Washington: Miles in Between

I love Washington wine. You can get a variety of high quality wines for a fraction of the price of California or Oregon.

The first Washington wine that turned my head was a steal, the Velvet Devil Merlot ($10, Trader Joe’s) that I enjoyed during the holiday season in 2015. It was right after Thanksgiving. I had taken a drive down to the river to enjoy Red Wing’s holiday celebration and I stopped in a restaurant for some blue cheese stuffed dates wrapped in bacon – and I was looking for the perfect wine to go with it. The rich and smooth fruit in this wine (black cherries and blueberries) with some soft leather notes made it a memorable pairing on a budget.

I added Washington to my list that night.

Washington isn’t the easiest wine country to get to for a quick weekend getaway. You need a car and a good amount of time to drive where the grapes are grown on the east side of the state, across the Cascade Mountains.

Here are a few quick facts on wine in Washington:

  • Washington is the 2nd largest wine producer in the United States (next to California)
  • There are 14 recognized growing areas (AVAs – American Viticultural Areas); several of which cross into Oregon
  • All AVAs except Puget Sound and Columbia Gorge are part of the Columbia Valley AVA – 99% of wine grapes are grown here
  • Favored varietals include Riesling, Merlot, Chardonnay, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Puget Sound is unique in that it’s small, east of the cascades, cooler, wetter and favors German whites like Müller-Thurgau
  • Columbia Gorge has a lot of different weather depending on positioning to the river so cool and hot weather grapes can be grown
  • Number of grape growers – 350+
  • Number of wineries – 940+

The last two facts will come into play later.

We had limited time for a drive and a tour of the Washington countryside – so I decided to travel to Woodinville, Washington – a suburb of Seattle that was first home to Chateau Ste. Michelle’s wine making operations and very quickly grew to house 118 tasting rooms and wineries – most of whom source their grapes from the east.

Our flight landed on Thanksgiving day. We opted to stay in for the holiday. We grabbed food from the deli and a bottle of Washington wine from a grape I hadn’t heard of before. The 2013 Graciano by Idilico ($40, Haggen Food) took home a rare five star rating in my wine library. It was full bodied, well structured, and very deep in color. It started out with smooth blackberries, pomegranates and a touch of black currant which gave way to vanilla and dry wood notes. It progressed to a nice black pepper and finished with dark chocolate – and the finish lasted forever.

Finding information on Graciano wasn’t easy. The grape is used in Rioja, Spain as a blending partner to add structure to it’s Gran Reserva (highly aged) wines. It didn’t help that there are roughly 80 synonyms for the grape world wide. EIGHTY.

That night I was reminded again how much wine is about the story. A wine’s story is made up from places it goes, the things it endures, the people who grow it, make it, taste it. The stories make my favorite wine-cations come to life.

My favorites destinations so far are Willamette Valley, Oregon and Napa, California. I don’t love Cabernet Sauvignon, so I shouldn’t have loved Napa. But I did —- both times. The people who worked there knew everything that had gone into the bottle in front of me. The people who worked at the winery and the tasting room were farmers and scientists. I met as many vineyard managers as I did winemakers. Both in Oregon and California they knew that wine making was largely influenced by the product you start with. Unique and complex flavors can be built out of simply caring for the grapes so they can do their job.

The next day was a reminder that Washington might offer some excellent wines at a great value; but somewhere along the way in Woodinville the story got lost for me.

One of the diamonds in the rough at DeLille Cellars knew the story in the bottle. He also knew the story about the area and said those 118 wineries and tasting rooms were roughly a 60/40 split in terms of those who made wine or didn’t make wine onsite or nearby in Woodinville.

“How do they maintain freshness in the grapes that usually comes with a pre-dawn crush?”

“They make the drive at night, when it’s cool. It’s just a few hours.”

If so many were making their wines nearby – why didn’t that knowledge and zeal come through in the staff that served it?

Most tasting rooms were like a tasting bar. The facts they shared were scripted. Grape, check. AVA, check. A quick synopsis of taste, check. It ended with a quick fact about how this relates to the wine maker’s style or inspiration. Then they were off — or I had to leave my place at the bar so someone could get their next pour. In some cases – they didn’t know the answers to my questions. In some cases – I didn’t ask. After awhile, I stopped trying.

At that pace, all wine – beautiful or not – blurs together very very quickly. I lost the mindfulness I wrote about in my last post about Wine, Dogs, and Dishes. It took a day to realize this wasn’t the wine country we hoped for. Switching gears, we hiked up the side of a mountain, explored a waterfall, and enjoyed the rest of our Graciano. It was a perfect last day.

That’s when I got curious and started looking at the facts:

  • Washington wineries (940) to grape growers (350) is a 2.7 to 1 ratio
  • Napa wineries (475) to grape growers (700) is 0.7 to 1 ratio
  • Willamette Valley wineries (564) to grape growers (756) is a .75 to 1 ratio
  • Oregon overall had 702 wineries and 1052 vineyards in 2015 – a 0.7 to 1 ratio

For Washington; there is a plethora of wineries producing grapes from a limited pool of growers. For the rest its the reverse. In essence you have a few growers who produce the majority of the grapes for the region. The winemakers often aren’t growing their own grapes – they are buying them.

I have a hunch that what I experienced in Woodinville has something to do with separating the growers from the makers and the winery from the tasting room.

In Oregon and Napa, I was able to find a person (or multiple people) behind every counter who knew the nuances from the lots, the vintage, the weather that year, the brix (sugar level at harvest) and anything that could have altered, improved, or put it’s imprint on the wine. The year mattered. The dirt mattered. The people and mother nature mattered.

I flashed back to a conversation with a vineyard owner in Willamette about what I wanted to do when I grew up. I told him I wanted to start in the vineyards, then the cellar, then the tasting room. Apparently that’s not a traditional path. I want to make wine. How can I do that if I don’t know how to grow the grapes?

My recommendation: Enjoy yourself some Washington wines, but do it just to embrace great quality wine at a great value (or) make the drive to Eastern Washington. Find those tucked away gems where the vineyards and winemakers are connected and the people working the counter aren’t bar tenders. Find the people who major in the blood, sweat, and tears that went into making each unique bottle of wine they produce and the story of their region.

If I find more of them, I’ll be sure to let you know.

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