John Brown has been a wine and food columnist in West Virginia since the 1980’s. His regular columns appear in the Charleston (WV) Gazette-Mail under the title Vines & Vittles and in The State Journal - a statewide business weekly
Washington Wine: old world balance, new world flavor
Washington State is a geographically schizophrenic state, a land of extremes with two distinct personalities. Seattle, situated along Puget Sound with the Cascade Mountains to the east and the Olympic range to the west, is more known for its annual precipitation than its well-deserved reputation as one of the most livable cities in the world.
The other Washington begins once you cross Snoqualmie Pass in the Cascade Mountains, just 54 miles east of Seattle. The lush, green Alpine landscape suddenly gives way to beige and brown hues as you travel east away from the Cascades along Interstate 90.
Actually, the metamorphosis is shocking. From rainforest-like conditions in Seattle, you enter a sun-baked, high dessert terrain where sagebrush and sand predominate, and where hot summers and bone chilling winters are the norm. The area also has one of the lowest annual rainfalls in the U.S. Welcome to eastern Washington: one of the most promising and exciting viticultural areas on this planet. It's a place where little-known wineries such as Leonetti Cellars, Quilceda Creek, DeLille Cellars and L'Ecole 41 are making some of the finest wines anywhere.
So how can you grow grapes, or anything for that matter, in a desert area with an average annual rainfall of only eight inches? Well, that problem was solved with an amazing series of canals fed by a giant reservoir on the eastern slopes of the Cascades. The reservoir, replenished each year with rainwater and melting snow, feeds the canals and has transformed the valleys of eastern Washington into a fertile growing plain.
Until very recently, this vast region was best known for producing cherries, asparagus, hops, lentils, apricots and... the atomic bomb. Yes, it was near the town of Richland where much of the research and testing was done in the early 1940's for the first atom bomb.
Now the wine industry is exploding! The three principal grape growing regions are the Yakima Valley, the Walla Walla Valley and the Columbia River Basin. These American Viticultural Areas (AVA) and the sub-regions within are beginning to produce world-class cabernet sauvignon, merlot and chardonnay. The Yakima Valley is a slightly cooler region than either the Columbia Basin or the Walla Walla Valley, but all regions produce excellent red and white wines.
I toured the vineyards of the Yakima Valley and the Columbia River Basin several years ago and came away convinced of the tremendous potential this area possesses to produce among the finest wines anywhere.
The Washington wine industry has grown from 19 wineries in 1981 to nearly 500 today. And while there are a few wineries located in the Seattle area, the overwhelming majority of wineries and vineyards are located in eastern Washington.
The flagship wineries of Washington are Chateau Ste. Michelle and its sister winery Columbia Crest. These pioneering producers have put Washington State on the viticultural map and have served as an inspiration and training ground for many of the wineries that followed them.
So what makes Washington wines so special? It's a combination of geography, soil and climate. The major growing regions in the state lie along the same latitude as Bordeaux and Burgundy and have plentiful sunlight, minimal rainfall and long warm summer days moderated by crisp, cool evenings. The soils are lean, yet rich in minerals.
The resulting wines are characterized by crispness and an intensity of fruit. You might say that Washington State wines have the best of both California and Bordeaux: they possess the forward fruit so prevalent in Golden state; yet they also exhibit excellent balance like the wines produced in Bordeaux. Fruit, alcohol and acidity seem to be knitted harmoniously in most of the wines from Washington, and balanced wines are excellent matches with food.
And while the marquee wines such as cabernet, chardonnay and merlot are made as well in Washington as anywhere, the state is also producing among the most exciting gewürztraminer, riesling and semillon I've tasted in this country.
Probably the most famous Washington State wineries are Quilceda Creek, Leonetti and Woodward Canyon, whose cabernet sauvignons and merlots are legendary, very expensive and difficult to find. However, there are plenty of other great wines from Washington that are available to you here in West Virginia.
Here is a listing of some of my favorite wineries that produce these wines:
Hedges Cellars, Waterbrook, Columbia Crest, Covey Run, L'Ecole No. 41, Chateau. Ste Michelle, Canoe Ridge, Powers, DeLille Cellars, Hogue Cellars, Barnard Griffin, Andrew Will Winery, Kiona, Columbia and Owen Roe.
My advice? Go out and try the wines of Washington State. They represent not only quality, but value when compared to the wines produced in higher profile places such as California or France.