When hard-charging former Texas Instruments exec Kathy Charlton offered Bordeaux winemaker Benoit Murat a job in her new winery on the Pacific Ocean side of Seattle in 1999, he wondered if she was serious.
``I didn't even know they made wine in Washington.''
When Rob Griffin told his professors at California's famed UC Davis wine school in 1977 that he was going to Washington to make wine, they tried to talk him out of it.
``They said it was too cold to make wine there.''
Well, surprise, surprise. Today there are 500 wineries in Washington, growing 20 kinds of grapes, selling $3 billion worth of wine a year -- more than any other state but California.
Wine-fan tourists are catching on, realizing there's a welcoming, uncrowded new wine country to visit without the disheartening dollar-to-euro conversion of going abroad. Where you can visit industry giants like Chateau Ste. Michelle, which puts out 4.5 million cases a year from an 87-acre wooded park with strutting peacocks, tasting and tour, and an outdoor amphitheater where you might see Harry Connick Jr. or Stevie Wonder. Or mom-and-pop operations like Wind River Winery, where you're as likely to be welcomed by Daisy, the winery dog, as owners Kris and Joel Goodwillie, and where you'll taste their spicy syrah on an outdoor deck with a fabulous view of snow-capped, 11,249-foot Mt. Hood.
This is the tour for couples in which one is wine-obsessed and the other indifferent -- one in which you can visit six wineries a day if you want, or spend an hour instead at a lavender farm straight out of Provence. Or visit art galleries, tasting rooms and white-tablecloth restaurants in a surprisingly sophisticated university town called Walla Walla. Yes, like the onion.
And if you're a history buff, you can drive the length of the Columbia River, checking off historical markers that tell what happened to Lewis & Clark as they navigated their canoes and pirogues down those wild waters to become the first white men to cross from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean in 1804-06.
Oh, and the wine: Starting in the 1970s with cool-weather white wines such as riesling and pinot gris, Washington has branched into such red wines as merlot, barbera and the wine that many say will put the state on the enological map -- hearty, spicy syrah. Today the state grows 20 varieties -- from mainline cabernet sauvignon to the obscure Madeleine angevine, a hybrid from the cool, damp regions of Eastern Europe.
Why so many?
''Because we can,'' says Craig Leuthold, a former jacket-and-tie exec out of Spokane who gave up the wholesale plastics biz and built a winery called Maryhill, overlooking the historic Columbia River. ``We have so many micro-climates, so many soil types that we can do a lot of things.
''Down there by the river,'' he says, gesturing, ``there are two plots of zinfandel no farther apart than Tiger Woods can hit a golf ball. One of them gets ripe two weeks earlier than the other. That's how varied the conditions are.''
The grounds at Chateau Ste. Michelle are flowered, beautiful, with strutting peacocks puffing out tail feathers in proud greeting.
While they make the wines here, they don't grow the grapes here. It's too wet on the rainy, western side of the Cascade Range. The grapes come from South Central Washington, in the huge, semi-arid Columbia Valley, irrigated by the Yakima and Columbia Rivers.