Washington State has been a source of Vitis Labrusca (jelly jar)
grape varieties for a number of years. Early wine production centered on
"fruit" and "berry" wines, with Chateau Ste. Michelle being in
production back in the 1930s!
In 1967 Ste. Michelle undertook the seemingly risky proposition of vinifying wine
grapes. The massive crop of Concord grapes were destined for making jelly, soft
drinks or to be shipped in some form to California wineries for "pop wine"
production. The "American Wine Growers" had planted some Vinifera
in the 1950s. The first decade of production saw these grapes being blended with
Concord to produce "burgundy" and "port" wines.
Francisco Bay Area wine
writer Leon Adams ventured to Washington in 1966 and commented it was a shame to waste
such potentially fine fruit for such low quality wine. He was instrumental in
dragging the famous Napa Valley winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff to Washington. They
tasted the wines and gave the "thumbs down" to all. A home winemaker known
to Adams provided a sample of Gewürztraminer which shocked the daylights out of poor Mr.
Tchelistcheff. It was, to Tchelistcheff's taste, the finest Gewürztraminer
Encouraged by this one wine, Tchelistcheff accepted the challenge and sent along
instructions for growing the vinifera vines. Reducing the crop size was a major
revelation, for example.
The first vintages were 1967 and 1968 and Tchelistcheff and Adams returned to taste the
early results. These initial bottlings led to the booming industry that exists in
Washington State today.
"American Wine Growers" sold its Chateau Ste. Michelle winery to U.S. Tobacco
Company in 1974. Major sums of money were invested in new vineyards, new production
facilities and a new visitors center. Today there are nearly 100 wineries operating
in Washington State.
For years we've tasted through the wines which are "exported" to our market
here in the San Francisco Bay Area. Few wines were able to compete with those made
in Napa and Sonoma.
I remember tasting especially good Rosé made by Ste. Michelle from Grenache.
Thoroughly delicious; they managed to capture the raspberry notes of really good,
ripe, mature Grenache grapes in that wine. The market, apparently, didn't salute
that flag and it was dropped from the portfolio. Too bad they didn't know what to do
with it way-back-when!
Riesling has, typically, done well in Washington. Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc have
Merlot was, initially, more attractive than Washington State Cabernet
Sauvignon wines. That's changed as there are some world-class Cabernets
being made there.
Pinot Noir hasn't worked out thus far...better in Oregon where the grape
Syrah might turn out
to be a variety suited to Washington, though many current efforts are priced as high as top Rhone
wines, with but a few offering anything especially distinctive or complex...
Viognier seems well-suited to the region.
Barbera might be a good variety for Washington State,
but it seems nobody there is aware of this Italian grape variety.
We've seen a marked improvement in
the wines from Washington and a number of wineries have our respect as solid winemakers,
easily amongst the elite in America.
Way back in 1998 we conducted a blind-tasting of
Washington State "Clarets" (Cabernets, Merlots and blends of those
varieties). Seven of the eight wines were quite good. This tasting, coming on
the heels of a set of expensive Napa Valley (I know! You're thinking "That's
redundant!") Cabernets was very revealing. These wines were easily as
good as the top Napa wines. In fact, most tasters commented that in the Napa
tasting, only a few wines were of interest. In the Washington tasting, the top
four or five were terrific.
We'd say Washington State has, as a wine industry, arrived. And it has a
very bright future ahead of it.
There are hundreds of wineries coming from Washington. There are some
high-priced bottles which we feel are worthy of their lofty price tags.
We're been buying and tasting some new brands which have been well-received in
their home market. Most have been well-made and featuring a lavish oak
treatment, but we have to say many rely on the wood more than they do the
If the evolution follows the patterns of California's young wine industry, the
winemakers will continue to refine their skills (in the vineyard, in the tasting
of their own wines and in their winemaking) and the vineyards will mature
as will the winemaking.
To those whose evaluation of Washington wines has been based on the most modest quality
wines, keep in mind those whose view of California viticulture is based on Paul Masson
carafes, Mondavi's Woodbridge jugs and Glen Ellen or Sutter Home's 187ml, twist-top
4packs! Until you've tasted some of the best wines of any region, please reserve
For the few adventuresome souls who shop in our humble little wine emporium, we have
some exceptional Washington State wines for you.
Washington State has many viticultural areas.
COLUMBIA VALLEY is seen on many wine labels. It is a huge
area which includes smaller viticultural areas:
HORSE HEAVEN HILLS
The Columbia Valley encompasses most of Washington State's vineyards, as well
as a bit of Oregon (along the Columbia Gorge). It covers more than 11 million
acres (about one-third of the entire state of Washington!). Nearly 6700
acres are under vine as of 2010.
YAKIMA is the "oldest" appellation. It is something like 75
miles long and features wine grapes as well as fruit-juice varieties. It
covers more than 12,000 acres presently. Chardonnay is the predominant
variety followed by Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
WALLA WALLA is not terribly large, comprising but 1,600 acres of vineyards presently.
