Washington State: introduction
Visiting one of North America's leading wine growing regions

One of my ambitions as a wine writer is to visit every wine region at least once. I'm still some distance from reaching this target, but that's probably a good thing: after all, it would be an unhappy thing for anyone to achieve all their ambitions.

This was the first time I'd visited Washington State, in America's Pacific Northwest, so I was quite excited. But at the same time, I suspected that I'd make fewer discoveries here than in its southern neighbour state, Oregon. Why? Because Washington State is pretty much an entirely irrigated region it's practically a desert. And because it is dominated by one large wine company, Château Ste Michelle. And because its red wine focus has been Bordeaux varieties.


In contrast, Oregon is cooler, has enough rainfall to dry grow vines, is dominated by small producers, and its main grape is Pinot Noir. But as usual, whenever I visit somewhere new, I do my best to set any prejudices aside, and prepare to take on the experience with an open mind.

In the Pacific northwest, it sits above Oregon and below the Canadian border. Fly into Seattle, and beyond the city boundaries you are faced with a lush, green landscape, well watered by the seemingly incessant rain. But drive inland a couple of hours, heading east over the Cascade mountains, and it’s as if you have entered another country. Green gives way to brown and ochre. There’s not enough rainfall to dry-grow vines, except for in small pockets such as parts of the Columbia Gorge. But the warm summers and lack of rainfall makes this a good place for wine grapes, for here there a good supply of water from the Columbia River, which is the fifth largest in the USA. This irrigation water has made this an important agricultural region, known for its hops, cherries, peas and apples. And now wine grapes, also.


Wine is doing well in Washington State. The first AVA here was the Yakima Valley, established as recently as 1983. Then, there were just 40 wineries here. Now there are 850 licensed wineries in the state (although for various reasons – such as some wineries having more than one licence – this number is certainly an over-estimate of the number of ‘real’ wineries, which is closer to 600).

Currently, the wine scene is growing by just under 9% a year. Vineyard area is now at 57 000 acres (23 000 hectares), which is double the size of Oregon, but it has the potential to grow to 200 000 acres (81 000 hectares).


Because of the lack of rainfall soil organic content is low. The soils are predominantly sandy, loamy soils over basalt with a thin layer of loess on top (loess looks a bit like ultra-fine sand: it is fine-grained and made up of small dust-ike grains). Vines are usually grown own-rooted here because phylloxera can't cope with the sandy-ish soils. And there's very little disease pressure because of the lack of rain. The main hazard here is winter cold, with extreme lows liable to take out vines from time to time.

The state's reliance on irrigation does have one advantage, though, because careful control of irrigation can help with wine quality. In particular, switching irrigation on and off at the right time can regulate berry size at the cell division stage, and this is research that has been carried out at Washington State University. [Berry size is defined at veraison, and for making red wines smaller berries are better: first, they have a higher skin to pulp ratio, and second they create looser bunches which are less susceptible to disease.]

There is a significant geological event that has helped create the terroir in the Columbia Valley. 'What happened here 10 000 years ago made this a great wine region,' says Chris Upchurch of Delille, referring to a series of dramatic water events known as the Missoula Floods. 'We imported all our soils from Utah, Idaho and Montana.' These floods occurred several times, around the end of the last ice age, in cycles of warming and cooling. Each time, a huge lake, 700 metres deep, was bounded by glaciers. When these melted and failed, the water was released, creating a huge wave. ‘In Missoula you can still see on the hills the layers where the lake was,’ says Upchurch. ‘This was discovered by a park ranger in the 1920s.' The fact that this great mass of water couldn’t pass quickly through the Wallula Gap (a narrow break in the basalt folds along the Columbia river in the south of the state. pictured below) meant that it had plenty of time to deposit sediments (slack water deposits) which now form many of the soils in this part of the state.


One of the distinctive features of this large region is the dominance of one large company: Ste Michelle Wine Estates, which in turn is owned by tobacco company Altria (previously known as Philip Morris). The most famous name in the portfolio is Chateau Ste Michelle, closely followed by Columbia Crest. Other wine brand include Col Solare, North Star, 14 Hands and Spring Valley. This dominance reflects the history of winegrowing in the state. The company began as the National Wine Company in 1934, and this then merged with the Pomelle Wine Company to form the American Wine Growers in the 1950s. In 1967 famous Californian winemaker André Tchelitscheff joined as a consultant, and a new name, Ste Michelle Vintners, was adopted for wines made exclusively from vinifera varieties. In 1976 the winery moved to Woodinville and the name changed to Chateau Ste Michelle. The dominance of Ste Michelle Wine Estates is reflected in the fact that they buy around two-thirds of Washington State's production of vinifera grapes (there's still quite a bit of Concord, an American non-vinifera variety grown here).


