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Last week, I had the pleasure of attending a wine dinner that paired selections from the Abeja Winery with the cuisine of Red Bird restaurant. This was easily one of the best meals and pairings I have experienced in a long time and can simply be described as exquisite.

Red Bird outdid themselves with a six-course menu featuring selections that ranged from truffle-pistachio sausage to caramelized banana-walnut baked Alaska. The attention to detail applied to each course far exceeded my expectations, and the wines brilliantly complemented the flavors, textures and nuances of each dish.

Abeja wines rate as one of my Top 10 favorites from Washington state, and I have been enjoying them ever since returning to this side of the country in 2004. I can't recall my first Abeja experience, but the wines have become a favorite, both for serving at my own dinners and as a reliable hostess gift.

Abeja, pronounced "ah-BAY-ha," is Spanish for "bee." The name is a nod both to the Latino workers who have been instrumental in the growth of the Northwest wine industry and to the respect that the winery has for Mother Nature, honoring one of her most valuable workers so vital to our ecosystem, the bee.

Winemaker John Abbott and his partner, marketer Molly Galt, along with Ginger and Ken Harrison, collectively own Abeja. Located on a hundred-year-old farm east of the town of Walla Walla in Washington state and established as a winery and bed and breakfast in 2000, the original estate was built between 1903 and 1907. Harrison began the restoration of the property, as well as vineyard plantings, in 1997. Abbot joined him in 2002, just after the 2001 harvest of Abeja's first vintage. The two men teamed up with the shared vision of quality and a passion for Cabernet Sauvignon, the varietal that both men believe will ultimately be recognized as the icon varietal of Washington State.

Currently, Abeja is producing 4,000 cases per year, which is a small and limited production in comparison to its counterparts. Even with such diminutive production, however, Abeja is rapidly becoming known for its Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as Chardonnay, Viognier, Merlot and Syrah.

But back to the wine dinner. The evening began with the 2005 Columbia Valley Merlot, which was a nice surprise, as it is more common to start off with a white wine. Paired with the Merlot was a truffle-pistachio sausage in brioche, accompanied by arugula and snap peas. This wine is made from 95 percent Merlot and 5 percent Cabernet Franc, giving it that little touch of brightness on the palate, which accented the slight sweetness of the brioche. The rich and silky tannins played well off the sausage. Luscious dark raspberry, blackberry and dried cherry flavors merge with chocolate, vanilla and delicate spice on the palate, and the evening kicked off with a bang.

The second course fell to the 2006 Washington State Chardonnay, which was paired beside tender grilled squab with black corn tortilla, baby zucchini and sweet corn and avocado-roasted apple timbale. The combination of the perfectly prepared squab and its accompaniments played marvelously against the richness and acidity of the Chardonnay. This Chardonnay was well-balanced with Burgundian attributes such as ripe pineapple, melon and fresh stone fruits, followed by a touch of spice, toasted almond and minerality. The finish was long, with flavors evocative of campfire s'mores, minus the chocolate.

The third course was the 2007 Walla Walla Viognier accompanied by a spot prawn-filled ravioli in a red curry-prawn broth accompanied by a toasted cumin-serrano chili-pear slaw. This pairing was genius and my mouth is watering as I recall the course. The Abeja Viognier has to be one of the best Viogniers I have had recently, and Red Bird's creativity with the pairing made this an unforgettable experience. The Viognier is a 100 percent estate fruit, and carefully cropped to less than two tons per acre. It is then very carefully pressed and barrel fermented in neutral French oak, resulting in a wine with prominent tropical fruit flavors and a hint of jasmine and orange blossoms. It is truly an amazingly full-bodied, flavorful and exotic wine.

The fourth course was the 2006 Walla Walla Syrah with an olive oil and five spice poached halibut in a red wine reduction. I have to admit I was skeptical. Syrah and poached halibut? But the pairing was executed beautifully, the five spice and red wine reduction were the magic ingredients to bring the pair together. I did keep some of the Syrah to taste with the next course, but really enjoyed the flavors of the dish with the lush and soft flavors of this wine. The copious amount of dark berry fruit and hints of smoke, licorice and cherry liquor create a delightfully food-friendly wine with solid fruit and mouth-watering acidity.

Words fail to explain the fifth course, but suffice it to say it was an award-winning, epic food and wine experience not easily forgotten. The 2005 Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon paired with the Cabernet-infused grilled beef tenderloin with fried mountain gorgonzola, heirloom tomatoes, roasted mushroom and bone marrow butter made time stand still. The wine beautifully framed the dish, its flavors shining with notes of dark ripe plums, cherries, black currants and bitter sweet chocolate, all wrapped around a core of earthy tobacco and dried herb notes. Finishing with ripe, finely tuned tannins that lingered on the palate, this wine is balanced, stylish and powerful.

I didn't think I could go on, but as the beautifully presented final course of chocolate biscotti, caramelized banana-walnut baked Alaska and zeppoli made its way to my table, I had to forge ahead for the sake of my job. It was a delectable and perfect ending to an amazing evening.

Abeja wines are available at Good Food Store and Worden's, but I suggest you stop into the Red Bird and pair the Abeja wines with something brilliant from their menu. Or, take a drive over to Walla Walla and stay at the Abeja Inn for a firsthand experience of this talented winery that is creating such a buzz.

Kate Murphy is the wine writer for the Missoulian and Missoula.com magazine. Check out her blog at KnowYourVino.com. She can be reached at (406) 523-0486 or by e-mail at kate.murphy@missoulian.com.

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