deprecating story, because it is so wonderfully emblematic of the entrepreneurial, make-it-up-as-we-go-along spirit that pervades the young Washington wine industry, a region that has producing some of the most exciting new wine being made anywhere.

At first, McKibben, a former corporate executive who retired from the construction engineering industry in 1985, was content to sell his much sought-after grapes to other wineries. In 1998 he started making his own wine and there was no expensive mistake this time. At a dinner in Walla Walla last year, he served a Cabernet Sauvignon 2000 and despite coming from vines only four years old, it was stunning. Unfortunately it's now pretty hard to find, but that's not the case with the equally impressive Pepper Bridge Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 ($55).

It's a beautifully crafted, highly polished cab that is more evocative of the Medoc than California. Yes, it is packed with the sorts of lush, ripe fruit flavors one expects in a New World red, but these are balanced by a fine minerality, good acidity, and a restrained use of oak that results in a generally more elegant, European-style wine.

It seems that McKibben's PhD was not entirely wasted after all.

When to Drink: Now, and for the next 10 years.Breathing/Decanting: Breathing for at least one hour is essential.Food Pairing: Red meats and hearty roasts, game.Grapes: 88% cabernet sauvignon, 8% merlot, 3% malbec, 1% petit verdot.Appellation: Walla Walla ValleyRegion: Washington StateCountry: USAPrice: $55Availability: LimitedWeb Site: www.pepperbridge.com

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