Great Wine Route: Washington State

Washington Columbia People & Places Articles
  • Friday 9 December 2005

Washington may be more famous for giving the world Jimi Hendrix, Bing Crosby and Starbucks coffee but, as GARY WERNER finds out, it’s also the source of some of the world’s finest wines

Washington state IS a land of discovery – quite literally. Two hundred years ago, Lewis and Clark completed their legendary exploration of the American West through what is now the heart of Washington’s vineyard country. The landscape remains just as vast and almost as wild as it was then, but modern explorers discover something the pioneers never witnessed – a truly dynamic wine industry.

The journey begins just outside Seattle, where a former logging town called Woodinville is the unofficial capital of Washington wine. Château Ste Michelle and Columbia Winery lead the state’s industry from their respective headquarters here – the two actually face each other down by the Sammamish River.

Château Ste Michelle is the largest and oldest winery in Washington, established in the 1930s. Excellent visitor facilities offer tours and tastings, as well as concerts and other special events throughout the year. The purity and intensity of the wines are consistent across the range, although the single-vineyard reds are particularly worthy of attention. Another special wine is the Eroica Riesling, made as a joint venture with Germany’s Dr Loosen estate.

Columbia Winery has focused on quality for more than a quarter of a century under the direction of Master of Wine David Lake. Lake’s work has demonstrated the enormous potential of Washington wine. He is also the pioneer of Syrah in the state – a variety that is taking the industry by storm. A beautiful tasting-and-sales centre at the winery offers the chance to sample Columbia’s wide range. The Otis Vineyard and Red Willow Vineyard Cabernets are impressive, although quality is remarkable at every level.

The success of these two producers has spawned a number of smaller wineries in Woodinville. Many are tiny endeavours and not open to the public. However, DiStefano offers access to this vibrant scene. Winemaker Mark Newton is a fan of Cabernet Franc, although his Grenache is superb.

All of this activity seems strange when you notice that there are no vines around Woodinville. The wine industry’s presence here is driven by access to the Seattle market, but the climate is not really suitable for viticulture. In fact, the state’s vineyards are all in eastern Washington, three to four hours’ drive from Seattle and protected from the pervasive rain of the Pacific coast by the Cascade range.

The scenery changes dramatically as you drive over the mountains. Lush, green conifer forests yield to high-altitude desert. The terrain is hard and even bleak at first. But this austerity softens as farms and wineries begin to dot the landscape of the Yakima Valley.

A welcome escape from the motorway is the Red Mountain district near Benton City. Many winemakers believe that this is the best site for red grapes in the state. Among those crafting powerfully expressive red wines in the sunny and dry terrain is Hedges Cellars. The Hedges family works from a château-styled winery on the side of the mountain – which looks more like a hill under these enormous blue skies. When visiting, taste the Three Vineyards Cabernet-Merlot blend. This is a concentrated and balanced wine, and remarkable value, too.

Continuing east from Red Mountain, you soon arrive in the Tri-Cities (the collective name for Richland, Pasco and Kennewick). This is the centre of the vast Columbia Valley viticultural zone, and conveniently set between the vineyards of the Yakima Valley and those of the fast-growing Walla Walla Valley to the east. Easy access to the premium fruit of these areas makes this spot a crossroads for great wine.

For proof, look no further than J Bookwalter. Building on the experience of his father, a pioneer of the state wine industry, John is crafting reds with intense flavour and depth. Try his Merlot and Cabernet in the very stylish, but comfortable, wine lounge at the winery in Richland.

Another worthwhile stop is the Powers family winery in Kennewick. The approach to the site – through a suburban housing estate – is unexpected, but this local ‘fan club’ grew up in the wake of the winery’s establishment more than 20 years ago. There are two ranges made here: the eponymous Powers and the fully organic Badger Mountain. The reds from both are very appealing and very good value.

About an hour east from the Tri-Cities is the entrance to the Walla Walla Valley and the tiny town of Lowden. Side by side along the main road here are two wineries that have inspired the state’s industry for the past two decades. The voluble Rick Small runs Woodward Canyon Winery from a restored 1870s farmhouse. His award-winning current releases are available for tasting, and both the Artist Series and the Old Vines Cabernet Sauvignons are particularly impressive. Next door is L’Ecole No 41, which Martin Clubb operates from a pioneer-era schoolhouse. The beautiful tasting room has maintained a school theme, as even the list of estate wines is written on a chalkboard. Quality is very high across the range, but the vineyard-designated Semillons, in particular, will make your visit a happy one.

Just a few miles further on is the actual town of Walla Walla. This historic community is an oasis in the stark landscape of eastern Washington. Art galleries and restaurants line the town’s traditional main street and reflect its recent prosperity: Walla Walla is the engine room of the state wine industry. There are more than 50 wineries in this valley, and many of them operate tasting rooms in the heart of the town.

Among the most notable is the Seven Hills Winery, where Casey McClellan crafts delicious reds – especially the Ciel du Cheval Cabernet. A few blocks away is Eric Rindal’s Waterbrook, and his black-fruited Merlot is very appealing. Towards the west end of town is Canoe Ridge Vineyard, welcoming visitors for tours and tastings in an old streetcar terminus. Merlot is the strength of the range here, particularly the Lot 10 Reserve.

There are several dynamic producers just a short drive east of town. Two prominent names are Dunham Cellars and K Vintners, and both wineries craft silky, dramatic Syrah. Just meeting Charles Smith of K Vintners (the wild man of Walla Walla) is a memorable experience.

Finally, some of the valley’s most serious endeavours are a quick drive to the south. Northstar Winery and Pepper Bridge Winery produce elegant, world-class reds alongside each other in the rolling terrain near the Oregon state line.

Following a visit to Walla Walla, consider returning to Seattle through Paterson for a tasting at Columbia Crest, part of the Château Ste Michelle group). The quality is remarkable. Even the value-orientated Two Vines range has won praise.

Of course, this is just a sample of Washington’s dynamic wine scene. Many outstanding producers craft only a few thousand cases each year – far too few to welcome visitors. Consequently, essential names to note on restaurant lists include Andrew Will, Betz, Cadence, Cayuse, DeLille, Leonetti and Quilceda Creek. Wines from any of these artisan wineries are very much worth exploring.

Certainly Lewis and Clark would agree.

Gary Werner is a wine writer and editor based in the UK.

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