Washington State brought us Kurt Cobain, Nirvana, Seattle Grunge artist Chris Cornell, Jimi Hendrix, Twin Peaks, Twilight, Fraser and Bill Gates.
Today it is bringing us super-fine, top level, financially accessible wine. Second only to California in output, Washington State is nurturing solid wine making talent thanks to an insane terroir, ungrafted vines, long sunny days and lower grape prices. Young idealists and wine icons alike come to make the wine they always wanted to make but couldn’t for various reasons. Freedom and foresight are evident in these wines - surely we should expect nothing less from the first state to legalise cannabis. Washington State offers a fresh perspective on most things and wine is no exception.
Washington State is the second largest producer of wine in the United States, second only to California but producing a mere 5% of the nation’s wine. That said the US consumes more wine that anyone else in the world and only Spain, France and Italy make more of it.
Many of the local place names in Washington State owe their heritage to native American tribes. Seattle was named after a native Chief Si’hal and Walla Walla is a native American word meaning ‘many waters’. In the 1930s the local grape industry was based entirely on the indigenous grape Concord. Today there are some 50,000 acres of Vitus vinifera grapes under cultivation in addition to Concord and approximately 800 wineries.
Early US settlers were puzzled when European grape varieties that had been carefully transported from the old world failed to thrive. A rich array of local grapes seemed to suggest the land was ripe for vine cultivation. This was simply because native American vines had long developed resistance to phylloxera. Eventually the problem was solved by grafting Vitis vinifera onto American rootstock. Yet vines in Columbia Valley remain ungrafted because the phylloxera bug avoids hostile sandy desert soils. This is a rare attribute and adds weight to the argument for Washington State’s exceptional terroir.
Washington State has long been famous for fruit cultivation and was widely considered suitable for wine grapes long before the industry took hold. Small test vineyards of Vitis vinifera existed in Walla Walla and Yakima as far back as the nineteenth century when irrigation was first established. The Upland Winery in Yakima had some 165 acres of European vines. Various German varieties were imported in 1938 under the Geisenheim educated Manager Erich Stennborg who clearly understood the local potential for fine wine. It was about this time that Professor Walter Clore was appointed to assess crops suited to irrigation farming in the light of the new Grand Coulee Dam, it would be 1941 before he got to Vitis wine grapes but get to them he did.
Concord – a native American variety ideal for jelly, juice and drinks dominated - in part because of Prohibition but also thanks to high yields and quite simply profit. After the repeal of Prohibition, the State of Washington established a Liquor Control Board which imposed high mark-ups on all imported wines. This made fine wine from outside the state insanely pricey and fostered an industry dominated by fruit wine made from existing instate crops – loganberries, raspberries, strawberries. This was the path of least resistance. Vinifera vines are hugely susceptible to frost and therefore not without risk – why destroy an existing profitable crop market for an unknown quantity?
A further reason for the slow take up may have been cultural, the locals were simply not big wine drinkers. State sponsored sweet high alcohol wines prevailed.
In 1954 the two biggest wineries in Washington merged to become American Wine Growers; this was significant as vinifera cultivation began in earnest - a logical response to the declining market for fruit wine. Protectionism of Washington wines ended in 1969, this meant wine from anywhere could now be sold in local liquor stores without financial penalty. Soon the fruit wine market was on its knees.
In 1963 a group of Washington Professors with a love of home winemaking bought a small plot in Yakima Valley on which to grow fine wine grapes. Calling themselves Associated Vintners, they planted Riesling, Chardonnay, Sémillon, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Gris. Their first wines were released in 1969 to an enraptured reception. They built a small winery and continued to flourish, in 1983 the company they established became Columbia Winery. Today the winery is owned by E & J Gallo - bought in 2012 as part of a multimillion dollar deal.
