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Saturday, Dec. 15, 2007

What's in your cellar?

A year or so ago, I received a review copy of a book on how to build your wine cellar. More specifically, it was how this guy puts together showcase wine collections for the rich and shameless in Southern California.

His premise was that your cellar should be filled with the most expensive and famous wines, regardless of their actually quality. It listed one or two Northwest wines, but the rest were California cult wines, Bordeaux First Growths, top Champagnes, vintage Ports and impossible-to-find Burgundies. No $15 Merlots. No Rieslings. Nothing you would drink on, say, a Tuesday night when your idea of cooking is to dial your local pizza joint. In fact, following this guy's recommendation would leave you with wines you would not actually drink. You'd just show them to your friends and feel superior.

While the book was worthless, it has gotten me to think about what's in my cellar. My wine collection is more like a collection of friends and memories. It's a few hundred bottles of mostly obscure wines with a handful of marginally famous labels. The "stars" include a few bottles of Leonetti, a Cockburn Port and a Château Rieussec I found at a wine shop in Spokane. I did have a bottle of 1997 Orneillia, a Super Tuscan I brought home from a trip to Italy. As I recall, it scored well in international wine magazines. I opened it a few years ago for some close friends, figuring it was better to drink it while it was still good.

As one could imagine, my cellar is primarily filled with Northwest wines. As I taste wines in competitions or visit wineries, I buy bottles that have meaning for me. Perhaps they remind me of a favorite memory, such as when I spent a couple of autumn days handsorting Pinot Noir clusters at Penner-Ash Wine Cellars in the Willamette Valley.

Here's an idea of what I prize:

-- I have, perhaps, the largest collection in the United States of bottles from Kettle Valley Winery in Naramata, B.C. You cannot get much further off the beaten path than Kettle Valley, but the destination is the reward. I happened by on Sept. 11, 2001. I was in Penticton researching a book and, frankly, I couldn't stand to watch CNN anymore. I decided to keep my appointment at Kettle Valley and was blown away by the wines. I return annually to purchase a case or two (or three or four). Thus, out of the 24 cases of 2002 Petit Verdot made, I have roughly 5 percent of the total production. If you walked into my cellar, you probably wouldn't understand why I have so much of this wine - until you tasted it.

-- I have several bottles of wines with strong regional interest, such as Reininger, Betz, Bethel Heights, Ste. Michelle vineyard designates, Fidelitas, Penner-Ash, Cougar Crest and Blue Mountain.

-- I have a lot of wine for everyday drinking, especially rosés, Rieslings, Merlots, Cabs, etc. You'll find a fair bit of Barnard Griffin, Helix by Reininger, Columbia Crest, Snoqualmie and Powers. I supposed that the closer the winery is to my house, the more of their wine I have.

-- Tefft Cellars in the Yakima Valley has a dedicated fan base, but it isn't a big name. Yet I have a whole lot of Tefft because it was the first winery I really got to know (before we started the magazine). Most of my Tefft is older Cabs and a bunch of out-of-the-mainstream wines, such as Sangiovese, Nebbiolo and Cabernet Franc (the '97 is pretty killer). My reason for the Teffts in my collection has more to do with the friendships I made there than the collectibility of the wines.

-- I love finding obscure Northwest producers whose wines are mind-boggling. I discover them pretty early because many new wineries send us their products for review. When I run into something like Walter Dacon in Shelton, Wash., Cliff Creek in Southern Oregon, Joie in Naramata or Wild Goose in Okanagan Falls, I am thrilled. I know how good they are, and I love sharing them with friends and family.

-- After our Platinum Judging each year, I purchase a couple of bottles of the top wines. I hide them in the cellar with plans to stage a "best-of-the-best" vertical, probably in three years after we've conducted the competition for a decade. It will be interesting to see how each of these wines we've deemed the finest in the Northwest holds up.

-- I have a fair number of California wines in my cellar. First of all, I have a thing for Petite Sirah. Because most of this red Rhône variety in the world is grown in California, I have ended up with wines from Napa, Lodi, Anderson Valley, Sonoma County, Sierra Foothills and a few other regions down there. I happen to adore the wines of Navarro Vineyards in Mendocino County, so I have several bottles of Gewürztraminer, Riesling and Pinot Gris. I also have a good collection of wines from Cosentino in Napa. Mitch Cosentino is a friend, and I've been in his wine club for a few years.

Here's the bottom line: My wine cellar is not for impressing anyone. It's about having wines I like drinking and the stories they could tell. I would estimate that I could pop the cork (or twist the screwcap) on 80 percent of the wines in my cellar without worrying about whether it is the right moment or how much of the mortgage that bottle could cover.

It's about what will taste good that night with dinner. It's about wines I can enjoy without guilt.

I don't need some silly book to tell me that.