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Promised Land of American wine

At last the Pacific Northwest region is beginning to fulfil its potential as the future of American wine, says Anthony Dias Blue

The Pacific Northwest is probably the most exciting region in American wine today. There is an energy and excitement in the air in the states of Washington, Oregon and Idaho that reminds many wine industry veterans of California in the 1970s, although the wines themselves have a personality that is entirely distinctive. Call them ‘European’ if you will. Whites are crisp and clean with tightly focused flavours; reds show clean, pure fruit and well integrated tannins. Winemakers here are striving for harmony and elegance rather than upfront power.

It’s easy to understand why many winemakers have seen the Pacific Northwest as the future of American wine, but that vision is only now ripening. The region is full of many high-quality boutique producers with limited resources for production and distribution, but if the Pacific Northwest is going to make an impact on the international market it will be down to larger wineries with the financial means to bring Northwest wine to world attention.

The largest of these concerns at present is Stimson Lane, with yearly sales in excess of 30 million bottles. It owns Washington’s oldest and best-known winery, Chateau Ste Michelle (founded in 1934) and its sparkling wine division, Domaine Ste Michelle, as well as Snoqualmie and the large Columbia Crest. The company also operates Conn Creek and Villa Mt Eden in California and imports wines from the South of France, Australia and Portugal.

In keeping with the trend towards international wine alliances, Stimson Lane has developed several overseas partnerships. The first, with Italy’s Marchesi Antinori, produced in Col Solare, a Super Tuscan-style blend from Columbia Valley fruit. More recently, Mosel winemaking guru Dr Ernst Loosen, on a visit to the region, approached Stimson Lane about the possibility of a partnership. This resulted first in Chateau Ste Michelle’s lovely Eroica Riesling and, more recently, in the rare Single Berry Select Riesling, one of the finest American dessert wines ever created.

Stimson Lane’s biggest rival, Corus Brands, is built around the Columbia Winery, which dates back to 1962. Columbia purchased Paul Thomas Winery and Covey Run Vintners in the mid-1990s and today the company is the fastest-growing wine concern in the Pacific Northwest. Corus, too, has ventured into the international wine trade, having recently added the Australian Alice White brand and Chilean La Palma labels to its portfolio.

Columbia Winery winemaker David Lake, acknowledged doyen of Pacific Northwest wine (and the only North American winemaker who is a Master of Wine), says that he prefers not to impose his own ideas on the wines he makes but tries to ‘listen to what Washington has to give us’. Lake’s gorgeous proprietary blend Peninsula shows that the promise of Bordeaux-style wines has already been largely fulfilled in Washington but, like other winemakers in the region, Lake is also confident about the future of Rhône varietals. ‘I haven’t tasted a disappointing Washington Syrah,’ Lake reports, echoing the opinion of many other Pacific Northwest winemakers.

Corus also owns the two largest and most important wineries in the neighbouring state of Idaho: Ste Chapelle and Sawtooth. Idaho shares the high desert plateau geography of Washington’s best wine country and its winemaking potential was discovered as early as the 1870s by German and French immigrants, but its wines have yet to achieve a real identity. This is changing, though, with growth in the Idaho wine industry reported at an astonishing 20% per year. A Snake River appellation should appear soon, pending approval.

Ste Chapelle was founded in 1976 and acquired by Corus in 1997. Winemaker Chuck Devlin came onboard at Ste Chapelle for the 2000 harvest, lured away from his California roots and his own California label by the potential he sees in Idaho. His brief from Corus was to engineer a turnaround at this large, 135,000-case winery. ‘We’re not shooting now for great Idaho wine or even great Northwest wine; we’re shooting for great wine, period,’ he says.

Sawtooth Winery, founded by Brad Pintler in 1988 as Pintler Cellars, was acquired by Corus in 1998. Pintler stayed on as general manager and winemaker and has just supervised the planting of 140 hectares of vines at Corus’ new Skyline Vineyard, the largest plantation in Idaho. Sawtooth is also experimenting with popular Rhône varietals, as well as Malbec and various clones of Chardonnay.

Reaching new heights

At around 430,000 cases, Hogue Cellars completes the ‘big three’ of Washington’s wine industry. Hogue’s wide range of premium

varietals features a lovely Syrah and the Genesis line devoted to experimental varietals. These include rarities such as Lemberger (a Washington speciality grape identical to the Blaufränkisch of Austria) and a successful Sangiovese. Although not exceptional quality, these are well-made wines which almost always offer good value.

Washington Hills Cellars, which produces 70,000 cases a year and growing, is another key player in the Pacific Northwest. As marketing director Tom Cottrell puts it: ‘We’re either the largest small winery here or the smallest large winery, depending on your point of view.’ Though Merlot and Cabernet are the current mainstays, Cottrell, like many of his peers, sees a bright future for Rhône varietals. ‘People are planting Syrah like crazy,’ he says, ‘and it shows great promise.’

In addition, Washington’s many new and smaller wineries will undoubtedly continue to grow. Canoe Ridge Vineyard and the newer Sagelands, for example, are owned by the important Chalone Wine Group (in which the Rothschilds of Lafite have a large share), while Hedges Cellars, one of the premier producers in the newly proposed Red Mountain appellation, makes several Bordeaux-style reds as well as an unusual Chardonnay-Fumé blend.

Travel guide: Washington State

Across Washington’s southern border lies the state of Oregon. Here, as elsewhere in the region, the wine industry is booming, generating $110 million in sales at last tally. Ten years ago the number of Oregon wineries was 71 – now that figure has skyrocketed to 161 and the state boasts 385 individual vineyards.

The finicky Pinot Noir seems to have taken kindly to the cool, coastal vineyards of the Willamette Valley and Pinot is Oregon’s

flagship varietal, accounting for about 40% of the wine made there. Quality has been quite variable, but at their best Oregon Pinots can hold their own against some better red burgundies. The other members of the Pinot family – Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Pinot Meunier – are also favourites in this state.

While Washington now has some large wine concerns, Oregon wineries are still relatively small. Its biggest is King Estate Winery, a relatively new (founded in 1991), well-financed and very impressive operation located in the town of Lorane. The excellent 2000 harvest is the most recent of four outstanding vintages in Oregon and, as King Estate director of viticulture Brad Biehl puts it: ‘It’s hard not to get excited about the future.’

Other important Oregon wineries, such as Sokol Blosser, Willamette Valley Vineyards, Ponzi, Duck Pond Cellars, Chehalem and Archery Summit are all steady producers of frequently very good and sometimes great wines, and foreign investors have eyed Oregon as well as Washington. Domaine Drouhin is the Pacific Northwest outpost of Burgundy négociant Joseph Drouhin and its efforts have often been outstanding, as in the 1997 Laurène Pinot Noir.

International partnerships and the development of Rhône varietals are giving the Pacific Northwest a cosmopolitan outlook which it lacked until relatively recently. As the winemakers of Washington, Oregon and Idaho continue to expand, the region will undoubtedly become a major force in the world wine marketplace.

David Lake, for one, feels that it’s important – and appropriate – for Pacific Northwest wines to position themselves alongside the world’s best bottles. Asked to characterise them in a single phrase, he offers the basic formula: ‘New World fruit and Old World finesse’. ‘In other words, the best of both worlds?,’ I suggest. ‘That’s what we’d like to believe,’ he smiles.

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