IT'S NOT OFTEN you get a second chance to attend the party of the year, but this time you're in luck. Back in April, more

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The BIG buffet

The Washington Wine Commission throws the mother of all spreads.

IT'S NOT OFTEN you get a second chance to attend the party of the year, but this time you're in luck. Back in April, more than a hundred hungry and thirsty Northwest gourmands were turned away from the third edition of Taste Washington!, the state Wine Commission's annual megabuffet celebrating our region's astonishing emergence as a front-rank contender among the world's great wine-growing areas. But this year, there's going to be an instant replay of Taste Washington! to coincide with next week's World Vinifera Conference, a biennial gathering of international leaders in the wine trade, and some tickets have been set aside for members of the general public.

Taste Washington!

Wednesday, July 26 at Odyssey Maritime Discovery Center, Pier 66

If you've ever wanted to rub shoulders with The Wine Spectator's refreshingly down-to-earth columnist Matt Kramer, Ernst Loosen of the legendary Mosel Valley vineyard dynasty, or Piero Antenori, prince of Italian wine and olive oil producers, here's your chance. But even if you've never heard of any of these conference headliners—even if wine is not central to your idea of the good life—you might want to get on the phone before it's too late, credit card number at the ready, because along with ample samples of the best wines 50 Washington wineries have to offer, your $70 buys admission to a kind of snack heaven—with two dozen of the area's top restaurateurs vying for your attention from tables groaning under the load of wine-friendly dainties.

From its debut in April 1998, Taste Washington! has been an unparalleled promontory from which to watch the dizzyingly rapid evolution of the state's wine industry, with grape varieties making their debuts, innovative approaches to vinification, and new areas of cultivation shouldering their way to prominence.

But even for true believers in Washington's future as an ideal blend of Germany's Rheingau, France's Bordeaux, and Italy's Tuscany, the party would lose much of its luster without the often inspired bite-sized accompaniments with which the chefs strut their stuff. Looking over the program-cum-menu issued to guests at last April's extravaganza is an almost painful exercise in d骠 vu.

That mushroom-crusted tenderloin with roasted-tomato dressing that Palisade's John Howie thought up to go with Waterbrooks Winery's 1997 Columbia Valley "Meritage": Will I ever taste its like again? Or Kaspar's succulent andouille sausage with beans cozying up to Hedges Cellars' Three Vineyards red? Or Lauri Allen's duck rillettes on crostini smeared generously with a gorgonzola-fig pur饠to complement Columbia Crest's 1996 reserve red?

The list goes on . . . and on . . . and on: a "tarte Tatin" with cipollini onions standing in for apples (Carmelita); a curl of lettuce cradling nuggets of gingered chicken, shiitake mushrooms, and pine nuts (Dragonfish Caf驻 the red wine-simmered seafood stew (Le Gourmand); the "rooster gumbo" over rice (Sazerac). And that's not to mention the extravagant oyster bar presented by Ray's Boathouse, the paddlefish- and sturgeon-egg-topped blini offered by the Seattle Caviar Company (paired with Ste. Michelle's blanc-de-blanc, of course), the chocolates of Bernard Callebaut, Rover's almond torte, the pear cr갥s from Brasserie Margaux . . . Marcel Proust, eat your heart out. Memories are made of this!

BUT ENOUGH BOWING down before the Golden Calf of Appetite. Let us not forget that Taste Washington! was created to celebrate wine and that wine is serious business in this state, with acreage planted in vines increasing annually and out-of-state sales continuing to grow when exports of many other agricultural products are stagnant or falling.

Despite its present prominence, serious viticulture is a relative newcomer to this state, with the oldest of today's big names in the field less than 30 years old. Experimentation to find the best grape varieties and wine-making methods for our varied soils and climates has if anything accelerated in recent years. A notable example of such experimentation (unfortunately not to be sampled at Taste Washington!) is Chateau Ste. Michelle's oddly named Eroica, a new spin on one of the European grape varieties first introduced to Eastern Washington, Germany's classic Riesling. A collaboration between winemaker Erik Olsen and Germany's Ernst Loosen, Eroica is an effort to discover whether, with proper growing and winemaking, Riesling can be persuaded to moderate the muscle and clout it normally develops in the Columbia Valley and yield a more supple, fragrant, and crisp product along the lines of those Loosen's family has been producing for many decades in Wehlen, Bernkastel, and other villages of the Mosel Valley. To judge from their first (1999 vintage) release, they're well on the way.

Another grape variety that had barely taken root in Washington a decade ago is the most closely watched today. The Syrah grape, along with the Grenache, has long been one of the major ingredients in the fragrant, full-bodied reds of France's Rh�Valley (and, more recently, under the name Shiraz, one of the stars of Australia's burgeoning wine scene as well). Grenache seems, unfortunately, to be too delicate to survive Eastern Washington's harsh winters, but with Syrah growers suspect they have hit the jackpot.

In a 1993 survey, no vineyard reported any plantings of the variety; today there are 1,500 acres under cultivation. Less than 20 percent of those in full production, but enough that four vintners are putting Syrahs forward to represent their work to the world at Taste Washington!: Columbia Crest, McCrea (both to accompany nuggets of wine-sauced lamb sirloin with sweet garlic chips from Dahlia Lounge), Hogue (more lamb, crusted with ground, thymed hazelnuts from Union Square Grill), and Columbia (with Tulio's "wedge of creamy Italian Taleggio topped with seasonal fruit preserves").

Can't seem to stay away from the food, can we? And we could go on—about the raw-shellfish bar (hosted by Anthony's) with its samples of four white varietals, Penn Cove Shell's chilled mussels on the half shell with two more, Seattle Caviar Company's all-Northwest spread accompanied by bubbly from Domaine Ste. Michelle and Chatter Creek, or the desserts (a trifle from earth & ocean with Covey Run ice-wine, Cabs and Merlots with chocolate from Rover's and Fran's. . . .) At the rate it's going, Taste Washington! can claim to deserve its exclamation point. It's not just an institution; it's an imperative.

Call 667-9463 for reservations. $70 per person.

 
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