Updated: Nov 2, 2022
Cooler, drier, and sunnier than Napa; warmer than Bordeaux… Washington’s high desert and river valleys are perfect for fine wine production.
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Thanks to the Perfect Storm of climate change, scientific advances in viticulture and œnology, and an ever-expanding market, we presently live in a world awash with wine from dozens of American states as well as dozens of foreign countries. Do we really need wine from a state that needs to tell us that it's a state? Spoiler Alert: Yes, but please read on to find out why.
For many of my generation, this mostly regrettable show was our first awareness that “Washington” was also the name of a state. I recommend uncorking a Columbia Valley Merlot and drinking A LOT of it while you enjoy this pilot episode.
It is perfectly understandable if you’ve never tasted a Washington State wine. Although Washington ranks second behind California in annual wine production, it is a distant second– the Golden State is scheduled to pump out 680 million gallons this year, while Washington will bottle barely one-seventeenth that amount. And while California had its 1976 Judgment in Paris and Oregon Pinot Noir its “Rocky Moment” at the 1979 Olympics against the best of Burgundy, Washington winemakers never benefited from any such public embarrassment at the expense of their supposedly superior French counterparts. (Chateau Ste. Michelle, the state’s most important winery, did win a slew of gold medals at a 1983 Italian wine competition.) Furthermore, most regions both nationally and worldwide have a signature variety with which they are closely identified… think New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Oregon Pinot Noir, German Riesling, Argentine Malbec, Californian Cabernet Sauvignon & Chardonnay, and so forth. But Washington State? Not too many people this side of Austria have heard of Lemberger, a.k.a. Blaufränkisch, which for many years seemed destined to become Washington State’s name-tag red wine.
With so many strikes against it and so many alternative sources of decent wine, one may rightly wonder why we should even bother. However, Washington State is blessed by nature with an especially excellent wine-growing climate and geography that enable the profitable production of what are arguably the greatest retail values in the entire wine universe. And why, you surely wonder, is that? As a former professional wine geek, I can personally attest that the universe of wine is a seemingly bottomless pit of information, 99% of which is utterly meaningless to 99% of the wine-drinking public. Indeed, I figured out a long time ago that all one needed to know about a wine is A.) what it tastes like; and B.) what it costs. And if it tastes good AND it's a good value, I don’t give a crap if the vines were grown over Marylin Monroe’s grave or in the end zone at MetLife Stadium. So I’ll save some column inches by focusing on Washington State’s WINES… if you are interested in the detailed history of its wine industry and how it got where it is today, you can start by clicking HERE.
That being said, there are certainly some significant factors I think are worth mentioning here that make Washington State wines that are consistently excellent as well as a comparative bargain relative to their Californian and French Counterparts–
The yellow area is notoriously rainy, while the rest of the state is either dry or drier. The Columbia Valley AVA (legally-designated American Viticultural Area) is shown in tan, and it contains Walla Walla (dark green), the source of Washington’s most highly-rated and expensive wines, as well as several other important sub-AVA’s. The decommissioned Hanford Nuclear Reservation sits right smack in the middle of the Columbia Valley AVA, at the junction of the Yakima and Columbia Rivers near Kennewick and Pasco.
CHEAP LAND (AND THE “KINGDOM-COME” FACTOR)
Napa Valley land is very expensive, while High Desert Washington land is not. This might be because of Napa’s short drive to San Francisco and Silicon Valley as compared to many a Washington winery’s close proximity to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, a decommissioned plutonium production plant and current nuclear waste storage facility. Furthermore, Napa Valley is for a number of reasons a hip destination, while the High Desert of south-central Washington is largely devoid of trees, people, and just about everything else one normally associates with “a nice place to live.” The costs and/or value of land is automatically incorporated into the cost of a wine, and therefore the upshot of this vast discrepancy in land values is that Washington wines tend to be less expensive than Napa Valley wines of similar quality. (To be fair, I’ve personally driven through the city of Yakima, WA right in the heart of Washington wine country and it appears to be a really nice place. I could see myself living there, even in spite of lying within vaporizing radius of some sub-atomic mishap that the experts claim is impossible.)
DRY CLIMATE AND LOUSY SOIL
The drier the climate, the darker and richer the wine… and they don’t call Central Washington State a desert for nothing. And the soil? Not much else grows in the desert… and history has taught us that grapes that must struggle to ripen tend to become sturdier and more interesting wines. (Note to parents everywhere– re-read that last sentence a few times.) It does bear mentioning that much of Washington State is a temperate rain forest and/or an agricultural powerhouse, a leading grower of apples, cherries, and other fruits as well as lumber. But grapevines often grow best where not much else will, and such is the case in the great wine regions of Washington.
ABUNDANT & RELENTLESS SUNSHINE
Washington’s wine regions are situated at or near 46ºN, a latitude that provides 15 hours of sun in the days of early summer, two precious hours more than in Napa Valley. This means that, paired with the Northwest’s cooler temperatures and low humidity, Washington grapes enjoy the same (sugar-producing) heat accumulation as Napa over the course of a season while basking in more of the sun exposure responsible for complex flavor development. The general consequence as manifested in the bottle is (red) wine that stylistically falls nicely between the super-ripe Californians with their high alcohol, cushy tannins, and full-frontal fruit, and the leaner, earthier, more minerally reds of Bordeaux… in other words, Washington wines often embody the best of both worlds. And in the deft hands of an experienced winemaker, Washington reds often come closer to the perfect sweet spot of price and quality than do similarly-priced reds from either Napa or Bordeaux.
