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!
But the history of viticulture goes back to perhaps 1825 with Vitis Vinifera
vines being planted in Walla Walla back in 1860. It's said Muscat had been
planted in 1917 on Snipes Mountain and, we're told, there's still Muscat planted
Prohibition put the brakes on commercial winemaking, as it had in California,
though home winemakers were looking for fruit.
After Prohibition, though, there were more than 40 wineries operating in
Washington State before World War II.
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 more than 900 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 is turning 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.
When we first wrote this web page in the late 1990s, we suggested that Barbera
might prove to be a good quality, viable wine grape in Washington.
Well...we may have been correct as, after a recent visit to the Pacific
Northwest, we found good examples of each!
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 said, then, that Washington State had, as a wine industry, arrived.
With the proliferation of brands and wineries, we are finding some really top
wines. There are some
high-priced bottles which we feel are worthy of their lofty price tags.
And other inexpensive wines which we think are over-priced. This is the
world of wine.
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 from big, industrial producers, 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 would also question wine quality.
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:
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
50,000+ acres are under vine as of 2016.
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 13,215 acres presently. Chardonnay is the predominant
variety followed by Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
WALLA WALLA is not terribly large, comprising but 1,466 acres of vineyards presently.
My limited experience with this area suggests it seems to be the
home of a greater number of serious quality producers. The region is
located within the Columbia Valley appellation, but it also extends beyond the
Washington State border into Oregon. (You don't hear them mention Oregon
being part of the Walla Walla area, by the way, though you'll cross Stateline
Road going from one area to another.) Cabernet Sauvignon
is king in Walla Walla, followed by Merlot, Chardonnay and Syrah.
Within the Walla Walla appellation is a new appellation called
"The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater." And it is a
rocky, cobblestone terroir. This is where one finds some amazing 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 1647 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 92 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.
Despite the small planted acreage, there are 45 wineries presently operating
within the Puget Sound region.
COLUMBIA GORGE is 60 miles east of Portland and Vancouver and it's
a 300 square mile area. Presently there are 336 acres of vinifera 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 SLOPE is one of the driest and warmest in the state.
It's east and a tad north of the city of Yakima with 8,491 acres of
vineyards. Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet, Riesling, Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc 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
12,956 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 1747 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 807 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 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 261 acres planted there.
NACHES HEIGHTS currently is home to 39 acres of
commercially-cultivated vineyards, but the region comprises more than 13,000
acres in total. It became the 12th Washington State AVA in 2011.
ANCIENT LAKES is the 13th Washington State AVA and there are
presently 1600+ acres in an area totaling nearly 163,000 acres. There are
about 35 lakes in this area and Riesling seems to be the primary grape
An interesting move
had been in place some years ago, but has been disbanded. It was called the Washington
Wine Quality Alliance. One of its initiatives was 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
The Washington definition was to 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.
What a concept! Helping the consumer understand the
products in bottle. No wonder they pulled the plug on that initiative!
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!
((Some California regions, Napa Valley for one, have a mandate prohibiting
producers from using the names Burgundy and Chablis for their wines. But
you'll still see Burgundy and Chablis on wines from California's Central
Washington State says "no!" to this practice.
The wine industry is in full bloom and it continues to blossom in
Check out the recent "Grape Production Report" and you'll see a
substantial amount of fruit was produced in 2015: 222,000 tons.
For comparison, though, California's production tallied to 3.69 million tons for
the same year.
For comparison, the average price for a ton of grapes in
California's Napa Valley was more than $4,000!
Napa's Cabernet crop averaged more than $6,000 per ton, with Chardonnay costing
close to $2,600 per ton.
There are many good wines to be had in Washington State and given the difference
in the cost of production, consumers should look there for price-worthy
alternatives to many of the ridiculously expensive wines from the aptly-named
Some Washington Wines We Like: