by MICHAEL PINKUS
photos courtesy of Andréa Johnson Photography
ALL 50 STATES in the United States produce wine in one form or another, meaning they are either growing their own grapes, fruit or materials for wine making, or they are bringing them in from somewhere else (most notably California)… all 50 states. It used to be a trivia question I would ask my wine classes: “Which state does NOT make wine?” The answer was Alaska, but that is no longer the case, or a question I can ask. That said, there are but a handful of states that make enough wine to garner national or even international attention. California would be number one on everyone’s hit parade, Oregon and New York would also make that list in terms of quality and quantity respectively… but the place your current wine wanderlust should be looking towards is Washington State. And while the industry is still quite young they are poised to grab the quality wine making, and growing, mantle away from California – if only we’d just give them the chance… and you should.
By the numbers Washington State looks like this: they rank second for premium wine production, and for an industry that re-found its legs in the ’60s and ’70s they certainly have been growing quickly. There are 970-plus wineries in operation (and growing) with more than 350 grape growers growing almost 70 different varieties of grapes with a 59 to 41 per cent breakdown of red to white. There are 14 American Viticulture Areas (AVA) so far (aka: defined growing regions within the state) including Columbia Valley, Red Mountain, Horse Heaven Hills, Walla Walla Valley, Yakima Valley and Rattlesnake Hills, with more than 58,000 acres under vine producing some 17.5 million cases annually. It is said that a new winery opens up in Washington State every 30 days.
These are the numbers that tell the story of the way Washington has been growing by leaps and bounds – but there is another part of the wine world that statistics plays no part in: the people. Having visited and tasted through the state, I could wax poetic about my adventures – but it’s probably better to let the people that know the place best introduce you to what makes it such a special place that you should be paying attention to.
My recent excursion put me in touch with the characters associated with Washington wines right now, from the pioneers like Rick Small of Woodward Canyon and Casey McClellan of Seven Hills Winery, to sons of pioneers like John R. Bookwalter of J. Bookwalter Wines. Let me introduce you to my cast of characters in their own words.
“My family has farmed in eastern Washington since the 1800s,” says Casey McClellan, “we entered into grape growing in the early ’80s, and began making wine in 1988.”
“I’m from eastern Washington… fifth generation in the Walla Walla Valley, my kids will be sixth and my grandchildren seventh,” reports Rick Small, who hopes those grand kids will want to continue in the family business. “There was never another place that I would have chosen even if the opportunity presented itself [to grow grapes or make wine] but I think we’ve been doing a good job since we started in 1981.”
“My father moved the family up to Washington in 1976,” says John R. Bookwalter, “he ended up being one of the pioneer growers of grapes in the state.”
“I moved up [to Washington] from Napa Valley in 2005 for my ex-husband and job,” says Erica Orr, consultant and winemaker of her own eponymous wine brand Orr Wines, “there weren’t a lot of people with my training, so I started my own wine lab and enology consulting business.”
“[I went to school] in Avignon, France for my four-year study of viticulture and winemaking. I signed up for a one-year internship at a winery in the Yakima Valley in 1994, fell in love with the Pacific Northwest and its potential to make world class wines,” says Gilles Nicault, director of winemaking and viticulture at Long Shadows Vintners.
All tell a unique yet similar story that comes from passion, potential and positivity of the area that makes Washington State such a great place to grow grapes and make wine.
“It is the near perfect collision of weather in the broader sense, latitude, soil and the freedom to plant, grow and farm however we see fit to best exercise the potential of our grapes/wines whatever those varieties might be,” says Bookwalter.
“There is a good sense of discovery and building something that is unique and exciting,” says McClellan about what makes Washington so special.
“We have long growing days with an impressive diurnal temperature shift which does allow our nights to cool down. This in turn helps us retain acid and keep our wines fresher and more balanced,” Rick Small says, answering the same question.
“In addition to the hot and dry conditions the region is prone to wind and because of these [factors, the disease pressure], like mildew, is very low,” adds Nicault.
Orr sees things from the Californian’s perspective: “we are able to achieve ripeness with many different varietals, from Riesling to Cabernet Sauvignon, so we can produce many different styles of wine here, which is a bit of a blessing and a curse at the same time.”
Surprisingly, or maybe not, the grapes most loved by all these winemakers and principals is Cabernet Sauvignon – the grape that inspires them all.
But Washington isn’t comfortable or willing to just sit on its new-found laurels, they are ready to push boundaries and change minds… but what’s next for the state willing to take on California for winemaking supremacy in the hearts and minds of wine drinkers?
