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During the thirty-five years wine critic and writer Paul Gregutt has lived in the state of Washington, its wine industry has ballooned from a mere half dozen wineries to nearly five hundred. Washington Wines and Wineries offers a comprehensive, critical, and accessible account of the nation's second largest wine-producing region. Gregutt, who has covered Washington wine in books, newspapers, and magazines since the mid-1980s, enthusiastically dispenses information along with his editorial opinion, displaying the ...
During the thirty-five years wine critic and writer Paul Gregutt has lived in the state of Washington, its wine industry has ballooned from a mere half dozen wineries to nearly five hundred. Washington Wines and Wineries offers a comprehensive, critical, and accessible account of the nation's second largest wine-producing region. Gregutt, who has covered Washington wine in books, newspapers, and magazines since the mid-1980s, enthusiastically dispenses information along with his editorial opinion, displaying the depth of his knowledge of the area, the players, the regions, and the wines. He points out the best vineyards, the most accomplished winemakers, the must-have wines, and the newcomers to watch. He rates wineries—not wines—with a unique and detailed 100-point scale, providing an insider's view of the best that Washington state has to offer. As the global wine industry reinvents itself for twenty-first-century palates, Washington is poised to become as important and influential as California on the world stage. Washington Wines and Wineries is the definitive reference book on the subject.
WHICH SIDE OF THE POTOMAC?
A Brief History of Washington Wines
For many years Bob Betz, a Master of Wine (MW) who now has his own Betz Family winery, traveled the globe speaking to audiences on behalf of Stimson Lane (the corporate parent of Columbia Crest and Chateau Ste. Michelle, among others). His standard spiel neatly encapsulated the story of the wineries, their vineyards, and the growth of winemaking in Washington. Nonetheless, he found that a certain amount of confusion persisted among a significant percentage of his audiences. At one particular East Coast appearance, he recalls, his audience seemed to be paying close attention, following his every word, carefully studying the charts and photographs, and showing keen interest in his subject. Wrapping up his presentation, Betz asked if there were any questions. A hand shot up. "Just one question, Bob. Which side of the Potomac did you say the grapes were grown on?"
For most consumers who do not live on the West Coast of the United States, the name Washington is most closely identified with the District of Columbia, the nation's capital. In other countries, most wine drinkers know that the Napa Valley is in California, somewhere north of Disneyland. Beyond that, things get pretty vague. Washington State? It's up there a ways, pretty close to Alaska.
Compounding the confusion caused by this state's name is its schizophrenic geography. In terms of climate, precipitation, and the overall look and feel of the landscape, it splits neatly into two completely different halves, which may conveniently be labeled the wet side and the dry side. If you hold out your left hand, palm facing you, fingers folded, thumb spread, you have a perfect map of Washington state. Your thumb is the Olympic Peninsula, with the Pacific Ocean on the left and Puget Sound on the right. Follow the line between your index and middle fingers on down to your wrist; there you have the Cascade Mountains, a relatively young and still active range of volcanoes best known for Mount Baker, Mount Rainier, Mount St. Helens, and across the Oregon border, Mount Hood. Pretty much everything from the bottom of the other three fingers to the wrist is desert or, as the locals like to think of it, wine country.
On the wet side, the Olympic Mountains, which would run down the center of your thumb, parallel to the Cascades, are the first shield against the massive storms that blow in from the Pacific. They turn Puget Sound into a perpetual convergence zone, with weather systems coming up from the south or down from the north and colliding, usually somewhere right around Seattle. Though not as wet or cold as its reputation would have it, the climate in western Washington allows only cool-climate wine grapes (and hybrids) to ripen.
The Cascades act as the second barrier to the moisture-laden Pacific fronts and pretty much soak up the lion's share of the rain and snow that those storms bring. Once across the mountain passes, you descend through alpine forests into dryer and dryer meadows and valleys that ultimately open onto the great deserts of eastern Washington.