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So– you expect me to name names, right? I’ll start with the grapes. As my friend and de Negocé mastermind Cameron Hughes puts it, “While Cabernet is King in Napa Valley, I think it's safe to say that Syrah reigns in Walla Walla. I would argue, however, that the oft-overlooked Queen of both regions is Merlot.” What the wine maestro means for our purposes here is that the noble Syrah variety– the star soloist in France’s Hermitage region that also garners great acclaim Down Under as “Shiraz”-- outperforms all other varieties in Washington’s southeasternmost and arguably finest vineyards, with Merlot a close second. And among all the excellent Walla Walla Syrahs, Cayuse Vineyards presently occupies the pinnacle. Leonetti Cellar, meanwhile, holds sway as the dean of similarly expensive Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot producers in Walla Walla, with Woodward Canyon a somewhat more affordable and perfectly good option.
But Washington State means great value to me, so we leave the high-priced aisle and head to the bargains.
Formed by the 1969 merger of two wineries with roots going back to prohibition, Chateau Ste. Michelle thus lays claim (by lineage) to being Washington’s oldest winery. They are certainly the most important. After committing themselves to fine wine production (bringing in Napa winemaking legend Andre Tchelischeff, previously discussed at length here) Chateau Ste. Michelle became not only Washington’s largest wine producer but also the biggest in the Pacific Northwest (Idaho actually has a significant wine industry) and a reliable source for good, inexpensive wines, both reds and whites.
The inaugural 1969 release from the newly-formed Ste. Michelle Vineyards– 1967 Cabernet Sauvignon, produced under the guidance of Napa Valley legend Andre Tchelischeff. This release marked the beginning of Washington State’s march toward qualitative (if not quantitative) parity with California.
Meanwhile, Columbia Crest Winery could be described as a “spin-off” of Ste. Michelle and offers some of the world’s best values in very inexpensive premium varietal wines (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, a blend thereof, and Syrah, as well as Chardonnay.) The structural relationship between parent and child companies seems intentionally downplayed, but I found this history of their umbrella company that firmly links the two.
Columbia Winery (without the “Crest”) was founded in 1962 as Associated Vinters by several former (wine-loving) professors at the University of Washington. Uncanny Parallel Universe Alert– Ridge Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains south of San Francisco was founded right around the same time by wine-loving engineers at the Stanford Research Institute… very interesting coincidence. I have found the reds of Columbia Winery– particularly their Merlot– utterly delicious and surprisingly affordable for their quality. I had been sitting on half a case of their 2016 Merlot that displayed a little “funk” in its youth, the kind of funk that, in a much pricier wine, indicates the need for long aging. I recently opened a bottle, and it was fabulous– like a serious right-bank Bordeaux that had aged beautifully.
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Appropriately, perhaps, the wine business is in constant ferment… success is seemingly punished, at least for those of us consumers who wistfully cling to our romanticized visions of rustic farmers picking and stomping their own grapes… or else maybe we see the wine we’ve been purchasing for years suddenly locked down to all but the very wealthy. Alas, Washington State is no more immune to such evolution than anywhere else. Chateau Ste. Michelle has changed hands through multiple mergers and acquisitions in the tobacco industry and is presently owned by Sycamore Partners, a NY private equity firm. Columbia Winery, meanwhile, is now owned by the giant Gallo Wine Empire. I always find it hard to trust wineries to maintain their quality when they are run by suits in boardrooms thousands of miles away.
And those masterpiece boutique Walla Walla reds that you thought were your little secret? Try to buy some Cayuse Vineyards Syrah and see how far you get. Consider these quotes from their comment section– “I waited probably 7 years on the waiting list to be placed on their mailing list…” and “do not go to the address listed as the winery is actually in Oregon across the border and is only open once a year for release weekend, If you get invited…” and “Can't even get a return call from these folks. This is a change from years ago when we actually could take in the tasting room.” In the wine business, that’s progress, folks.
But one needn’t worry. The conditions that make Washington wines so wonderful– the scraggly soil, the high desert climate, the low land values relative to elsewhere– will almost surely remain pretty much constant for the foreseeable future. (Nuclear waste has a rather long half-life, after all.) For every Cayuse- and Leonetti-like winery that graduates to the super-exclusive mailing-list-only stratosphere, there will always be upstart wineries established by the army of young and passionate winemakers that they’ve trained over the years. Wine is a moving target, after all, so we wine lovers have to keep moving as well.
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And finally– What about the Whites?
I’ve made scant mention of the white wines of Washington, and for a few good reasons. California presently has 180 square miles of Chardonnay vines, and imported versions regularly arrive in our ports by the ship-load from just about every wine-producing region on Earth. Washington Chardonnay is perfectly good and often a great value, but I think it safe to say that no one would miss it if it vanished. In short, the Big Three red varieties– Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah– are what make Washington’s AVA’s vitally important.
Riesling, however, is another story, for Washington has justifiably been crowned the seat of Great American Riesling. (New York’s Finger Lakes Region runs a respectable second.) Chateau Ste. Michelle has even partnered with Ernst Loosen from Germany’s Mosel Valley to produce Eroica, a line of Washington-grown and bottled Rieslings that run from excellent (dry, for ~$25) to ultra-exquisite (single-berry picked, as in German Trockenbeerenauslese, and retailing for about $160/half-bottle.) They also bottle ice wine when weather conditions at harvest permit.
And yet… it’s Riesling… An American sportswriter once quipped that “Soccer is the sport of the future in the USA… and always will be.” Sad to say that the same might be said about Riesling, a grape variety that belongs in the highest tier of noble varieties (see “The Royal Sisterhood”) and yet remains underappreciated by the wine-drinking public. Until that changes, that means more of it at great prices for those of us who recognize and appreciate its world-class charms. If the evolution of Washington State wines has taught us anything, we should be chasing down some of the entry-level Eroica before it suddenly becomes a must-have in the Hamptons and the rest of us are relegated to a long waiting list.