I’ve visited a couple dozen wine regions in the world, as far flung as Uruguay and as under-the-radar as Turkey. Yet I’ve still never actually been to Eastern Washington and only recently really began to delve into the incredibly impressive range of world-class wines coming from Washington State. They’re the second largest producer of premium wine in the country and it’s a $6 billion industry. After learning more about the 14 AVAs and tasting the wide range of grapes grown here, I honestly think Washington might be the most underrated wine region in the world.
Their biggest marketing problem is they are very good at too many different things. You can’t simplify Washington with a single varietal – like with Oregon pinot noir, New Zealand sauvignon blanc and Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon. To be fair, no wine region should be thought of so reductively, but it at least helps anchor the region in the mind of wine consumers. Washington wines have such diverse identities though and that’s a much harder story to tell. Where else can you grow world-class riesling and cabernet sauvignon so close together?
Unlike California, Washington does not produce bulk wine. Ste. Michelle Wine Estates is the best-known and biggest producer, but there are approximately a thousand wineries across the state, from weekend warrior winemakers in Woodinville to families like the Shiels who are both grape growers and winemakers, making exclusively estate-grown wines in the Yakima Valley. The industry here was built on winemakers without vineyards and grape growers without wineries, and that’s still largely how many operate, with a great deal of respect on both sides.
The overall quality of Washington wines has certainly increased by leaps and bounds since the first vines were planted in the 1950s. Over theyears, vintners have found the right sites for the right varietals to make beautifully expressive wines with precise vineyard management. The evolution of quality happens over decades and Washington is truly coming into its own at the same time as the American wine market is broadening its horizons. Some of Washington’s funkier wines, like Two Vintners’ orange gewürztraminer appeal to a new generation of adventurous millennial wine drinkers always keen to try something new.
“It gets harder and harder to find a bad bottle of wine,” says winemaker Casey McClellan of Seven Hills Winery, one of the founding wineries in the Walla Walla Valley. “Honestly, being an Eastern Washington winemaker is almost like cheating. We have 300 days of sunshine, very low pest and mildew pressure and I’ve never had rain ruin a vintage.” The only thing Washington lacks to create a perfect grape-growing environment is rainfall. However, with drip irrigation, McClellan and his colleagues can control exactly how much water their plants get, and when they get it, stressing the plant precisely to produce exquisite high-end cabernet sauvignon.
Washington was never devastated by phylloxera, so unlike the vast majority of vineyards in the world, their grapes are grown on original rootstock as opposed to grafted plants resistant to the louse. While there are other pockets of own-rooted vines, including in Chile, this certainly gives Washington a rare advantage.
“The rootstock is so much more significant than clonal varietal,” says winemaker Kerry Shiels from Côte Bonneville. “It’s 10 times more impactful. I liken it to literature. I took Russian literature in college, but I didn’t read Tolstoy in Russian. I read it in English, and that translation makes a big difference. Having our own-rooted vines is like being able to read Tolstoy in Russian – it’s a huge opportunity for us in Washington when it comes to creating wines with a unique sense of place.”
Washington excels in Bordeaux varietals, which comprise more than half of its total production. Cabernet sauvignon dominates here, with 18,528 acres planted and the grape is often blended with merlot or cabernet franc for body and finesse. Even a petit verdot barrel sample I recently tasted from Betz Family Winery with elegant blackberry and violet notes was balanced enough to enjoy on its own. Particularly when considering the effects of climate change, Washington may soon be a better place for producing Bordeaux blends than Bordeaux itself.
Rhone varieties, like Syrah, are also gaining popularity thanks to ambassadors like Morgan Lee, the winemaker and co-owner of Two Vintners and Chris Gorman of Gorman Winery. For white wine drinkers, there’s excellent riesling, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc too.
Eastern Washington is where all the vineyards are located, but for the lazy wine drinker, Woodinville has nearly 120 wineries within an easy day trip of Seattle. You can bike all the way from Seattle to Woodinville with Evergreen Escapes and visit beautiful tasting rooms like JM Cellars and Novelty Hill Januik – a couple personal favorites. Once you’re here, you’ll want to just relax and stay overnight at Willows Lodge, ensconced in an atmosphere of rustic luxury with an unexpectedly high-tech spa. Wander the gardens with a glass of wine in hand and enjoy the live musical performances at sunset.
Many winemakers I spoke with find it maddening that Washington wines don’t get more respect, and it’s still an uphill battle when it comes to national distribution in key retail and restaurant outlets. However, the good news for savvy wine drinkers is that most of the best boutique wineries have a robust focuson selling directly to consumers. That means even Washington’s most exclusive wines, like the flagship single-vineyard cabernet sauvignon blend from Côte Bonneville, are readily available online. Do a little digging and you’ll find Washington wines at incredibly reasonable prices just a click away.