Eastern Washington had nonmilitary white settlements before the western side did, and wine grapes were being grown in the Walla Walla Valley by the 1860s. More than a half century of growth and experimentation, on both sides of the state, came to an abrupt end with Prohibition. I thought there were no commercially viable pre-Prohibition vines left in Washington, until I toured Snipes Mountain with Todd Newhouse and saw muscat vines the size of trees, which he believes were planted right around 1917.
It would be misleading to say that the modern era of winemaking in Washington began with Repeal, as it did in California. Although it is true that many new wineries were bonded at that time, they made no varietal wines and only occasionally and haphazardly used vinifera grapes. In western Washington, most wines were produced from Island Belle grapes, grown on Stretch Island in south Puget Sound. In the vineyards of eastern Washington, field blends might have included anything and everything, from Concord and Campbell Early (another name for Island Belle) to zinfandel, muscat, and alicanté bouschet.
These grapes were harvested all together, tossed into fermenters together, and made into unfortified sweet wines. Many of the best-selling wines were produced by a so-called high fermentation technique that added bags of sugar to the fermenting grapes and used special yeasts to boost alcohol levels to 17 percent, the maximum allowed by the state. Labeled Burgundy, Rhine Riesling, Sauternes, and so on, these wines accounted for the lion's share of Washington wine sales right through the 1960s. A thirsty public, freed from the restrictions of Prohibition and beginning to recover from the Great Depression, wanted a good buzz, not terroir.
In retrospect, post-Prohibition liquor laws in Washington seem to have been designed, purposely or not, to block meaningful attempts to make European-style dry table wines and to create a protected market for sweet, high-fermentation wines. In 1934, the Washington State Liquor Act was passed, which created the Liquor Control Board. The Washington State Liquor Control Board regulates and controls the sales of all hard liquor to this day. Initially, it allowed only beer and wine to be sold by the glass, in licensed restaurants and taverns. Wine, according to the WSLCB, was anything fermented that contained no more than 17 percent alcohol.
Ironically, this created the incentive to manufacture wines with unnaturally high levels of both sugar and alcohol, to satisfy the desires of consumers who couldn't get served a cocktail or glass of whiskey. Part and parcel of these laws were trade restrictions that taxed out-of-state wineries heavily but allowed Washington wineries to sell directly to retail accounts. The price advantages, designed to foster the local industry, also meant that few quality wines from California or anywhere else could find much of a market in Washington.
By 1937, forty-two wineries were licensed in the state, mostly small and devoted to making fruit wines rather than grape wines. The local products were the mainstay alcoholic beverages of the taverns, while the California brands were offered (at substantially higher prices) in the state liquor stores and some restaurants. The Washington wineries banded together to push their advantage, and taxes on California wines were repeatedly raised. By the end of 1942, notes author Ron Irvine in The Wine Project: Washington State's Winemaking History (now out of print), there were just twenty-four Washington wineries, but they controlled almost two-thirds of the total wine sales in the state.
Legally permissible alcohol levels continued to rise, and fortified wines replaced the sugar-enhanced, 17-percenters of the prewar years. By 1948, Irvine reports, 85 percent of all Washington wines were fortified. But the Washington wine industry was again in decline, and the number of wineries in the state began dropping steadily.
The legislative tug-of-war between competing interests, and the conflicted attempts by the state legislature to support the Washington wine industry with tax breaks and other measures while its own Liquor Control Board promoted the sales of California wines, has been well chronicled elsewhere. It delayed for two decades the birth of the modern-day Washington wine industry.
In the late 1960s, two startling events brought revolutionary change virtually overnight. The first was a chance encounter between Wines of America author Leon Adams, making a visit to the Yakima Valley in 1966, and Victor Allison, the manager for American Wine Growers. Allison had taken notice of the growing interest in California varietal wines and begun experimenting with a few of his own. Adams happened across just a single memorable Washington wine on that trip, a rosé of grenache, made by Associated Vintners (A/V), a group of amateur winemakers from the University of Washington.
