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Good, cheap Washington whites, courtesy of Big Tobacco

It's an unfortunate fact of the American wine industry that cheap good wines rarely come from scrappy, small producers. More often, they come from corporate behemoths that can easily leverage the economies of scale that making a cheap good wine without losing your shirt requires. Case in point: wine production in Washington state, where the uncontested king of the hill is Chateau Ste. Michelle Estates, a subsidiary of the American Tobacco Company.

Ste. Michelle's dominance in the state dates back to the 1930s, when it sold berry wine under the Nawico — short for National Wine Company — label. It now owns several labels and has partnerships with comparably huge producers Ernst Loosen in Germany and Antinori in Italy. The company's vast resources have allowed for production of wines in every price range, including reds that can retail upwards of $75.

The Pacific Northwest has become best known in recent years for red wines of depth and character. However, wine producers have long planted white grapes in equal or greater abundance, with lively, fragrant Pinot Gris enjoying particular success in Oregon. In Washington, nippy winters have helped chill-friendly Riesling to thrive, and notable Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs have emerged as well.

Last year, we tasted three of Chateau Ste. Michelle Estates' cheaper reds, from the Chateau Ste. Michelle, Red Diamond, and Columbia Crest labels (see Wineau, "Live Poorly, Drink Richly," 10/18/06). This year, we turned to three different whites from those same labels: a Sauvignon Blanc, a Chardonnay, and a Gewürztraminer.

"Lovely" is the word that came to mind upon sipping the 2005 Chateau Ste. Michelle Sauvignon Blanc ($5.99), which had a light aroma; lively, pleasantly lemon taste; and an aftertaste of hard candy. This wine, with its almost imperceptible fizz, was everybody's favorite — others praised its crisp simplicity, nice balance, classic Sauvignon Blanc grassiness, and green melon flavor. Ever the foodie, my sippin' sister imagined it paired with a Mediterranean chicken salad and sliced tomatoes sprinkled with chopped basil and a drizzle of vinaigrette.

We were all less impressed with the 2003 Red Diamond Chardonnay ($5.99), which had a distasteful aroma I pegged as gasoline and Sippin' Sister called "chemical." As usual, our Token Winemaker one-upped us and identified it as diacetyl, a buttery scent that results from malolactic fermentation during the winemaking process. The Red Diamond's bitter taste was unredemptive.

The super-sweetie of our tasting was of course the 2006 Columbia Crest Gewürztraminer ($4.99), which delighted with its floral, fruity nose. This one would be great on its own or with Sippin' Sister's suggested menu of green grapes and sugar cookies, or a cheese course. Drink it in a party dress. — Blair Campbell

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