Updated: Jun 23, 2021
Ten years ago, I was walking through vineyards in the Columbia Valley. It was my first visit to Washington State and I was on a trip hosted by the Washington Wine Commission. We took a statewide tour and visited Yakima Valley, Walla Walla Valley, Red Mountain, Columbia Gorge, Horse Heaven Hills, Wahluke Slope, Rattlesnake Hills, and Snipes Mountain. In 2010, that was nine of the eleven American Viticultural Areas officially designated in Washington State. Now, in 2020 there are 15 A.V.A.’s in Washington.
Beyond the striking beauty of Washington, the diversity of the landscape was what made me so excited to see the state. I didn’t drive, which I am happy about, instead was allowed to look out the windows and take in all of the breathtaking scenery. In the west between the Olympia and Cascade Range the climate is cool and rainy, the rain forests are thrust into foothills and the colors of green rival any found elsewhere in my travels. Riding through the mountains was beautiful, and not having to drive the switchbacks and cliff hugging roads was a treat to my nerves. The Columbia Gorge has some of the most picturesque views for scenery seekers. Coming out of the Cascade Range and heading east, the landscape becomes foothills rolling down to the desert floor of the high plains. The Yakima Valley is beautiful and surrounded by desert, loaded with hops, 75% of the United States hop production, and at the time of my visit was home to 65 wineries. Walla Walla Valley is in the southeast corner of the state, and the A.V.A. is shared by Oregon.
Washington is relatively new to the wine game, and the benefits in that are numerous. Washington, unlike many other regions of wine production, was not typecast. On the contrary, the pioneering vision of the wine producers was met as late as 1980 with skepticism. This allowed grape growers to try whatever grape they wanted, in a time when the interest in fine wine was growing in the United States in tandem with quality culinary practices, Washington became a proving ground for all sorts of wine and food. On my trip I saw Riesling, Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay planted to vine which I had wholly expected, but was delighted to see so many producers trying everything from Aligote’ to Zinfandel, Barbera, Petit Sirah, Mourvedre, Picpoul de Pinet, Grenache, Bourbelenc, Sauvignon Blanc, the list would waste too many characters. I saw well over one hundred different varietals on vines throughout my trip, in the nine A.V.A’s that I visited.
Another benefit of youth, is showcased in the responsible vineyard management practices. Why not employ responsible production processes with thought of conservation of resources if you can, it is not necessarily more expensive to work within those guidelines from the get go, at least, it is cheaper than overhauling decades old systems later. Washington has the benefit of learning from California’s historic struggles, less opportunity for Phylloxera in the sandy soils in the desert east means that many vineyards are planted on ungrafted vines. Washington has unique climate and soil variances that show completely different result than growing the same grape in other areas. I use Washington State Merlot frequently to show someone who thinks that they don’t like Merlot, that perhaps they just have not been exposed to the right Merlot.
Washington winemakers were often Washington grape growers before they made their first vintage. That is what makes it such a unique region right now. Many of these farmers were the first to plant grapes in their community, or are second generation at most. They learn each vintage about how the grapes react to each variable in the field, and in the winery. They often, by necessity, had to manage the vineyard for years before they were able to experiment in the winery. In old world countries these lessons were scribed by monks hundreds of years ago, and though you can read it, in Latin, you cannot hear their story from their mouth, and get a window into their experiences.
I am going to Washington again, in a few months, on my own itinerary, and can’t wait to see what has changed, and to see the boundaries of the six A.V.A.’s that I did not get the opportunity to walk in 2010