The founding members of A/V had banded together in the 1950s, intending to make dry varietal wines for their own consumption. They incorporated in 1962 and a year later purchased and planted a small vineyard, Harrison Hill, in the heart of the Yakima Valley. Dr. Cornelius Peck, one of the ten who started the enterprise, recalled in an interview a few years ago that so little was known about growing vinifera grapes in Washington that A/V's members planted nine different varieties on their five acres to see which grapes, if any, might survive.
Apparently, grenache was an early survivor, and was made into the epiphany-producing rosé that so impressed Leon Adams. He suggested to Victor Allison that a good California winemaker might be able to make something even better with Washington grapes, and mentioned the name of André Tchelistcheff, the man behind the great wines of Beaulieu Vineyards. Allison brought Tchelistcheff to Washington the following year, and, after plowing through a selection of dismal offerings, he tasted another Associated Vintners wine, this one a gewürztraminer, and was immediately convinced that the potential existed to make great wine from Washington grapes.
Encouraged by the praise of Adams and Tchelistcheff, the Associated Vintners decided to sell their wines commercially. Tchelistcheff was hired as a consultant for American Wine Growers. His first wines were produced in 1967 and included a cabernet, a pinot noir, a sémillon, and a grenache. The second paradigm-shifting event occurred in March 1969, when the so-called California Wine Bill was passed. It eliminated the trade barriers that had propped up the Washington wine industry since Repeal and, for the first time, legalized retail wine sales off-premises. The Washington wine industry had finally entered the twentieth century.
In 1970, no more than a half dozen commercial wineries were operating in Washington State. The two of lasting importance, Associated Vintners and AWG's Ste. Michelle brand, were making varietal wines from a number of different grapes, and they quickly began attracting the attention of wine lovers from out of state.
A group called the San Francisco Wine Sampling Club tasted a number of Ste. Michelle wines in 1970 and pronounced them "a serious challenge" to California varietal wines. The influential California wine writer Robert Balzer conducted a riesling competition a few years later and announced that a 1972 Johannisberg riesling from Ste. Michelle had bested entries from California, Germany, and Australia.
Spurred by the growing interest in varietal wines, Ste. Michelle, which was acquired by conglomerate U.S. Tobacco in 1974, began planting extensive vineyards in eastern Washington. Others were conducting their own experiments in far-flung corners of the state. The Associated Vintners continued to cultivate their vines in the Yakima Valley, near Sunnyside. Jim Holmes and John Williams began their exploration of Red Mountain. Gary Figgins tended an acre or two in Walla Walla. Charles Henderson planted riesling, gewürztraminer, pinot noir, and other grapes in the Bingen–White Salmon area of the Columbia Gorge, and in 1972, Dr. William McAndrew followed suit at his Celilo vineyard. A few miles farther west, Lincoln and Joan Wolverton planted pinot noir, chardonnay, and riesling at La Center, somewhat whimsically calling their vineyard the northernmost extension of the Willamette Valley.
This was the first great wave of Washington viticulture, boosted along by more and more visionaries, such as Mike Wallace, Bill Preston, Maury Balcom, Don Mercer, Mike Sauer, and Jerry Bookwalter, among many others. Ste. Michelle Vintners became Ste. Michelle Vineyards and planted cabernet and riesling at their Cold Creek site. But the most far-reaching event was the purchase of the Ste. Michelle brand, vineyards, and winemaking facilities by U.S. Tobacco (UST) in 1974. From then on, the company controlled the vast majority of Washington State's varietal wine vineyards and production.
By the end of the decade, Washington had roughly a dozen wineries and 2,600 acres of vinifera vineyard. Despite a severe freeze in the winter of 1979, the future, as a very young Bill Gates might have said, was so bright you needed sunglasses.
