Washington State—not to be confused with the U.S. capital—ranks second nationally in wine production, has over 650 wineries, and is home to the Wine Spectator’s 2009 Wine of the Year. Having visited wine regions around the world, I believe Washington State, located in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, is one of the most exciting you’ll find. Washington boasts an interesting history, has a perfect climate for grapes, produces many varieties into award-winning wines, and offers many regions to explore.

History

While these are exciting times in the Washington wine industry, many consumers know very little about the region. In fact, many consumers drink Washington wines without ever realizing they’re from Washington. Allen Shoup, a Washington wine pioneer, was recently quoted as saying that only 10% of wine drinkers know Washington produces wine, and yet 70% have heard of Chateau Ste. Michelle or Columbia Crest, two Washington wineries.

The first known planting of grapevines in what is now Washington State was at Fort Vancouver in 1825, and the first winery was founded in 1874 by John Galler of East Wenatchee. However, Washington’s modern wine industry really got its start in the 1950s and 1960s with Associated Vintners (now Columbia Winery) and American Wine Growers (now Chateau Ste. Michelle).

According to Ron Irvine in his book The Wine Project: Washington State’s Winemaking History, the Washington wine industry was profoundly and irreversibly changed by four almost simultaneous developments during the 1950s and 1960s.

First, the state legislature passed what was known as the California Wine Bill, which paved the way for varietal wines. Further was the sheer competitive drive of American Wine and its refusal to be outdone by California or any Washington upstart. There was also the creation of the remarkable home winemaker group that eventually became Associated Vintners; this group went on to produce the state’s first premium wines. Finally, Dr. Walter Clore, regarded as the father of the Washington wine industry, started the Wine Project along with Vere Brummund, George Carter, and Chas Nagel. This project linked winemakers with grape growers through the extraordinary research efforts at the Prosser Research and Extension Center.

In the 30 years since, the Washington wine industry has exploded. There were only 19 wineries in the state in 1981, while today there are over 650, with a new winery license bonded every 10 days.

The Perfect Climate for Wine

There’s a reason why the Washington Wine Commission uses the tagline, “The Perfect Climate for Wine.” The wine country of eastern Washington offers nearly ideal conditions for grape growing: plenty of sun, plus an abundance of water from the Columbia River. In the summer, Washington averages 17.4 hours of sunlight per day, about two hours more than California’s prime growing region. And unlike California, Washington State will be a likely beneficiary of global warming as the conditions suitable for grape growing move northward.

Signature Varietals

Wineries here make world-class wines from so many different grapes that there’s never been a focus on just one “signature” varietal—in contrast, think Napa Cabernet or Oregon Pinot Noir. Washington makes stellar Cabernet sauvignon, Merlot, Bordeaux-type blends, Syrah, and Riesling, to name just a few. Cabernet franc, Malbec, and Semillon have also done very well.

Still, after tasting thousands of Washington wines over many vintages, talking to numerous growers and winemakers, and walking the rows of most of the major vineyards in Washington, I’ve decided that Washington’s signature red wine is Syrah and its signature white wine is Riesling.

Award-Winning Wines

The 2005 Columbia Crest Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon was named as the number one wine of 2009 in Wine Spectator’s annual Top 100 Wines list. It was the first Washington wine to receive this honor. Meanwhile, the 2005 Quilceda Creek Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon received a 100-point rating by Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate, their third 100-point rating in four years.

Paul Gregutt of Washington Wines & Wineries describes Quilceda Creek: “The father-son team of Alex and Paul Golitzin are making, by anyone’s standards, as fine a Cabernet sauvignon as anyone in the world. Their single-minded focus, their ability to make brilliant wine in virtually every vintage, and, most impressively, their unbroken track record of excellence are unparalleled. Nobody does it better.”

In addition to the 2005 Columbia Crest Reserve Cab’s #1 score, nine other Washington wines were recognized in Wine Spectator‘s Top 100 Wines of 2009. Also making the list were: #26 Cayuse Syrah Walla Walla Valley Cailloux Vineyard 2006 ($65), #33 Novelty Hill Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley 2006 ($25), #36 Efeste Syrah Red Mountain Ceidleigh 2006 ($29), #38 Chateau Ste. Michelle Cabernet Horse Heaven Hills Canoe Ridge Estate 2006 ($28), #60 Spring Valley Uriah Walla Walla Valley 2006 ($50), #66 Barnard Griffin Riesling Columbia Valley 2008 ($8), #72 The Magnificent Wine Company Syrah Columbia Valley 2006 ($20), and #74 Waterbrook Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley Reserve 2006 ($22).

