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Washington: Jack of All Trades, Master of None?

Columbia Valley AVA [Source: Washington State Wine Commission]
Columbia Valley AVA [Source: Washington State Wine Commission]

Welcome to Vintage America, our column on the history — and future — of American wine. Every week Talia Baiocchi, author of the Decanted column on Eater NY, will take a look at winemaking from Virginia to Texas to California, to uncover the people, events, and trends that have made America one of the most dynamic countries in the world of wine.

The other day someone asked me what comes to mind think of when I think of Washington State wine. I stalled for a bit. Perhaps Riesling. But mostly thanks to Chateau Ste. Michelle, who is, shockingly, the world's largest producer of the grape. Years of combing West Coast supermarkets has inevitably burned that label into memory forever. Cabernet and Bordeaux-style blends come to mind courtesy of some of Washington's most visible labels like Andrew Will, Quilceda Creek, and stalwarts like Leonetti.

But the state has had romances with numerous grapes — like Merlot in the 90s, Syrah in the noughties, and everything from Viognier to Chenin Blanc in between — that make it difficult to pinpoint not only what Washington does, but what it does best. In other words, when it comes to wine, asking someone what they think of when they think of Washington State might as well be filed under derailing questions to ask someone with the hiccups, right next to "When's the last time you saw a midget riding a mule?"

Awkward Teenager
Paul Gregutt, the preeminent expert on the wines of the Pacific Northwest and the author of Washington Wines and Wineries: The Essential Guide, argues that a grab bag mentality isn't exactly a bad thing for Washington, and cites Oregon's struggle to successfully market anything other than Pinot Noir as an example of how one variety defining an entire wine producing state can be very limiting.

Figuratively speaking, though, the media tends to harp of Washington's perceived identity crisis, branding it as the sort of awkward teenager of West Coast wine regions. While California is busy throwing footballs and ass-grabbing, and Oregon is content reading poetry and doing yoga, Washington is in its bedroom sketching anime cartoons and listening to Smashing Pumpkins, searching for itself.

Greg Harrington, Master Sommelier and winemaker/owner at Gramercy Cellars in Walla Walla describes the state's perennial search for itself as the product of its "lack of a hometown hero," or a grape variety that the state is known for.

But it seems that it is perhaps more about the state's swift ascension to the number two spot in overall wine production in the U.S. than anything else.

Tchelistcheff and the Death of WA Fruit Wine
Gregutt notes that at the beginning of the 1980s the state was home to fewer than 20 wineries. By 2009 that number had jumped to 655, with 500 of those wineries opening within the last decade. By Gregutt's calculations, that's a new winery every six days.

This late bloom was more or less a product of protectionist laws against the sale and importation of wine into the state.

After the repeal of Prohibition, Washington's wine industry bounced back by producing fruit wines and sweet, unfortified blends from the American hybrid grape Island Belle and a grab bag of European Vinifera varieties that winemakers would dump sugar into in order to achieve a not-so-elegant combination of high alcohol and high sugar. In order to protect the local industry which was perceived to be threatened by California's success, the state was urged by growers and winemakers to raise taxes on California wines, limiting the number of dry table wines that made it into the state. As a result, for decades after Prohibition consumers remained myopic and uninformed about the potential of quality wine in Western United States.

It wasn't until the 1960s when two men — a California-based wine writer, Leon Adams, and Victor Allison, the manager of American Wine Growers — summoned Andre Tchelistcheff to Washington, that quality table wine began to be made on a commercial scale.

Adams and Allison introduced Tchelistcheff — the man behind Beaulieu Vineyard, and one of California's great mentoring pioneers — to a group of university professors experimenting with Vinifera varieties and making dry table wines. Though they were likely less than world-class, Tchelistcheff saw enough potential to agree to come on as a consultant for American Wine Growers, which would go on to become Chateau Ste Michelle, in 1967.

By 1969, trade barriers with California wine were lifted and the sale of wine off-premise was legalized, finally opening up the market for growth.

The 1970s, 80s, and 90s saw waves of visionary winemakers that would set the course of Washington winemaking, like Gary Figgins of Leonetti, John Williams of Kiona, Bill Preston ofPreston, and Alex Golitzin of Quilceda Creek, Baker Ferguson of L’Ecole No 41, and Chris Camarda of Andrew Will, to name a few. But no winemaker or group of winemakers could maintain enough influence to guide a boom as large as the last decade's.

Putting Washington on the Map
What makes Washington wines unique in a general sense is an unabashedly American girth coupled with high levels of natural acidity, which is a product of the extreme climate both in seasons and day and night temperatures. Acidity is the operative word here in that it has given Washington the potential to make American wines of restraint.

But it's impossible not to expect a state that gains a new winery virtually ten times an hour for ten years straight to have immediate cohesion. That sort of hyper-growth breeds freedom and stokes the urge to experiment. Harrington's Substance project (along with Jason Huntley and Jamie Brown of Waters) is the perfect manifestation of the resultant kitchen sink mentality. They produce thirty different value-driven, single-varietal wines from different sites across the state.

But even Harrington recognizes that Washington, as a state, must focus itself. He suggests that it isn't about having one, two, or three grapes define the state, it's about pinpointing the specific varieties that stand out in each AVA (American Viticultural Area).

In other words, the hope is that in the years to come that consumers will be able to identify what, say, the Horse Heaven Hills or Red Mountain AVAs are known for, or how Cabernet varies within these different terroirs. At the moment, even the experts have narrow, if non-existent, knowledge of Washington wine.

"I was in France for an MW [Master of Wine] exam and of the 42 people sitting for the exam, almost no one could tell me where Walla Walla was," says Harrington. The title of Master of Wine is the highest designation of professional knowledge in the wine world that only 289 people in the world hold. If those who are studying to earn that title can't find Washington on a map it might be a little while before the state comes into full bloom with consumers.

But there is something to be said about that late-blooming, awkward teenager that Washington represents. They often have a tendency blossom into heartthrobs or invent things like post-it notes or the internet, while the more popular kids peak early. So while Washington is currently eclipsed by California and Oregon, searching for its market identity, there's little doubt that it will grow in relevance. And like skinny drama nerd that shows up to the high school reunion all coiffed and broad-shouldered, we'll likely look back and wonder why we didn't see it coming.

Further reading:
· Washington Wines & Wineries: The Essential Guide, Second Edition
· Paul Gregutt's Blog, Unfined and Unfiltered

Talia Baiocchi is the former editor of WineChap in the U.S. and a contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle, among others. In her previous life she was a dressage trainer for unicorns and her mother still thinks she'd make a great lawyer. Find her on Twitter at @TaliaBaiocchi.

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