Time to change that, and how! First of all, let's do some edifying: A) don't equate rainy Seattle with your concept of WA wine—most of the state's wine regions lie to the east of the Cascade Mountains, which act as a rain shadow, in the dry Columbia Valley AVA. B) the area's latitude is the same as between Bordeaux and Burgundy (fairly well-regarded regions, eh?), there is an unusually long length of day, which equals over a hundred more hours of glorious daylight during the growing season—and WA's wide daily temperature fluctuations are great for ripening. C) there is NO phylloxera in the state, so the vines are grown on their own rootstock. D) for you soil nerds: there is volcanic bedrock layered under glacial deposits and soil from multiple ice age floods, with a windblown loess dusting on top—a trifecta of loveliness. E) there are over FORTY varietals planted, with subregions showcasing an incredible array of grapes; Riesling and Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah… rarely at home in the same region.
There's so much more, but let's get to the juice!
I recently spent a day walla-walla-wallowing in the bounty of WA state wines at a trade event sponsored by the Washington State Wine Commission, and found some truly wonderful wines during two seminars and a walk-around tasting.
I was first knocked out by the 2013 àMaurice Cellars Sparrow Viognier, Walla Walla Valley AVA. Nose of straw, lemon, white florals, very viscous, and tangy lemon zest with lots of minerality on the palate. Florals emerge on the super long finish. Winemaker Anna Schafer spoke of her passion in cultivating this gem: "I absolutely love making white wine—you're not making white wine for the scores!" ~$35.
At the walk-around, I beelined to her table to taste more of her offerings: the 2011 àMaurice Cellars Night Owl Estate Red Blend was light but complex, with a super elegant, smoky nose, a bit of earth and charming, well-balanced fruit. ~$48. 2011 àMaurice Cellars Fred Estate Syrah had lots of perfume, spice, and herbs, with lavender sachet in the mouth. Not a hot-n-ripe overblown Syrah, rather an elegant, integrated example. ~$42. And the 2011 àMaurice Cellars Anderson Red Blend showed a great perfumey nose! Sweet plums, rose petals… wowzers! Love this. Elegant, and very flavorful. ~$40.
Another standout was the 2012 Januik Klipsun Vineyard Merlot, Red Mountain AVA. Complex, forward nose of blueberry, blackberry, lavender pastilles, and mocha, in the mouth it had compact, elegant fruit, with good balancing acidity and soft tannins, with a long finish of blackberry pie. ~$30
Almost presented as an answer to the question, "But how will WA wines age?", the 1994 Woodward Canyon Winery Merlot, Columbia Valley AVA had an amazing "whoa!" nose of intense spice box, sweet cedar, and tobacco leaf. It was still very present in the mouth, with flavors of dried herbs and mesquite, with good acidity. Just lovely. (The fruit was actually sourced from the Wahluke Slope AVA, but at the time, it hadn't been granted an AVA designation yet.) Not too shabby for a 20-year-old Merlot from lil' ol' Washington! ~$NA.
Chateau Ste. Michelle winemaker Bob Bertheau is an important figure in the growth of the WA wine industry, always looking to innovate and perfect, and his 2010 Ch. Ste. Michelle Artist Series Meritage, Columbia Valley AVA has the highest percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon he's ever put in a Bordeaux-style blend. He said, "The elegance of the Cab this year just sang to me, and I couldn't hold it down." It had blackberry liqueur and floral perfume, with dense and dark purple notes. Suuuuuuper smooth, with pepper and graphite on the finish. A big wine, but it doesn't punch you in the face. Wow. (Bob also said that "Washington tannins are like a thoroughbred—you have to teach it, train it… that's a good problem to have, to have a wild horse." I loved that.) ~$60.
His 2013 Ch. Ste. Michelle Eroica Riesling carries on a solid tradition of dependable Eroicas, with a great nose of florals—massive honeysuckle!—and spice, mandarin orange, and mouthwatering acidity. ~$20. And I also loved the 2011 Ch. Ste. Michelle Cold Creek Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, with its dead-on-Cabernet nose of cassis, cedar, and a little green-ness. It was incredibly smooth and integrated, and had a long finish of cassis and earth. ~$30.
Next stop was the Charles Smith/K Vintners table—I've been a fan of their wines for a long time. (I've gleefully written about the Boom Boom Syrah and the Kung Fu Girl Riesling in the past.) And sure enough, out of the gate, I was incredibly impressed with the 2013 ViNO Pinot Gris. Attractive floral nose, spicy, good acidity, florals carry through—wow! Impressive. And only ~$12! I also went coo-coo for the 2012 Sixto Uncovered Chardonnay, with its smooth presentation, cheeky note of taffy, and loads of minerality. No new oak, 100% native fermentation, sourced from three different high-elevation vineyards—a rival to famed CA chards, at half the price. ~$30. Another incredible value is found in the 2013 Wines of Substance Cabernet Sauvignon, which was "kind of left alone," according to co-winemaker Brennon Leighton. Robust red fruit, good balance and length, complex. ~$15.