In 1967 American Wine growers hired Consultant winemaker André Tchelistcheff of Beaulieu Vineyard in Napa Valley. It was a shrewd move, today he is known as the father of quality Napa wine. Legend has it that he was generally unimpressed by the wines he tasted initially but became smitten by a home-made wine he was given by one of the Profs at Associated Vintners. Three years later a Sémillon and a Riesling made under his direction were presented at the American Society of Enologists. The reception was rapturous.
Between 1969 and 1971 some 500 acres of vinifera were planted in Washington. All on their own roots. The United States Tobacco Company bought Chateau. Ste. Michelle in 1973 and began a programme of serious investment. This included planting 500 acres of Yakima Valley with French hybrids. A 1972 Chateau San Michelle Riesling had beaten worldwide competition in a blind tasting competition run by the Los Angeles Times and this encouraged investors. Washington State had started to become the fine wine producing state it is today.
The climate of Washington State is clearly divided into two separate parts, west and east. These lie either side of the Cascade Mountains, a live volcanic range responsible for every volcanic eruption in America that has taken place in the last 200 years.
The wet and mild west features a magnificent Pacific Ocean coastline and beautiful Puget Sound, the inland sea on which rainy Seattle sits. A mere 1% of the state’s total grape production originates from the wet maritime climate in Puget Sound AVA. The region is wildly topographically varied encompassing islands, rain forests mountains and more. It runs all they way from the Canadian border past Seattle to Olympia.
The east is completely different - a huge desert in the rain shadow of the 1400-foot-high Cascade Mountain Range. This range runs north to south on the west coast toward Oregon and serves to restrict rainfall from reaching the east. Irrigation and therefore water rights are crucial to grape cultivation here. The climate is continental with hot summers (sometimes over 100 degrees Fahrenheit) and savage, punishing, frost-heavy winters. Daylight hours are long. The Columbia Valley AVA is vast and encompasses all of the other AVAs in Washington State bar three.
Poor volcanic and sedimentary soils courtesy of the last ice age allow for a wide and exciting range of grape varieties to be cultivated in this huge region. Eastern Washington, more specifically the Columbia Basin is littered with rocky boulders and has a combination of basalt and sedimentary topsoil. The Missoula floods that took place way back at the end of the last ice age are responsible for laying down all kinds of rocks and sedimentary soils across the Pacific Northwest. For this reason the key soil types are usually underlying basalt with alluvial loess above.
A further terroir influencing factor is the Columbia River which flows all the way from Western Idaho, through the Cascades to the Pacific Ocean. It has the second largest water flow behind the Mississippi in the US, and it is crucial for water supply and irrigation in the east. The hills about it present many gentle slopes with both good air drainage (ideal frost protection) and perfect sun exposure – highly desirable for this Cabernet producing northern latitude.
In wine terms Washington State is known for its production of fine wine with, shall we say, European leanings and blends. This is thanks in large part to André Tchelistcheff, the Russian born American winemaker who shaped post Prohibition plantings and championed Bordeaux and Rhone varieties. He mentored Bob Betz of both Chateau Ste. Michelle and latterly Betz Family Winery and famously advised Stags Leap who made the Cabernet Sauvignon that beat Europe at the Judgement of Paris.
Mosel’s Riesling King - Ernie Loosen makes Eroica here in collaboration with Chateau Ste in Columbia Valley. Michelle and Master Sommelier Greg Harrington of Gramercy Cellars in Walla Walla are famed for producing poised balanced Syrah and Bordeaux blends. Hedges Family Estate in the Red Mountain AVA are farming biodynamically and offer a structured selection of superb reds including a Touriga Nacional, a Tinta Cão and a white blend of Marsanne and Viognier.
Today production is roughly equal between red and white varieties, yields are down, and quality is up. Bordeaux blends and Syrah are revered and key grapes are Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc - but it appears that pretty much any grape can be cultivated in the east of Washington State. There are plantings of Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Mourvèdre and Tempranillo too. The climate allows for crisp acidity inviting European comparisons and a rich intensity of fruit. Only the warmest sites can ripen Cabernet Sauvignon.