Bookwalter does not see Washington’s next step as just one thing, but as a broader step. “Slow but steady regional awareness for high-quality wine production.” While Erica Orr, even though she is one of those Cabernet Sauvignon-lovers, wants to see a different shift in focus. “I’d like to see the pendulum shift a skosh towards medium-bodied reds (Merlot, Grenache, even Tempranillo). Red wines with freshness and lift that together with food make everything taste more delicious,” she says.
Whatever the events that are to unfold for Washington State one thing is for certain – these passionate and committed winemakers continue to make excellent wines worthy of not only purchasing but a visit to experience all Washington has to offer – trust me you won’t be disappointed, not in the least, which is why they have started a marketing campaign calling themselves “The New Epicenter of Wine.”
Now, I’m not telling you to forget all about your California wines, but I can tell you to put Washington State wines on your radar so when things hit and hit big, you aren’t left behind wondering “where did they come from?” because you were already in the know and on the cutting edge of the big boom.
Here are some Washington wines here in, or coming to, Ontario; and a few worth seeking out via any means necessary (mail/travel/hook or crook).
CHARLES SMITH 2017 KUNG FU GIRL RIESLING
A state known for Cab and Merlot can also make some pretty appealing Riesling. This one is slightly sweet but with lovely crispness of minerality and acidity helping to raise up the delicious apple and pear notes. ✰✰✰ ½ +
CHARLES SMITH 2016 MERLOT, THE VELVET DEVIL
There’s a little of this and a little of that peppered into this 89 per cent Merlot (including Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec), but ultimately, it’s the Merlot that shines through with its blueberry skin and black cherry appeal. ✰✰✰ ½
CHARLES SMITH 2017 SUBSTANCE CABERNET SAUVIGNON
$23.95, coming soon
Smooth and silky version of Cabernet with lots of upfront black cherry and spice; tannins appear on the finish as more mocha and cocoa than dried tea leaves. ✰✰✰ ½
PENDULUM WINERY 2016 RED
$24.95, #46300, coming early 2020
Merlot, Syrah and Malbec make up this blend that has an appealing creamy smooth mouthfeel, is loaded with sweet fruit, smoky bacon, white pepper and dark chocolate. ✰✰✰✰
PENDULUM WINERY 2017 CABERNET SAUVIGNON
$24.95, #533711, coming early 2020
Pure silkiness across the tongue with its profile of chocolate, mocha, black cherry, black currants and a subtle coffee finish, polished off with just a touch of white smoke. ✰✰✰✰+
SEVEN FALLS CELLARS 2015 CABERNET SAUVIGNON
Smoky yet smooth with subtle notes of sweet fruit intermingling with vanilla – a real sipping pleasure. ✰✰✰ ½ +
COLUMBIA CREST 2016 H3 CABERNET SAUVIGNON
There’s a little bit of spice here that might come between you and your soft lush fruit, but let it sit open for about 20 minutes and you’ll just be left with the fruit. ✰✰✰ ½
DOUBLE CANYON 2015 CABERNET SAUVIGNON
$29.95, #131888, coming October
Raspberry, cherry, strawberry and red currant notes all make an appearance along with some subtle spices and a definite shake of pepper. ✰✰✰ ½ +
The Best From Our Cast of Characters – the wines you need to search out elsewhere:
J. BOOKWALTER 2016 CABERNET FRANC “SUSPENSE”
They soften this one with about 15 per cent Merlot and it’s a real beauty with its floral, tobacco, cassis, black cherry, black raspberry and even a hint of herbal. ✰✰✰✰+
SEVEN HILLS 2015 CIEL DE CHEVAL VINEYARD RED
Cabernet Sauvignon is the lion’s share of this wine followed by Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot: the fruit is all dark cherry with hints of mint some cranberry and spices to bring that sweet fruit back to earth. ✰✰✰✰+
LONG SHADOWS 2016 FEATHER CABERNET SAUVIGNON
This powerhouse Cab will not let you down because it also shows elements of grace and elegance that will come with time: red and dark fruit with a silky smooth mid-palate but with tannins that need time to mellow, this one is for the cellar. ✰✰✰✰ ½
✰✰✰✰✰ = Outstanding
✰✰✰✰ ½ = Excellent
✰✰✰✰ = Very Good
✰✰✰ ½ = Good
+ The wine offers a bonus but not enough to go to the next level.