By Mark H. Metzger, csw
Society of Wine Educators
By global and historical standards, the Washington State wine industry is still very, very young. Although the state’s first wine company goes back to 1934, the industry really didn’t get much traction until 1954, when the American Wine Growers Group was founded in 1954. Later, this pioneering group came to be known as Chateau Ste. Michelle.
But at its present maturation state, it is providing the world with incredibly high quality wine of varied varietals. To understand Washington Wine growing is to understand its environment, or terroir. We Easterners think of Washington as a rain saturated state, and indeed, in the western region, including Seattle, that is true. The city averages 37” of rain a year, and in the Cascade Mountain Range, the Pacific weather systems dump as much as 170” of annual rainfall. But the Cascades also block that weather from reaching the Columbia Valley, east of this prolific range; indeed, the Columbia Valley is designated as desert, averaging only 6” to 8” of rain per year.
So the relatively late start this industry experienced had much to do with irrigation technology and the ability of farmers to harness the voluminous waters of the Columbia, Yakima, and Snake Rivers to irrigate their vineyards. And they proceeded to create a unique system of controlling the water offered to its plants, stressing the vines enough to create healthy, thirsty plants and producing grapes with intense flavor profiles.
Also, there is the 45 degree latitude factor. The Columbia Valley sits on this latitude, along with Bordeaux, the northern Rhone, and Italy’s famed Piedmont region. These regions get an average of two hours more sunlight per day during the growing season than do Napa and other popular growing regions. And in the case of Washington’s Columbia Valley, the growing season stretches deep into the month of October.
In 1993 there were 11,000 acres under vine in Washington, now over 31,000. In 1996, there were 80 wineries on record; now over 500.
Among those 500 is Chateau Ste. Michelle, one of the oldest and certainly now one of the most prolific in Washington, having been named Winery of the Year by multiple trade publications and storied critics, and flooding the market with many 90+ scoring wines. Indeed, its sister winery, Columbia Crest, authored the 2009 Wine Spectator “Wine of the Year” in its 2005 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. Their holdings of Northstar, Spring Valley, and Col Solare ( a joint venture with Piero Antinori) make them one of the most prominent stables of fine wine in America, if not the world.
What Washington State wines offer to the restaurateur, and certainly the consumer, is consistent high quality wines at very aggressive pricing. Their climatic conditions offer more consistency from vintage to vintage. And the appellations such as Horse Heaven Hills, Wahluke slope, and Walla Walla stand ready to continue to produce incredible quality along with some great value.
An industry founded on Riesling, and certainly the source that brought Riesling back into its extreme popularity it enjoys today, also has evolved into a terrific red wine grower. By the mid 1990’s, 57% of all vinifera grown was red. Cabernet, Merlot, and most recently Syrah, lead the charge. The hot summers and long autumnal hangtime make the Columbia Valley an ideal environment for big, tannic reds.
So as you plan your wine lists give much thought to this sector of the wine making industry. Wines from these portfolios offer quality, consistency, enhanced profit, and now much critical acclaim. The best to all of you.
Recommended Washington State Wines, with Ratings where available for current vintage:
- Columbia Crest Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Columbia Valley (former WS Wine of the Year)
- Columbia Crest Reserve Walter Clore Reserve Red Blend 2010, Columbia Valley
- H3 Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, Horse Heaven Hills (91 pts. WS)
- H3 Les Chevaux (Red Blend) 2011, Horse Heaven Hills
- Col Solare 2008, Red Mountain (93 pts. WS; Antinori partnership)
- Ch. Ste. Michelle Cabernet 2011, Indian Wells (90 pts. WS)
- Spring Valley Frederick 2010, Walla Walla, (93 pts. WS)
- Northstar Merlot 2009, Columbia Valley (91 pts WS)
- Eroica Riesling 2012, Columbia Valley (91 pts WA; partnership with Dr. Loosen)
- Sauvignon Blanc 2012, Horse Heaven Hills (WS Top 100 this year)
- Ch. Ste. Michelle Chardonnay 2011, Cold Creek Vineyard
- Columbia Crest Grand Estates Chardonnay 2011, Columbia Valley (90 pts. WS)
( Mr. Metzger is a 40 year veteran of our industry, having been a restaurateur owner/operator himself for30 years, and for the past 10 years On Premise Director for Opici Family Distributors. He has co-written many award winning wine lists and has educated many a waitstaff on wine selling techniques statewide.)