More than just Walla Walla

Despite the accolades, wine lovers outside of the state who actually know something about Washington wine might only think of Walla Walla. That’s a great tribute to the marketing prowess of the Walla Walla community and its Wine Alliance, but hardly an accurate perception. Today there are over 100 wineries and 1,800 acres of vineyards in the Walla Walla Valley—certainly significant but a small percentage of the over 650 wineries and 32,000 acres of vineyards for the entire state of Washington.

Please don’t misunderstand—I’m not trying to downplay the significance of Walla Walla to the Washington wine industry, nor the quality of its wines. But to gain an understanding of and appreciation for Washington wine, I believe it’s important to visit wineries and taste wines from the state’s other ten AVAs: Columbia Gorge, Horse Heaven Hills, Lake Chelan, Puget Sound, Rattlesnake Hills, Red Mountain, Snipes Mountain, Wahluke Slope, Yakima Valley, and the all-encompassing Columbia Valley.

Great Bang for Your Buck

Washington State is producing outstanding wines that consistently deliver great bang for the buck, so are perfectly positioned to thrive in our current economy. Case in point is the 2005 Columbia Crest Reserve Cab (Wine Spectator’s #1 wine of 2009), which sold for $27 upon release. Cabs of this quality from California would likely set you back over $100. This is excellent news for the Washington wine industry—not to mention excellent news for you and me as wine consumers.

Upcoming Events

There are two upcoming events that will give participants the opportunity to learn more about Washington wines.

The WAWine World Tasting Event will be held this Thursday, June 3, 2010, from 5-8pm PDT. Virtually hosted by 14 Washington wine writers (including myself), #WAWine—the event’s Twitter hashtag—is an online event in which thousands of people all around the world will simultaneously taste Washington wine and talk about it via Twitter, Facebook, and at on-location events. Join the event using your favorite social media service.

Walla Walla will also play host later this month to the 2010 Wine Bloggers Conference, held June 25-27, 2010. The conference is already sold out, but I’m thrilled that so many of my fellow bloggers—many visiting Washington wine country for the first time—will get to see firsthand what our great state has to offer.

Washington State is arguably the hottest wine region in the United States right now. On the heels of the 2009 awards and amid the hype about the upcoming Wine Bloggers Conference, the buzz about Washington wines continues to get even hotter. So if you are not already on the bandwagon, it’s time to get aboard and explore Washington State wines. Your palate and pocketbook will thank you.


Kori S. Voorhees is a Certified Specialist of Wine and Editor-in-Chief of the independent wine blog, Wine Peeps: Your Link to Great QPR Wines from Washington State and Beyond. She also writes for Washington Tasting Room Magazine and Skagit Publishing. Kori lives with her husband and daughter in Seattle, Washington.

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  • http://wildwallawallawinewoman.blogspot.com Catie

    Kori, you are right! It is exciting to see how Washington wines are getting hotter and hotter. Of course, I mostly write about wines from Walla Walla, but I have also spent time touring the other AVA’s around Washington State. All unique and wonderful in their own way and between them all, Washington State has a lot to be proud of.

    However, I do have some concerns as this is the second time I have read an article by you where you mention, that Washington wines are “more than Walla Walla …” Of course Washington wines are more than Walla Walla, but it seems as if there are ways of emphasizing Washington wine and their unique AVA’s without always downplaying Walla Walla. I am curious as to why you have felt it important to often lead with that phrase, instead just emphasizing the overall unique qualities of the other AVA’s? Without using the phrase of “… more than Walla Walla”, then you would never have to again let your readers know that “Please understand – I am not trying to downplay …” because when you have to preface a sentence that way, I honestly feel you are downplaying, especially since this is the second time I have read this from you.

    The wines from the Walla Walla Valley are more than just the “marketing prowess” of the Walla Walla Wine Alliance – from the soil, no matter if the Walla Walla winemaker uses CV or Walla Walla grapes, to the wine in the glass, Walla Walla produced wines can certainly stand alone with just one sip.

