I’ve just returned from the Wine Bloggers Conference in Walla Walla, Washington where I spent a week exploring the Columbia Valley AVA. It has made an indelible mark on my wine loving soul. I learned so much, met so many amazing wine makers and had so many wonderful experiences that it has been hard to know where to begin in sharing it.
I heard people say more than once while I was there that the Columbia Valley reminds them of Napa Valley 20 years ago. Obviously that is meant to be a compliment. If you are an American and you love wine, you have nothing but love for the Napa Valley, myself included. This comment, however, somehow implies that Napa is the standard to aspire to, and maybe in terms of world wide recognition, that is true. But if we are comparing the regions based on the quality of wine produced, spoiler alert, Washington state is already there.
On the other end of that spectrum is the fact that since I’ve been back home, I’ve had more than one person ask “Washington, they’re known for wine?” So, my first article (and there will be many) on Washington wine is to shed a little light on the state as a whole.
Facts & Figures:
There are 14 AVA’s in Washington, with the Columbia Valley being where 99% of the grapes are grown. The Columbia Valley is very large, taking up about 1/3 of the state’s land mass and crossing over the border into Oregon. There are 56,000+ acres under vine. Of the 14 appellations in Washington, only two lie outside of the Columbia Valley — Columbia Gorge and Puget Sound. Washington is the 2nd largest wine producer in the U.S. For a “quick and dirty” breakdown on Washington State wine, click here.
The 2017 harvest resulted in 229,000 tons of grapes, the majority of which were Cabernet Sauvignon, followed by Merlot and Syrah for red grapes. Chardonnay and Riesling lead the pack for whites. You can get the full 2017 harvest report here.
If you haven’t been to this area of the country, you might be surprised to find that the eastern half of the state, divided by the Cascade mountain range, is a desert climate – with only 5-8 inches of rain per year. Sage brush grows abundantly and the hills are gold. The summer sees more than 16 hours of sunlight a day, with great diurnal temperature shifts making ideal grape growing conditions.
What the World Knows:
While it may be a surprise to many casual wine drinkers that Washington is producing world class quality wine, it is not such a surprise to industry professionals. There are iconic winemakers from Germany, France and Italy who have all sought out partnerships with Chateau Ste. Michelle, Washington State’s first and largest wine producer.
World renown German Reisling producer Dr. Loosen, has partnered with Chateau Ste. Michelle to produce Washington State Reisling under the Eroica label. Two French winemakers, Michel Glassier and Phillipe Cambie, have partnered on the production of Rhone style wines under the Tenet label.
Perhaps the partnership that has garnered the most acclaim is with Tuscan wine producer Marchesi Antinori (the partnership purchased Napa Valley’s iconic Stag’s Leap Cellars in 2007), producing Col Solare, from vineyards at the top of the acclaimed Red Mountain AVA.
“Antinori’s renowned Solaia and Tignanello wines revolutionized the Italian wine industry in the 1970s …… In Washington, he found old-world character, structure and fruit expression in the vineyards and cellars. He then turned to Chateau Ste. Michelle to form a partnership, based on the mutual pursuit of grape-growing and wine making philosophies.”
Red Mountain AVA is also home to the vineyards for Canvass Back. A Canvass Back is duck that is native to the Columbia Valley and so it makes sense that this is what Napa’s iconic Duckhorn owners chose to call the wine they produce here.
“After conducting extensive blind tastings between Napa Valley and Washington Cabernet Sauvignons, we become extremely excited about the quality and character of the wines from Washington State—in particular the exceptional Cabernet Sauvignons from Red Mountain. Working with legendary Washington vineyard manager Dick Boushey, we begin cultivating relationships with the growers who farm some of the appellation’s most esteemed vineyards.”
Mullan Road is owned by Dennis Cakebread, yes that Cakebread. He produces amazing Washington wines, which have received numerous accolades.
Owen Roe is another award winning producer that began in another region but saw the potential in Washington. Owner and winemaker, David O’Reilly has been producing Willamette Valley Pinot Noir since 1999, but in 2005 he began his vineyard and winery in the Yakima Valley.
Snipes Mountain AVA, a sub appellation of the Yakima Valley AVA, has produced several highly rated Syrah wines, including Charles Smith’s which has received a Robert Parker score of 99 for the 2012 and a Jeb Dunnuck 100 score for the 2015. Several other producers consistently receive 95+ ratings for their Syrah wines produced from Snipes Mountain.
L’Ecole No. 41 is one of the original in Walla Walla Valley wineries, where there are now more than 100, producing absolutely outstanding wines. Their Merlot held its own with Duckhorn in a Masters of Merlot class that I had the pleasure of attending and will be writing more about at a later date.
Great wine aside, maybe the best thing about the area is that the region is welcoming. Every wine maker I met was intricately involved in their vineyards and seemed to have a deep appreciation for the agriculture industry they are all a part of. They love what they are doing and the region they belong to and they want to share it with you.
I could go on, but wouldn’t you rather just go buy some Washington wine and find out for yourself? If I haven’t convinced you, it’s ok, I have no doubt you will eventually come across a Washington State wine that will.
Washington State has never seen Phylloxera. Say what? I hold a CSW and I did not know this. I thought the only place in the world that this was true of was Chile. The vines in Washington are UNGRAFTED. That’s right. Original rootstock. One winemaker mentioned she believed that is what makes Washington state wines so special – a slight increase in the concentration of flavor due to the grapes being grown on original rootstock. An opinion obviously, but intriguing isn’t it?
Full Disclosure Policy: This is the first article of three that I agreed to write in exchange for discounted Citizen Blogger admission to the 2018 Wine Bloggers Conference (Zephyr Conferences).