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Here, A Glass Is Always Being Raised

By Matt McMillen
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 6, 2005; Page F06

When Jodi Finder Harris ordered a bottle of pinot noir recently, her friends teased her for following the wine fashion of the moment.

"I actually liked pinot noirs before the movie came out," she said of the red wine that's become a trendy bestseller after its supporting role in the hit movie "Sideways."

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But Harris, 32, developed her fondness for pinots in 2003, when visiting the Willamette Valley in Oregon. If she is following any trend, it is the long-established, and growing, interest in wine throughout the Washington area.

The region ranked fifth among the top 50 U.S. metropolitan markets for per capita wine consumption in a 2004 survey by Adams Beverage Group. Within the past three months, according to Scarborough Research, which tracks consumer markets, nearly half of Washington area adults bought a bottle of wine, making them 25 percent more likely to have done so than the national average.

It is fitting, then, that one of the current U.S. Supreme Court cases challenging state laws that prohibit the direct shipping of wine to consumers across state lines has emerged from the Washington area -- a region where wine, and wine knowledge, are a growth industry.

"People in the Washington area have decided that wine is a subject worth studying," said Dick Rosano, a wine teacher at L'Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda. "They don't want to drink the same wines all the time. They want to explore beyond their favorites."

At L'Academie, the number of classes has grown fourfold during the last decade, according to administrative director Patrice Dionot.

Kelli Walbourn, wine buyer for the Cleveland Park restaurant Palena, says there is no easy description of the typical wine drinker. "You can never tell where the interest will come from," she said. "They are well-traveled people in their fifties and sixties and young people who I wonder, 'Should I card them?' " What they have in common, she said, is that they have become much more focused on where and how the 30-plus wines on her list are made.

Enthusiasm doesn't always translate into commercial success. Wine bars popular in the 1980s later closed, but there's a more recent crop, including Grapeseed and Oakville Grille in Bethesda, Tallulah in Arlington and the Mendocino Grille in Georgetown.

What excites Todd Thrasher, sommelier at Restaurant Eve in Old Town Alexandria, is his customers' enthusiasm for talking and learning about wine rather than just ordering something familiar, like an "overoaked" chardonnay.

"People don't come here for big-name wines," says Thrasher, 35. "They want to try new things," like chenin blanc from South Africa -- "so food-friendly and beautiful" -- and syrahs from California's central coast, which he predicts will be "the next big thing."

But Washington area drinkers are already ahead of that trend, almost 30 percent more likely to have bought syrah in the past three months compared with the national average, according to Scarborough Research.

L'Academie wine instructor Ted Task tells his students to "get out of the rut." Wine drinking and wine pairings should be informal," said Task, who likes to pair Asian food with Australian Rieslings and goat curries with fruity red zinfandels. "If it matches the food and fits your pocketbook, that's a great bottle of wine."

Last month, 12,000 people attended the two-day Washington International Wine & Food Festival. That's more than double the number in 2000. About 1,700 wines were poured; local chefs demonstrated cooking techniques on several stages with wine pairings included (see recipes on this page).

The world is awash in wine," says Task. "Why always drink the same old thing?"

Matt McMillen last wrote for Food about a Jamaican Easter family feast in Greenbelt.

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