Washington Wine: A Journey Just Beginning

Washington State wine is a journey just beginning, but what milestones it has already passed! Barely a half-century since viticulture began in earnest, following Dr Walter Clore’s mapping of the Columbia Valley’s likely sites, the state has become the second-largest premium wine producer in the US and made its mark with grapes as diverse as Riesling, Grenache, and Cabernet Sauvignon, impressing with the quality and variety of its value wines, and culminating in the great reds which rival the best in the world.  The generous contours of the Columbia Valley AVA, which at 8.8 million acres covers a third of the state, hint at the ambition of the endeavor, as well as the adventures in terroir still to come; the relatively small area planted to vines (around 55,000 acres, slightly less than Burgundy) tell us the exploration has only just begun.

As with all great wine regions, the work (so to speak) began long ago, with the uplift of the Cascade Range and the periodic catastrophic flooding from the great Ice-Age lakes, Missoula and Columbia, which swept out a massive basin between the Cascades and Sierra Nevada and filled the valley with loess, clay, loam, and fine dry silt over a deeply eroded basalt foundation. In the rain shadow of the Cascades, the region’s semi-desert weather sports 300 days of sunshine and balances the extremes so paradoxically friendly to good wine. The northernmost of US wine regions, it enjoys sixteen hours of sun a day at the Solstice, while in the dry desert air the diurnal temperature swings unimpeded through forty degrees, imparting complexity and preserving acidity.

Dry and pristine as it is, with little fungal threat to the vines and a sandy, loose soil distasteful to the phylloxera louse, abundant aquifers and the great rivers give Washington’s growers water in need. Low disease pressure makes organic and biodynamic farming attractive, while the own-rooted vines dig deep in the poor, well-drained soil for their sustenance. Rewarding such keen attention, grown in a mélange of soil types, slopes, aspects, air currents and elevations, its vines flourish under the hand of the people living on the land, making wine from the produce of their vines, and the family winery has defined winemaking in Washington since its inception.

From these unfettered, well-tended vines spring true wines of place: pure and classic, with the richness of fruit characteristic of US wines but structured like no other, encompassing equally fruit and tannin, earth and acidity, filling all corners of the palate. Broad vineyards give quality grapes in such quantity that Washington’s value wines are a byword, while the nooks of the Wahluke Slopes, Red Mountain, and the Columbia Gorge (among other places) provide ample room to the winemaker drawn to seek the highest vinous expression.

Won’t you come along with us? It can only get better.