The vast majority of wineries buy in grapes from local growers with whom they have long established contracts. But artisan operations are on the increase whereby grapes are either grown or sourced from single vineyards.
The AVA west of the Cascade Mountains, Puget Sound is known for producing Germanic varieties like Müller-Thurgau, Pinot Gris and Siegerrebe. Columbia Gorge and Lewis-Clark Valley AVA are the only other sub regions out with the Columbia Valley.
Washington State has 19 AVAs
Key AVAs are:
COLUMBIA VALLEY AVA
Established in 1984, the Columbia Valley is vast (it takes up a quarter of the entire state) and encompasses many smaller AVAs. This region is responsible for producing 99% of the grapes grown in Washington State - 60,000 acres are under vine – more and more are being established as Washington learns about its individual terroirs. Named after the Columbia River which itself was named after the first ship to chart its course in 1792.
WALLA WALLA AVA
This AVA offers the greatest number of fancy famous wineries and is a very pretty place to visit too. Walla Walla straddles the Oregon state line so grapes may come from Oregon rather than Washington State. Gentle slopes provide air circulation and therefore frost protection. Walla Walla has slightly more rainfall than the other Columbia Valley AVAs so is comparatively green and lush. Soils vary widely and elevation does too. Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon all thrive here
YAKIMA VALLEY AVA
Washington’s oldest AVA. It was carved by the Yakima River and is incredible to behold…This is Syrah and Riesling country. Soils are predominantly volcanic pumice, gravel and sandstone courtesy of the Cascade Hills. Altitude varies but higher slopes are more likely used for wine grapes and lower for Concord. Rattlesnake Hills, Snipes Mountain and Red Mountain are all smaller AVAs within Yakima Valley.
RATTLESNAKE HILLS AVA
Within Yakima Valley AVA is Rattlesnake Hills, known for Bordeaux reds. Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot and Riesling. This region, first planted in 1968, offers a number of inclines or geological folds and therefore growing elevations of up to 3000 feet. Vineyards are currently found only on the lower lying slopes. The altitude serves to mitigate frost and makes for a slightly warmer winter. There is an almost even split between red and white wines, with red tipping a tiny lead. The climate is continental and soils are silt and loam.
SNIPES MOUNTAIN AVA
Tiny AVA known for old vines, the oldest vineyard dates back to 1914 though the designation came in 2009. Located on an anticline of the Yakima fold belt, the area is known for its puddingstone soils deposited by ancient flows of the Columbia River. Loess and sedimentary soils proliferate. Frost damage is mitigated by wind flow here and the climate is continental.
HORSES HEAVEN HILLS AVA
The appellation was named after the pronouncement of an early pioneer who is said to have exclaimed, ‘this must be horse heaven’ on viewing the wide-open prairies and south facing slopes. One of the state’s warmer appellations so ideal for ripening Cabernet Sauvignon. A profusion of excellent names here. Known for reds that focus on long elegant tannins, elegance and finesse. Cabernet, Syrah and Merlot are touted as exceptional from this AVA, as are Riesling and Syrah. It can be pretty windy in this semi-arid desert region, ideal for preventing disease, mould and rot and reducing canopy size. The Columbia River moderates temperatures reducing frost risk too. Soils are free draining loess, basalt and a smorgasbord of rocks courtesy of the Missoula Floods. First planted in 1972 at Champoux Vineyard, wines are sought after and amongst the most costly from the state.
RED MOUNTAIN AVA (within Yakima Valley)
Has a reputation for superfine rich tannic Cabernet Sauvignon and is the warmest, driest Yakima AVA, therefore ideal for ripening Cabernet. Dusty limestone soils proliferate. This is one of Washington’s tiniest and warmest appellations. Broad south facing slopes or geological folds are ideal for catching the sun. Red grapes therefore dominate, persistent winds produce small thicker-skinned berries ideal for dense, firm, age worthy wines. The Yakima River moderates temperatures and protects from frost. There are huge temperature differences between day and night. Soil is sandy loam, gravel and calcium carbonate.