Washington had shown that it could make competitive varietal wines. But the state's reputation for periodic arctic blasts seemed intact. If its vines were constantly being frozen back to the roots, it seemed a gamble to look beyond winter-hardy, northern European grapes and even hardier hybrids.
Somehow, a critical number of growers were not deterred. Many were farmers, whose view of wine grapes was that they were just another crop to be added to the mix of hops, potatoes, mint, asparagus, apples, cherries, Concords, and so on that was already in the ground. They were used to the weather problems. Grapes were planted, as a general rule, in the most fertile soils, watered heavily, and harvested early. Getting the crop in, rather than maximizing wine quality, was paramount.
The Yakima Valley, a fertile crescent extending from the city of Yakima in the west almost to the Tri-Cities in the east (Richland, Kennewick, and Pasco), attracted the most attention. It had plenty of water, supported well-established agricultural enterprises, and was already planted to some of Washington's oldest, most proven vineyards. Other significant vineyard developments were concentrated in the Columbia Basin, north of the Tri-Cities, and south of Prosser, in the Horse Heaven Hills above the Columbia River.
As the decade began, Ste. Michelle and Associated Vintners (renamed Columbia Winery) were the state's big players, along with a few smaller, family-owned vineyard and winery operations (Kiona, Hinzerling, Mont Elise, Preston, Yakima River) and a handful of boutiques (Leonetti Cellar, Neuharth, Quilceda Creek, Worden's). But as the '80s swung into full stride, more and more large-scale, family-run, and cooperative enterprises appeared: Hogue Cellars, Hyatt Vineyards, Gordon Brothers, Mercer Ranch Vineyards, Quail Run, Quarry Lake Vintners, and Tagaris among them. A wave of smaller mom-and-pop wineries, many without vineyards of their own, followed quickly: Arbor Crest, Barnard Griffin, Bonair, Bookwalter, Chinook, Latah Creek, L'Ecole No 41, Pontin del Roza, Portteus, Salishan, Tucker Cellars, Woodward Canyon, and dozens more.
When it opened in 1982, Chateau Ste. Michelle's Paterson Winery, as Columbia Crest was first known, represented an extraordinary $25 million commitment to the future of Washington wine. Along with the state-of-the-art winemaking facility (capacity 2 million gallons) came almost 2,000 acres of new vineyard—an instant 50 percent increase for the state.
Perhaps the most important development of the decade, even more important than the wine industry's steady growth, was national acclaim for some of Washington's red wines. Though Ste. Michelle and Columbia were certainly doing a very good job, especially with their single-vineyard cabernets, much of the interest from out of state was focused on a few of the new boutiques, notably Leonetti Cellar, Quilceda Creek, Woodward Canyon, L'Ecole No 41, and Hogue Cellars.
Hogue's 1983 Reserve cabernet sauvignon dazzled the judges at the Atlanta Wine Festival, who named the wine Best of Show. Made by Rob Griffin (his Barnard Griffin winery was begun that same year), it revealed a combination of silky elegance and pure fruit-driven power that few outside the state had ever witnessed in a Washington red. Leonetti's 1978 cabernet sauvignon (the winery's first commercial release) made the cover of a long-gone wine publication (Wine and Spirits Buying Guide) and was touted as the best cab in the country. Quilceda Creek's first vintage, a 1979 cabernet sauvignon, brought home the Grand Prize from the prestigious Enological Society. L'Ecole's 1983 merlot (also its first commercial vintage) won a gold medal from the Enological Society a few years later. Latah Creek's 1983 merlot was given a gold medal at the Sixteenth International Wine and Spirits Competition in Bristol, England. And the fledgling Washington Wine Writers' Association voted the 1984 Woodward Canyon Dedication Series cabernet sauvignon the wine of the year in 1986.
Excerpted from Washington Wines and Wineries by Paul Gregutt. Copyright © 2010 the Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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