I'm also familiar with Andrew Will's wines, and really enjoyed the two vintages I tasted from his Champoux Vineyard (and the little kid in me cracked up every time someone seriously mentioned a "shampoo" vineyard.) The Cab Franc-based 2012 Andrew Will Champoux Vineyard Blend, Horse Heaven Hills AVA was big and extracted, with dense black fruits and florals, ~$65, and the 2011 Andrew Will Champoux Vineyard Blend, Horse Heaven Hills AVA lathered up the palate (see what I did there?) with spiced blackberry jam. ~$74.
If a group of flamingoes is a flamboyance, what do you call a group of Master Sommeliers? (That may be a good question for the twitter.) Three MSs—Shayn Bjornholm MS, Chris Tanghe MS, and one of my former instructors John Ragan MS—led a blind seminar to illuminate WA location, grapes, and blends. (Yes, my palms sweat the minute I realized we'd be tasting blind, but I nailed the three varietals and a couple of sub-regions, so I guess the Minx has some mad skillz after all.)
The quality of the wines in this group was high across the board, but if pressed to name some favorites, I'd include the 2011 DeLille Cellars Harrison Hill Blend Snipes Mountain AVA; cassis, herb liqueur, and sage notes, integrated fruit, elegant and delish! ~$95. Also the 2012 Avennia Justine Columbia Valley AVA, with its red and black berry salad, strong cherry, and florals, was super dense and tasty, and quite grippy. A blend of Mourvedre, Grenache, and Syrah. ~$40. And I loved the 2012 Gramercy Cellars Third Man Columbia Valley AVA, with silky red fruits, it was a bit meaty (genoa salami) and peppery, with alpine notes. Big, but beautifully balanced. Another S. Rhône blend, this time with the emphasis on Grenache. ~$45.
The 2012 Betz Family Winery Bésoleil Columbia Valley AVA was also incredible, with coffee grounds and herbs on the nose, and a luxe, elegant palate of blueberry, a hint of chalk—so tasty. ~$45. I went to their table for more, falling for the 2011 Clos de Betz Red Bordeaux Blend, with an amazing, packed nose of cassis and cedar, and a flinty minerality. ~$55. Also the 2011 Betz Family Winery Père de Famille Cabernet Sauvignon: "ooooh, rich & smooooooth!" say my notes. Violets, delicious fruit, elegant, quaffable yet good with food. 88% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Petit Verdot, and 3% Merlot. ~$68.
"Dense" is the word of the day for the 2011 Col Solare Blend Red Mountain AVA, which also drew me in, with its notes of cassis liqueur, brick dust, velvety red fruit, liquid herbs, it was very dense and very ripe. And very sexy. ~$75.
Still with me?! I know this is a lot, but seriously—each table I visited kept surprising me with such gems, it was truly a bounty. If I didn't have an appointment to get to, this post would have been three times as long, I'm sure. My last stop on the way out was at the Seven Hills table. I'd correctly blind tasted the varietal of the 2012 Seven Hills Vineyard Merlot Walla Walla Valley AVA during the seminar, and still loved its ripe blue and black fruits on the nose, elements of smoke and mocha, and tasty, intense blueberry pie. ~$38. Next was the only rosé I sampled that day, the 2014 Seven Hills Dry Rosé Cabernet Franc—loved the nose, strawberry-lime rickey, clean and crisp watermelon Jolly Rancher, good acidity, super dry finish. ~$18.
Their hits just kept on coming: the 2012 Seven Hills Ciel du Cheval Blend Red Mountain AVA: "melting" red fruit, big but super integrated, lovely. My friend Mr. Some Damn Good Wine kept crowing over the note of "Maraschino! Maraschino!!" ~$45. The 2012 Seven Hills McClellan Estate Petit Verdot Walla Walla Valley AVA: just loved the nose. Intriguing. Plummy purpleness across the board. Wow! I drew a heart. ~$35. And the 2012 Seven Hills Klipsun Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Red Mountain AVA: spot-on Bordeaux nose—cedar, cassis, eucalyptus. Scrumptious, with high tannins, but very integrated. ~$45.
Wineaux, if you haven't figured it out by now, wines from Washington State are indeed wonderful. This tasting confirmed that they have the ability to rival wines from other great regions around the world, and many are values at every price point. Do yourselves a favor, and start familiarizing yourselves with the wonderful wines from WA.
(Side note: as of this writing, I am very close to finalizing a date to sing this summer for the Seattle Mariners as part of my quest to sing the National Anthem for every Major League Baseball team. Rest assured that I will do my very best to tack on a visit to the Columbia Valley to get up close and personal with more of these gems! I love it so when my worlds collide.
UPDATE: The Seattle date is set, barring any theatrical conflicts: July 28. Very excited, not only to sing, but to stomp around Washington State vineyards for a few days. Keep an eye out for my report.)