PUGET SOUND AVA
The only AVA west of the Cascade Mountains, Puget Sound is known for producing Germanic varieties like Müller-Thurgau, Pinot Gris and Siegerrebe. Columbia Gorge and Lewis-Clark Valley AVA are the only other subregions outside the Columbia Valley. Puget Sounds encompasses a large area of islands and shores and runs from the Canadian border through Seattle to the south.
WELL KNOWN WINERIES
Chateau Ste. Michelle
Known for its Riesling, Chateau Ste is the oldest winery in Washington State, established in 1934 and lauded for its European varietal leanings since 1967. Some 3500 acres are farmed under the Columbia Valley AVA. Incredibly all of their vines are ungrafted thanks to sandy soils and a desert climate which serves to dramatically reduce disease pressure. Chateau Ste has collaborated with many of the great European winemakers over the decades including Piero Antinori of Tuscany, Michel Rolland and currently with Riesling king Ernie Loosen.
Hedges Family Estate
Certified biodynamic for over ten years and established for thirty, Hedges Family Estate is located in the Red Mountain AVA, 200 miles Southeast of Seattle and 30 miles North of the Oregon border. It sits in the larger Yakima Valley Ava which in turn sits in the enormous Columbia Valley AVA as do all of the wine growing regions aside from Puget Sounds, Columbia Gorge and Lewis-Clark Valley. Here the sunlight hours are long and the nights cool, this allows the production of wines that are elegant and refined – representative of place. As the name suggests this is family operation of mixed nationalities, Tom Hedges hails from Washington State and Anne-Marie from Ossey-les-Trois-Maisons in Champagne where they married in 1976. In 1989 they bought 50 acres of Red Mountain land and planted 40 acres of Bordeaux grape varieties. In 1990 they started winning medals and have never stopped. Their union has produced two children all of whom are now involved in the day to day running of Hedges Family Estate, Sarah as Head Winemaker and Christophe as General Manager.
L’Ecole No 41 Walla Walla Valley
L’ecole No 41 was founded in 1983, the third winery to be established in Walla Walla Valley now seen as a centre for fine wine making. Known for their single vineyard offerings, Ferguson Estate has 30 acres of sustainably farmed vineyards high above the Walla Walla Valley. Soils are basalt based with a loess surface layer – reflective of the volcanic activity and floods that created this terroir some 15 million years ago. Walla Walla is located in the southeast corner of Columbia Valley and straddles the Oregon state line. Rainfall here is slightly higher and Walla Walla is a native American name meaning ‘many waters.
Located in Horse Heaven Hills AVA beside the Columbia River, west of Walla Walla - this region is dry and windswept. The wind serves to reduce the canopy size enabling ripening and reducing disease pressure. The river is also instrumental in creating a cooler microclimate and providing much needed water for the vines. Double Canyon fruit is sourced from within a five-mile radius of Alderdale. This area encounters a huge shift in temperature from day into night which helps the fruit develop slowly but surely into phenolic ripeness. Soils are basalt based - pretty usual in regions dominated by extinct volcanoes. Fine Loess sits atop of the basalt creating ideal free draining poor soils - said to produce a discernible minerality in bottle.
Established by Bob and Cathy Betz in 1997 with Bordeaux and Rhône varieties firmly at its core, Betz Family Wines are lauded all over the world. Today the winery is owned and managed by the Griessel family who bought the winery from the Betz family in 2011. Bob Betz is a Master of Wine and a winemaker, he worked for Chateau Ste for 28 years during which he formed Betz Family Winery. In 2003 he retired and focused his efforts on Betz. Betz chose to sell to the Griessels family because he saw something in them that chimed with his own family’s passion and energy. Bob remains in place as Consultant winemaker. Betz Family Wine own and farm 22.5 acres of Bordeaux varieties and 12.5 acres of Syrah both found with the much-prized Walla Walla AVA.