Aside from Ste Michelle, the other notable large winery in the state is the Columbia Winery, which was first started in 1962 by a group of 10 friends (six of whom were Washington State University Professors, led by the dean of the psychology department, Dr Lloyd Woodburn). The winery began in Woodburn's garage, and was called the Associated Vintners. In 1963 they planted the first vines at Harrison Vineyard, and a big step was taken in 1979 when they hired David Lake, the first MW in north America. They were the first to do vineyard designate wines in the state in 1981, and in 1983 changed their name to Columbia Winery. In 1988 David's inaugural Syrah release was the first example of this variety from Washington State. Since 2012 they have been owned by Gallo, and in this short time production has risen from 100 000 cases in to 400 000.

The structure of the Washington State wine industry reflects the dominance of larger companies. 90% of wines from the state retail in the USA at $12 or less. They are mostly well made, tasty wines that deliver good value for money, but which have very little sense of place. This is where the Washington State identity problem begins. Some wines are labelled as just Columbia Valley (the catch-all AVA that covers about 99% of the vineyards in the state), without mentioning Washington State on the label at all. But not having the state’s name on the label has meant that the brand equity in Washington State has not been built as strongly as it ought to have been.

The first AVA in the state was the slightly more meaningful Yakima Valley (1983), which remains the largest of the proper AVAs, closely followed by Horse Heaven Hills, Red Mountain, Snipes Mountain and Wahluke Slope, which were all designated in the 2000s. Perhaps the most interesting AVAs for fine wine are the more easterly AVAs of Columbia Gorge and Walla Walla, both of which straddle the border with Oregon.

There are five varieties that have more than 1000 hectares under vine. While Riesling is the state's most famous white variety, there's actually more Chardonnay planted here (3100 versus 2600 hectares). Of red varieties, Cabernet and Merlot are kings (4200 and 3300 hectares respectively), with Syrah a rising star (1300 hectares). 'Washington is in this weird state of being able to do a lot of things very well,' says Marcus Miller of Airfield Estates. 'My personal favourite is Cabernet Sauvignon, but the grape we do most of is Chardonnay.'


Although Merlot is widely seen as a junior and lesser partner to Cabernet, here it excels, making wines with presence and structure. 'Merlot to me is one of the stars of Washington State,' says Bob Bertheau of Ste Michelle. Caleb Foster, winemaker for J Bookwalter, is even more bullish about this grape: 'Merlot here is the best in the world,' he says. 'There are two great places on the planet for Merlot: Washington State and Pomerol.'


'In 20 years’ time Washington State will be known for Syrah,' says Jeff Lindsay-Thorsen, whose boutique operation WT Vintners is making some stunning wines from a lock-up in the Woodinville Warehouse district. 'Cabernet grows well in Washington, but Syrah reflects the place where it is grown.' Boo Walker of Hedges adds that, 'if Syrah were easier to sell, we would grow a lot of Syrah.’


Despite the structure of the industry, with the dominance of more affordable wine, there’s a growing fine wine dimension here, too. Smaller producers are increasingly making wines that are catching the attention of critics, and there’s a welcome move away from the big, riper-styled red wines that have been popular in the past. This tendency to favour ripeness has been encouraged by the wine law that allows significant water addition to must to reduce the potential alcohol levels. ‘We do some water backs if the sugars get out of control,’ admits Ste Michelle’s Berthau. ‘The regulation is that you can't go below [water back to] 22 Brix which is ridiculously low. It is very common here.’ But, he adds, ‘Winemakers and critics together are moving away from the high alcohol and sweet fruit combination.’

Columbia Winery
De Lille
WT Vintners
Savage Grace
Chateau Ste Michelle
Andrew Will
Airfield Estates
Milbrandt Vineyards
Ciel du Cheval Vineyard
Col Solare
Powers/Badger Mountain
J Bookwalter
Pacific Rim
Gordon Estate
Long Shadows
Seven Hills
Charles Smith
Geology with Kevin Pogue
Woodward Canyon
Gramercy Cellars
L'Ecole No 41
Columbia Crest
Memaloose/Idiot's Grace
COR Cellars

Wines tasted 06/15  
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