Wine Ink: Wines of the great Northwest
If I uttered the phrase “Washington wine,” you might roll your eyes and assume I am talking about the extreme state of dysfunction coming out of our nation’s capital.
But, as this is a wine column, when I use the phrase I am, of course, referring to the state of Washington — the second-largest producer of wine in America, but one that seems to ride a bit under the radar for most consumers.
Quick, name three Washington wineries!
Well, there is Chateau Ste. Michelle, and then there is … yes, I know, unless you are an aficionado of the wines of Washington, or more likely, have spent some time in Washington wine country, then you may be hard pressed to name many of the spectacular offerings of the state. Walk into liquor stores and wine shops and the wines from Washington generally occupy a small section or are even mixed by varietal with California and Oregon offerings. Even extensive wine lists outside of the great Northwest seem to be light on wines produced in the Evergreen State.
But that could be changing.
I believe that the 2020s may be the decade in which awareness and recognition may finally be rightfully bestowed on what is one of the most diverse and authentic wine regions in the world. One that features a wide range of varietals, wine styles and visitor opportunities. This could be the decade Washington wine gets its due.
Why? Well, the obvious answer is quality. The wines from Washington have never been better. Riesling has long been a well-known sweet spot in Washington wines and velvety merlot from the southeastern pocket of Walla Walla is a staple. But in recent years, chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon, the two most popular wines among American consumers, have emerged as varietals that are at home in Washington’s fertile soils. Then there is silky syrah, lush grenache and a few winemakers who are focused on producing wines from Italian varietals like sangiovese.
That quality quest has also introduced dramatic growth in the Washington wine scene. There are around 1,000 wineries in the state ranging from privately owned estate producers in the Yakima and Columbia Valley AVAs to a vibrant urban wine scene in Seattle, the state’s largest city. Wine tourism in Woodinville, home to the aforementioned Chateau Ste. Michelle, has exploded with over 130 wine tasting rooms.
And then there is money. In the past decade, the big boys took investments in the future of Washington wines. E. & J. Gallo bought the Columbia Winery and Covey Run brands back in 2012 and recently acquired Hogue Cellars as part of a deal with Constellation Brands. For its part, Constellation invested in a number of Charles Smith brands in 2016. And Precept, a privately held, Seattle-based wine company, is a serious player amassing a portfolio of wineries and partnerships, including one with Cavatappi, a producer of the Italian varietals I mentioned earlier.
But if there is one region in the state where money has played an outsized role it would be the hot, literally and figuratively, Red Mountain AVA. A hill really rather than a mountain, the dry, arid dust that was left behind by the Missoula Floods over 10,000 years ago has become gold to wine investors.
Investors include Chateau Ste. Michelle who in partnership with the Antinoris built Col Solare, Napa Valley’s Duckhorn Wine Company, which owns Canvasback Winery and the Aquilini family of Canada, who have invested millions in the purchase of nearly 20% of the 4,000 acre AVA, Washington state’s smallest. There is also a project that pairs local viticulturist Ryan Johnson with Microsoft alum Cam Myhrvold to grow Rhône varietals in a vineyard dubbed WeatherEye. Money is not the object for these investors. Quality is the goal.
One of the more interesting dynamics of the Washington wine scene is geography. The vast majority of the grapes are grown in the eastern two thirds of the state in regions that are agricultural meccas. But the majority of consumers are on the western coast, on the other side of the Cascade Mountains. So much of the wine industry is evolving where the people are. It is not unusual for winemakers in Washington to source their grapes from the heartland, and transport them to Seattle to make their wines. On the other hand, and the other side of the state, Walla Walla, a small agricultural town with a rich wine heritage, reigns as the most authentic wine community in Washington.
The confluence of charm, cash and increasingly great juice sets the stage for the 2020s to be the decade of Washington wine.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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