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Second only to California in wine production, Washington State has more than 650 wineries, 350 wine grape growers, and 31,000 acres of vineyards. Who knew? Well, wine connoisseurs are already in the know. Wine Spectator has given 98 points to wines from this part of the country, and many other awards have been handed out. In order to taste as much as possible, many wine lovers start planning their summer and fall tours of the Pacific Northwest in early spring.

The hottest area right now is the Yakima Valley, about 140 miles southeast of Seattle, according to Larry Spring, co-owner of the Grape Choice retail store in Kirkland (and former mayor). Along with Ryan Pennington of the Washington Wine Commission, Spring says locals are proud that the state's wine industry is still largely family-run, unlike the corporations in Napa and Sonoma valleys.

The state's wine experts say the northerly latitude allows for an average of 17.4 hours of sunlight during the summer growing season, two hours more than California's prime growing regions. This extra daylight allows grapes to ripen, while cool nights let the fruit's natural acids remain high. The result? Richly flavored and well-balanced wines. Yakima and the Walla Walla area, in the state's southeast corner, are the most sought-after sectors.

Washington's Chardonnay is said to be more crisp and delicate than that of other places; its Merlot slightly higher in acidity than that of California. The Merlot also has a higher alcohol figure than Bordeaux, experts say.

Washington's Nine Wine Regions

Washington's wine tours are self-guided. Request a copy of the Touring Washington's Wine Regions booklet from the Washington Wine Commission (tel. 206/667-9463; www.washingtonwine.org).

There are nine viticulture regions, lumped into eight touring areas by wine officials. I've listed them by the date the region was officially established, like the Wine Commission does. Most have regular hours listed in the commission's booklet; a few are by appointment only, and some are not open to the public at all.

Region 1: The Yakima Valley area, established in 1983 (the first), has over 65 wineries and 11,000 vineyard acres. Primary varieties are Chardonny, Riesling, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon (Cab), and Syrah.

Region 2: The Walla Walla Valley (1984) has more than 100 wineries and over 1,200 vineyard acres. Primary varieties are Cab, Merlot, and Syrah.

Region 3: The Columbia Valley (1984), on the river of the same name extending north into central Washington, is the state's largest wine area. With more than 100 wineries and over 16,000 vineyard acres, this region's primary grapes are Chardonnay, Riesling, Cab, Merlot, and Syrah.

Region 4: The Puget Sound area (1995) has more than 100 wineries and over 130 vineyard acres. Primary grapes are Madeleine Angevine, Muller Thurgau, Siegerrebe, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Gris.

Region 5: The Red Mountain area (2001) is the state's smallest. On the edge of the Columbia Valley area, this region has about 125 wineries and more than 710 vineyard acres. Primary grape varieties are Cab, Merlot, Syrah, Lemberger, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, and Sangiovese.

Region 6: The state's most southern area is Columbia Gorge (2004), bordering Oregon along the eponymous river, with about 15 wineries and about 350 vineyard acres. Primary grape varieties include Chardonnay, Gew├╝rztraminer, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, and Zinfandel.

Region 7: The Horse Heaven Hills area (2005), between Yakima and the Columbia Valley, has more than 20 wineries and over 6,000 vineyard acres. Primary grapes are Cab, Merlot, Syrah, Riesling, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc.

Region 8: The Wahluke Slope area (2006) has three wineries and 5,200 vineyard acres. Primary grapes are Riesling, Merlot, Syrah and Cab.

Region 9: Last is Rattlesnake Hills (2006), with more than 20 wineries and 1500 vineyard acres. Primary grapes are Cab, Merlot, Syrah, Malbec, Riesling and Chardonnay.

The Best of Washington's Wine Regions

Among the state's most famous wineries, Chateau Ste. Michelle (tel. 425/415-3300; www.ste-michelle.com) holds the place of honor. It's located in Woodinville, 15 miles north of Seattle, and has been going strong since 1966. Well-known for its summer concerts on the lawn (previous years have featured Ringo Starr and Lyle Lovett), Chateau Ste. Michelle has tours from 10am to 4:30pm daily. I liked their 2006 Ethos Cabernet Sauvignon ($40).

In nearby Kirkland, there's a smart wine festival every summer. The $20 admission for Kirkland Uncorked (www.kirklanduncorked.com) includes 10 wine tasting coupons, which can be redeemed for about three glasses of your choice. Dates for 2010 are July 16-18.

One Yakima Valley white wine I liked was a 2007 Viognier from Chandler Reach Vineyards (tel. 509/588-8800; www.chandlerreach.com). Such types usually cost $15 to $20 per bottle.

More Information

In addition to the Wine Commission's website, you might find the following of interest:

Yakima Valley (tel. 800/258-7270; www.wineyakimavalley.org). To have a printed touring brochure sent to you, e-mail wineyakimavalley@live.com.

Walla Walla Valley (tel. 509/526-3117; www.wallawallawine.com).

Woodinville Wine Country (tel. 425/205-4394; www.woodinvillewinecountry.com).