Growers in Walla Walla are asking the Federal government to expand the boundaries
of the appellation. My limited experience with this area suggests it seems to be the
home of a greater number of serious quality producers. Cabernet Sauvignon
is king in Walla Walla, followed by Merlot, Chardonnay and Syrah.
RED MOUNTAIN is the latest addition to the roster of Washington's
viticultural areas, comprising some 3,600 acres in the southeastern part of the
Yakima Valley. Something like 700 acres are planted presently, the first
vines being cultivated in 1975. The region takes it name not from red
soil, but a reddish-colored grass common in the area. It's not much of a
mountain, either. Elevations range from 500 to 1,500 feet. Klipsun,
Kiona, Hedges and Ciel du Cheval are all located within this district. Cabernet
Sauvignon is the most prominent single variety, followed by Merlot, Cabernet
Franc, Syrah, Sangiovese, Malbec, and Petit Verdot.
PUGET SOUND is a tiny appellation in western
Washington and there are something like 80
acres planted. Madeleine Angevine, Siegerebbe and Muller-Thurgau are the
predominant varietals. Madeline Angevine is thought to have its home in
France's Loire Valley, but is said to find some success in the Puget Sound area.
COLUMBIA GORGE is 60 miles east of Portland and Vancouver and it's
a 300 square mile area. Presently there are 500 acres of vineyards planted
there. The western-most part of this region gets significant rainfall and
it's ideal for early-ripening varieties such as Pinot Noir, Riesling, Gewürztraminer
and Pinot Gris. The eastern typically sees about 25% of the rain of the
west and later-ripening grapes such as Cabernet, Syrah, Barbera and even
Zinfandel are found there.
WAHLUKE SLOPEis one of the driest and warmest in the state.
It's east and a tad north of the city of Yakima with 5,200 acres of
vineyards. Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet are the leading varieties.
HORSE HEAVEN HILLS is in southeast Washington, bordered by the
Yakima Valley to the north and the Columbia River to the south. There are
8,400 acres of vineyards there currently with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot
being the predominate varieties, though 35 other cultivars can be found.
Other names associated with this appellation include Alder Ridge, Andrews-Horse
Heaven Vineyard, Canoe Ridge, Champoux Vineyards and Wallula Gap Vineyard.
RATTLESNAKE HILLS is situated 4 miles southeast
of Yakima and there are currently 1500 acres of vineyards within this
appellation. Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Merlot lead the way
SNIPES MOUNTAIN is a rather recently designated
area, located within the Yakima appellation. There are 665 acres of
vineyards between the actual Snipes Mountain and its eastern edge of Harrison
Hill. It's said the first wine grapes in Washington were planted in this
area, someone putting Muscat vines into the ground back in 1917!
LAKE CHELAN is Washington's newest appellation and it's about
halfway between Seattle and Spokane. The region may have had wine grapes
planted back as far as the late 1890s, with more than a hundred acres under vine
in 1949. Today there are some 260 acres planted there.
An interesting move is afoot. It's called the Washington
Wine Quality Alliance. One of its initiatives is to restrict the use of the word
"Reserve" on wine labels. As you may know, many California wineries (Glen
Ellen, Kendall Jackson, etc.) use the word "reserve" on just about every wine
they produce. The Washington definition would restrict the usage. No more than
10% of the production of a given type of wine or 3,000 cases (whichever is greater) may be
designated as "Reserve." The other feature of this notion is that
"reserve" must appear on higher-priced bottles of wine.
You won't find "Burgundy," "Chablis" or "Champagne" on
labels of Washington wines. California allows wineries to use the names of foreign
places on the labels of wines produced in The Golden State. You can bet Napa
winemakers wouldn't be thrilled with wineries in Europe using "Napa" or
"Stag's Leap" on French or Italian wines. Yet California allows its
producers to use the names of French and Italian wine regions on the labels of its wines!
Washington State says "no!" to this practice.
A FEW RECENT THOUGHTS/DEVELOPMENTS:
Most recently there has been a tremendous increase in the number of
Washington State wine brands. With this increase we've also noted a
tremendous escalation of prices.
This is disturbing, because it seems to us as though many Washington
vintners have learned to charge premium prices for their wares before
they've learned to put wine worthy of those price tags into the
(Oregon and California! Are you listening, too?)
We conducted a blind-tasting of Cabernets and Cabernet blends and the
wines ranged in price from $28 to $100. Most were priced in the
$40-$50 range and were did not find many wines to be, frankly, worth this
kind of money.
Keep in mind, too, there are many recently-planted vines in Washington
State. It's not like very many vintners are making "old
vines" wines from really low yield vineyards. And the wines
don't afford the consumer a measure of history, having a track record of
We are excited by the prospects for a bright future for the wines and
wineries of Washington State.
But given the huge range of pricing and quality, consumers should rely
upon a good wine merchant to wade through the plonk and find wines worthy