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By George! It's not your father's Washington wine

Second only to California in production, Washington state is increasing its attention to regional differences and new grape varieties.

The numbers reveal Washington wine’s success.

The state now counts at least 320 wineries from Sequim to Spokane — double the number of just five years ago — and 30,000 acres under vine. That’s still a distant second to California, but the state’s wine industry has deftly avoided mass-market plonk — like jug wine or white zinfandel — that bulks up the California wine economy.

During the latest Taste Washington in Seattle, the annual showcase for the state’s vintners, I was struck by how expansive the industry has become. Even the most diligent watchers of Washington vintages are challenged to keep up as new names appear.

Which led me to wonder: Can we talk about “Washington wine” as a single entity anymore?  We still hear talk about “California wine,” but even the most inexperienced quaffer knows there’s a difference between Napa and Santa Barbara and Mendocino, even if you’re not entirely sure what it is.

Or as winemaker Doug McCrea, a pioneer of Rhône varietals in Washington, puts it: “You certainly wouldn’t see a Taste California under one roof.”

Many wine drinkers expanded their understanding of wine as California’s industry grew in the past 35 years. (Before that, it was mostly just jug wine.) Part of that was the introduction of “appellations,” the French-inspired rules as to where a wine originates. Perhaps the time is coming — it may already have come, in fact — that drinkers of Washington wine will be doing the same. 

“The term ‘appellation’ over the last 25 years has gone from a state to a county to a vineyard,” says Patrick Merrill of wine-marketing firm Merrill Consulting. “It would only make sense that Washington is becoming like California was a while ago.”

That said, Washington vintners seem reluctant to subdivide too soon. Appellations do exist, but the general approach is more all-embracing. For instance, an early pioneer in the state, Alex Golitzen of Quilceda Creek, a name synonymous among collectors with the top tier of Washington wine, still labels his $85 Cabernet sauvignon as “Washington State.” And the state’s wine commission late last year unveiled a new marketing campaign and tagline (“The Perfect Climate for Wine”) that minimizes regional differences.

Part of the reason may be that the industry is dominated by a few large producers. Several major wine companies have footholds in Washington, none with more influence than Woodinville, Wash.-based Ste. Michelle Wine Estates (known until recently as Stimson Lane), whose brands comprise 3.7 million cases of wine — though some of that is from California.  Aside from its flagship label, Ste. Michelle owns such popular Washington brands as Columbia Crest and Snoqualmie, plus premium brands like Col Solare (in partnership with Italy’s Antinori family).

Others include Constellation Brands, which owns Columbia Winery, plus value labels Covey Run and Paul Thomas; Diageo, which holds Sagelands and Canoe Ridge Vineyard; and Vincor USA, which owns Hogue Cellars.

For better or worse, these powerhouses are an economic engine for the state’s wine production, turning out millions of bottles — from $6 value labels to $200 limited releases.

How can you start splitting up Washington into understandable chunks?  Geography is the obvious place to start — except that many wineries use grapes grown more than 150 miles away. Though nearly all the state’s red wine grapes are grown in the arid valleys east of the Cascade Mountains, they are often bought by the dozens of wineries west of the mountains.

Here’s a quick guide to trends in this fast-growing sector (followed by our usual tasting notes):

SyrahWashington has made a name for itself with merlot, but its real star potential may lie in syrah.

Vintners produce a range of syrah styles, with nods to both the Rhône and Australian approaches, and everything in between.

In the northern latitudes, Washington vines enjoy more temperate weather, and cold autumn nights, than their Californian and Australian counterparts. For this reason they often present earthier, gamynotes and more dark, evocative flavors, with less of the jammy, obvious fruit that charms fans of Australian wines.

The downside: the best syrahs are increasingly expensive; at least a few have price tags far in excess of their reputations. But dedicated winemakers like McCrea have staked their reputations on Washington being a destination for syrah. They’re quickly proving their point.

Walla WallaOf all Washington’s appellations, Walla Walla has done the most to separate itself from the pack, not least because of its long history with two of the state’s most well-established wineries: Leonetti Cellars and Woodward Canyon. It hopes to position itself as a Napa of the Northwest.

Good Walla Walla wine is rarely cheap, and big-name projects like Ste. Michelle’s $50 Northstar merlot only drive up an already spiraling price chain. But of all the Washington subdivisions right now, Walla Walla is most likely to be a breakout hit.

Red MountainOne of the nation’s smallest appellations, this patch of high desert outside tiny Benton City has gained a worldwide reputation for high-end Bordeaux varietals and blends. Its lush fruit flavors, dusty earth notes and hefty tannins are unmistakable — signs of big, powerful wines built to withstand years in the bottle.

Red Mountain’s problem has been scarcity — just 700 acres are in vine, a smidgen of the state’s total — but new long-term leases with the state’s Department of Natural Resources will allow vintners to increase Red Mountain acreage by nearly 50 percent. New vineyards and wineries (including one from Col Solare announced last week) are already planned, and should give Red Mountain considerable momentum.

Undiscovered WashingtonSo many new vineyards and locales in Washington now grow grapes that even local aficionados have trouble keeping up.  In the past two years, a handful of wineries have appeared in the Lake Chelan and Leavenworth areas of the North Cascades. Spokane, in far eastern Washington, now boasts 10 wineries.

The remote Columbia Gorge region of Washington and Oregon won appellation status last year. With new high-quality vineyards in areas with such improbable names as the Wahluke Slope and the Frenchman Hills, additional appellations are already on the drawing board.

Even if you think you know Washington wine, rest assured that you don’t. So start exploring.


Barnard Griffin 2003 Columbia Valley syrah ($13)Plummy and a bit peppery, with both French and Aussie cred. A tangy finish and a briny middle make this a terrific, affordable introduction to Washington syrah from this talented producer.

K Vintners 2003 Cougar Hills syrah ($40)An outstanding effort from Walla Walla bad boy Charles Smith. Gamy, with dark candied red cherry and a stoic mineral note. Acid and a hint of salt dazzle your tongue, and then there’s a peppery hint to finish.

McCrea 2002 Cuvée Orleans syrah ($50)Here’s a rare splurge wine: McCrea’s tribute to both his hometown of New Orleans and France’s Côte Rotie (hence a splash of viognier in the mix) is neither cheap nor in ready supply. No wonder. It’s endlessly deep and briny, with all the right notes.  An almost chewy texture, with a plummy middle and a huge, but graceful, peppery finish.

Walla Walla Vintners 2003 sangiovese ($20)Many a vintner in the Walla Walla Valley can thank Myles Anderson and Gordon Venneri for helping them learn the ropes. At their own winery, these two pioneers turn out astoundingly good, consistent wine year after year.  New World sangiovese can often be rounded and fruit-forward, too far from the original. But theirs is a perfectly balanced specimen, with tart, candied red fruit and a dash of tannins at the end. A subtle, floral finish rounds it out.

Barrister 2003 Walla Walla Valley merlot ($28)The fruit is from Walla Walla vineyards, but the winery is in a 100-year-old Spokane warehouse, run by attorneys Greg Lipsker and Michael White. Balanced and elegant, with a perfumed note in the dark plum core and fine-grained tannins to finish. A merlot profound enough to sway even the most hardened merlot cynic.

Seia 2003 Columbia Valley Clifton Hill Vineyard syrah ($22)A syrah in zinfandel’s clothing, and I mean that in a good way. This is a first effort from winemaker Robert Spalding, working out of Seattle’s Capitol Hill. With violets and blackberry in the mix, it’s pretty and lush, if a bit hot at 14.9 percent alcohol.