On the Trail

A Superb Big Brand Bargain

David Driscoll
Columbia Crest winemaker Juan Muñoz Oca talks viticulture with vineyard manager Juan Uribe

Columbia Crest winemaker Juan Muñoz Oca talks viticulture with vineyard manager Juan Uribe

In the world of boutique wine with its focus on terroir, terrain, and tradition, preaching the merit of big box brands can often fall on deaf ears. Part of the allure of modern wine appreciation comes from a desire for individuality and few today find a sense of inspiration from something viewed as mass produced. Purists of fine wine often value the sanctity of smallness and the scarcity that often comes along with it. Nothing great or profound can be made in volume, right? Especially not from a supermarket brand like Columbia Crest with its 2,500 acres of fruit and massive national distribution. Despite that mindset, Washington's long-standing mega-winery has a history of challenging its perception in the boutique market. In 2009, it became the first Washington producer in history to land the prestigious Wine Spectator #1 wine of the year award for the 2005 Reserve Cabernet. I remember that moment well because we went from selling almost no Columbia Crest to wheeling out giant shopping carts full of it in less than twenty-four hours. Nothing changes the public perception faster than an award like that. I've learned over time that most of our customers just want something that tastes good for a reasonable price, even though the sommelier crowd can often dominate the narrative in our industry. If you fall into that former group then it's time to get your wallets ready once again because the gang from Columbia Crest is back with one helluva bargain. We backed up the truck and brought in a gang load of the 2011 Reserve Cabernet for more than 50% off the standard retail pricing. Tasting the wine today with some of my colleagues, it's clear we're on the brink of another fever pitch here at K&L.

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With a few years in the bottle already, the 2011 Reserve Cabernet has developed into a balanced and surprisingly restrained little gem with ample dark fruit, but subtle notes of earth and spice that accent the finish. Just that short time in the cellar has rendered the wine soft and seamless without all the ripeness or coffee bean notes from the oak I usually expect. I fooled some of the K&L senior staff in the tasting bar earlier today, pouring the wine blind and telling them it was really expensive, and I loved watching their mouths drop when I eventually told them it was Columbia Crest. Even better, I loved watching their facial expressions when I told them we had it for seventeen bucks! For a wine that rested for over two years in new French oak, most of that wood has already integrated and the wine is singing right now. Columbia Crest, lest we forget, has a history of surprising folks in the wine business. Back in 1994, their estate Cabernet was the only American wine awarded a medal at the "Challenge du Vin" competition in Bordeaux, while recent editions continue to land on top 100 lists annually from all the major publications—in addition to the heralded wine of the year award back in 2009. I've been sipping on a glass of the 2011 for most of the afternoon and I'm continually impressed by the wine's complexity, how it continues to unwind and unveil itself over the course of the day. 

While it may not have the heritage of a revered single vineyard site, or the stuffing to last a century in the cellar, what the 2011 Columbia Crest Reserve Cabernet offers is pure deliciousness for folks who get a kick out of bang for your buck bargains. At our price, you make this a serious Monday night meatloaf wine or a flossy bottle of Thursday night hamburger wine with real depth and intrigue. I can promise you that whatever our customers don't drink, we will. I drink a lot of French Bordeaux today, but there's still something great about discovering the real values of your own backyard, kind of like when you realize jeans don't really get that much better than Levi's for the price. Columbia Crest is one of those American institutions continually pumping out supreme value for those who prize flavor above all else. I'm glad they're here to keep reminding us of what matters.

-David Driscoll