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I’m A Grad Student: How can I buy good wine?

January 14, 2011

After one of my recent posts, my good friend and graduate student, Jon French (he’s a third year architecture student at the Univ. of Washington) asked me if I could post something about how a poor grad student like himself could learn about affordable wine. As much as he enjoys reading about my exploits, he knows that on his budget, he’s not going to be diving into a 15 year old Bordeaux any time soon (unless he’s in the neighborhood, of course). I promised him that my next post would cover the subject so here goes.

Let’s use poor Jon as an example. First, Jon’s a distant cousin of Allie Smith, wife of my favorite east coast wine-maker, Brian Smith of Oyster River Wine Growers, in Warren, Maine. Allie and Jon grew up spending parts of their summers together on Pond Island, a little piece of heaven off the coast of eastern Maine. Brian’s wines are inexpensive and Jon occasionally passes near-by on his way to Pond Island or to Breezy Point, another slice of paradise near Belfast, Maine. Jon should stop in and see his cousin; She’d give him a family discount for sure. 🙂

Jon lives in Washington State, home of the Columbia River Valley and other locales that harbor some of the best vineyards and winemakers in the country. Jon needs to join a couple of friends, throw his bike into the back of a pick-up, and depart the Seattle smog for wine country some Saturday afternoon. My guess is that three things will happen; i) they’ll stumble across some fabulous vineyards and taste some amazing wine, much of it for free. ii) they’ll find some very good wine for sale for very reasonable prices – $10 a bottle is easily obtainable, and iii) they’ll forget about grad school for awhile and have a great time, all the while getting exercise riding their bikes from one vineyard to another.

Jon can start by doing a little research on the local vineyards, for example by checking out the Columbia River Valley Wineries here. Among the numerous vineyards to be found there, the region is home to Columbia Crest in Paterson. Columbia Crest makes to a wide variety of wines, a few of which are very expensive cuvees meant to be cellered for awhile. Others are sold into the market for so-called premium wines that represent the core of the country’s wine market. I know Jon has had lots of Columbia Crest wine over the years; what he hasn’t done is sit down with six or eight glasses of wine from the same vineyard and get to taste each of them, looking both for their similarities and differences. This is how a person really learns about wine and it’s why Jon needs to get out into rural Washington State while he can. After all, eventually he’s going to graduate and move someplace else – like Sweden or Norway (his style of architecture would be appreciated in Scandanavia).

Seattle is also close to the many wonderful wines of the Willamette Valley and other regions in Oregon. Salem, home to St. Innocent, is only a few hours away and well worth the drive. In addition to sampling some of the single vineyard Pinot Noirs there, Jon could get a great deal on a couple of bottles of their Village Cuvee (2009-$24). St. Innocent is only one of the many vineyards in Oregon that attempt to make several wines and sell them at several price points. When Jon sits down with someone special to open a bottle he found on one of his visits to a local vineyard the opportunity to drink something he brought home from such a trip will make the entire evening that much more pleasurable.

One thing that interests and fascinates me about the wine business is that there are now many places in the US where you can go into the countryside and find local farmers growing grapes and making wine. Not all of their products are world-class but much of it is affordable and the fun someone can have making the trip is well worth the effort.

So get out there and find some local wine; you owe it to yourself.

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