The Pacific Northwest is enticing big-name Europeans to a region where they’re free to create their dream wines, writes Linda Murphy

The Pacific Northwest is enticing big-name Europeans to a region where they’re free to create their dream wines, writes Linda Murphy

Fifteen years ago, Piero Antinori’s only concept of the Pacific Northwest was as ‘a place to eat salmon and drink great wine’. Yet if Italy’s most revered winemaker were to throw a dinner party tonight for all the English-as-second-language vintners who have since joined him in making wine in Washington and Oregon, he would need a banquet hall to seat them all. Just as the French invaded Napa from the 1970s, with Domaine Chandon, Clos du Val and Opus One, so the Pacific Northwest has been infiltrated by Europeans eager for freedom in winemaking and viticulture as well as, less romantically for the larger players, an urge to build new brands and increase global sales clout.

French consultant Michel Rolland now has a Washington wine. German Riesling icons Ernst Loosen and Armin Diel are in partnerships there, and University of Bordeaux graduate Philippe Melka, one of Napa Valley’s busiest consultants and owner of his own Metisse brand, also gets his hands stained by Washington grapes.

In the Walla Walla region alone, Christophe Baron at Cayuse, Marie-Eve Gilla at Forgeron, Christophe Paubert at Canoe Ridge, Serge Laville at Spring Valley and Gilles Nicault at Long Shadows Vintners are French natives thriving in the 4.5 million (ha) hectare viticultural frontier that is eastern Washington.

Joining them are Danish winemaker Steffan Jorgensen (who replaced French incumbent Virginie Bourgue Lodmell at Bergevin Lane when she started Lodmell Cellars with her husband Andrew) and Pepper Bridge’s Swiss winemaker Jean-François Pellet. All have the option of working with 20 white and red varieties.

The Pied Piper of the Euro-Washington movement is Allen Shoup, former CEO of Stimson Lane (now Ste Michelle Wine Estates), who believed European vintners working in Washington would draw global attention to the state’s viticultural virtues. He was right, and his first catch was Antinori, in 1992, with a wine called Col Solare (shining hill); an upscale red, Bordeaux-style blend launched in 1995.

Antinori’s empire had already reached Napa, where he invested in Atlas Peak Vineyards, which his family now owns outright. He didn’t need another brand, but André Tchelistcheff, the Russian-born, French-trained oenologist at Beaulieu Vineyard and a consultant to Stimson Lane, persuaded Antinori to take a look at Washington and talk to Shoup. The Tuscan was hooked. ‘I was very excited; the idea was not too obvious and it could be a good experience for us,’ Antinori says of Col Solare, now in its ninth vintage (2003 is the current release).

With a latitude similar to Burgundy, two more hours of sunlight per day during the growing season than northern California, wide daily temperature swings and the ability to irrigate (there’s just 20–25cm rainfall a year), eastern Washington is intoxicating to out-of-staters, yet the possibility of vine-killing winter freezes sobers up all but the most serious players.

‘The conditions are so extreme, yet everything that is challenging is fun,’ says Antinori, who in April 2007 inaugurated the new Col Solare facility he built with Ste Michelle on Red Mountain in eastern Yakima Valley. ‘But more than that, it was the relationship that encouraged us to go ahead. I felt a real sense of partnership.’

Dr Loosen Estate owner Ernst Loosen had similar notions when he came to Shoup with the idea of a Washington Riesling called Eroica. Since its first vintage in 1999, Eroica has been immensely popular.

By the time Shoup retired from Stimson Lane in 2000, he’d already started Long Shadows Vintners, an outside-the-box concept that has some of the world’s most accomplished winemakers producing wine in Washington as brands they own and manage under separate partnerships.

Shoup first signed up Armin Diel of Schlossgut Diel in the Nahe to produce a Columbia Valley Riesling called Poet’s Leap; Rolland is making a Merlot-based wine called Pedestal; Melka teamed with Agustin Huneeus of Quintessa in Napa on the Pirouette red blend; and Shoup’s on-site winemaker for the Walla Walla collaborations, Nicault, is his partner in Chester-Kidder, another red blend.

With former partner Antinori aligned with Ste Michelle, Shoup now gets his Italian fix from Saggi, a Long Shadows brand made by the Tuscan father-son duo of Ambrogio and Giovanni Folonari. Their 2004 Columbia Valley blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Barbera was released in late 2006.

Washington is a dynamic breeding ground for those willing to experiment. With far fewer suitable acres in which to plant and a cool-climate varietal focus on Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, Oregon’s wine industry cannot grow at the same rapid rate, yet the international flavour is as stimulating.

Burgundy’s Drouhin family established Domaine Drouhin Oregon in the late 1980s in the Willamette Valley, and Bernard Lacroute transplanted his Burgundian roots at nearby WillaKenzie. The restless Loosen is working on a Pinot Noir brand in Oregon with Jay Somers of J Christopher Wines in the Willamette Valley. A mere 100 cases were made from the 2005 vintage, although a brand name and price haven’t been set yet.

But perhaps the most universal reason for the influx of Europeans into the Northwest is their freedom to make whatever wine they wish, from whatever grapes they choose. In Washington and Oregon, there are few rules.

Forgeron Cellars’ Gilla came from the University of Dijon to America in 1991, to become what she could not as a young Frenchwoman – a winemaker. ‘My goals were to get more practical winery experience, and better my English skills,’ she says. ‘So I worked my way up from the bottom, washing tanks and barrels at Argyle in Oregon. I moved to Washington, and washed my share of barrels again at Covey Run, but they promoted me to cellar master, then assistant winemaker, then winemaker in the next four years.’

That led to winemaking positions at Hogue Cellars, Gordon Brothers and Forgeron. Gilla says such progress could never have happened for her in France.

When asked why Washington State attracts so many Europeans, Shoup claims: ‘They love the fact that they can go to the grower and make a suggestion and the grower takes note; in other regions, the grower says, “Don’t tell me how to grow the grapes”.’

It’s an entirely refreshing attitude, and one that goes incredibly well, says Piero Antinori, with salmon.

Written by Linda Murphy