    Cheers,
    C~

  • http://palatepress.com Ryan Reichert

    Great piece Kori. Thank you. I can’t wait to come up to Walla Walla later this month for WBC.

    Catie – If I might put in my $0.02 about your concern…I think that Kori is trying to address an American wine culture that for the most part only knows about Walla Walla when the topic of Washington wines comes about…certainly aside from Chateau Ste Michelle that’s really the only thing I knew about Washington wines before getting deeper into my professional wine education, and further moving to the Pacific Northwest myself. Kori clearly fully supports all the WA AVAs, but in thinking outside of our little wine world, it is probably important to make this emphasis.

    Kind of like saying there’s more to Zinfandel than Lodi Zin…that’s what the American public associates with Zinfandel in many places because those are the ones that get distributed in large part, and people know “Lodi Zinfandel.” But in fact there are other parts of California that make killer Zins—not to downplay Lodi, but just to bring to light for those of us learning that there’s even more to be explored.

  • http://wildwallawallawinewoman.blogspot.com Catie

    Ryan, I note your two cents.

  • Jim Pagenkopf

    Kori,
    I have to agree with Catie, especially considering many of the top vintners (Quilceda Creek, DeLille, Betz, Fideletas come to mind) source from premier vineyars in Yakima Valley, Horse Heaven Hills, Red Mt., etc.

    Worse yet, the Walla Walla appellation consists of great vineyards in Oregon as well — hardly qualifies as Washington.

    Jim

  • http://www.palatepress.com David Honig

    The whole debate seems like much ado about little. Look, for example, at Napa. Just google “not just Napa” and see how many times it pops up, and I don’t think anybody is denigrating Napa in saying it.

  • http://winepeeps.com Kori

    Glad to see my article generating discussion.

    Ryan and David,
    You explained where I was coming from very well. Thank you for pointing out similar situations with Lodi Zin and Napa.

    Jim,
    Excellent point about some of the state’s top vintners sourcing grapes from all over our great state of Washington.

    Catie,
    As you well know, I am a champion of all Washington wine, Walla Walla certainly included. In fact, our Wine Peeps’ Best Washington Winery of 2009 was none other than Saviah Cellars of Walla Walla. Walla Walla should take my statement as a compliment. To be mentioned in a statement like “more than just…” simply means that Walla Walla is the most well-known wine region in the state. The attention that Walla Walla receives is well-deserved, but there are many other wonderful wine regions, vineyards, and wineries located elsewhere in the state. To truly appreciate Washington wines, you need to experience all of them.

    You are correct in that I have made this statement twice, once on my own blog and once here on Palate Press. Since this article was an overview of all Washington State wines, I believe that it was an important point to make again since many in this audience may not have seen my previous post.

    When I have traveled outside of Washington State, I have often heard wine lovers, even some wine professionals, refer to Walla Walla wine as if it was the only wine region in the state. I hope this article helps them to see otherwise.

    Cheers!

  • http://wildwallawallawinewoman.blogspot.com Catie

    Thanks Kori for your explanation. But I do have to question, if your recent comment “… more than just simply means that Walla Walla is the most well-known wine region in the state. The attention that Walla Walla receives … To truly appreciate Washington wines, you need to experience all of them”

    Than why didn’t you say that instead of the previous? Your “simply means” explanation seems much more positive. The original statement reads to me a bit negative to a reader who may not know a thing about Washington wines, let alone Walla Walla. It is interesting you run into people who only know about Walla Walla wines. Well there must be a good reason and so what if they do? That’s not a bad thing. At least it gets them into Washington State to discover other AVAs. They have to start somewhere, right? It’s better than what I run across. I run across wine consumers who think that Seattle is the only city in the state and reponsible for making all of the wine in Washington State. Walla Walla who?

    My whole point is, that we (“we” being promoters of the Washington State Wine Industry) needs to be cohesive in our thoughts about the WA wine industry and if it is good for Walla Walla, then it is good for Washington State. Saying that Washington wines are more than just Walla Walla, could be interpreted to someone new to WA wines as a suggestion to skip Walla Walla.

    At this point to compare Napa (or Lodi) isn’t even relevent when you consider Washington wines are newbies in comparison and we have just begun to promote our wines. We cannot afford to down play any of our AVA’s.

    Cheers,
    C~

  • Don R

    Rah, rah… OK, no harm in a little cheerleading, but to be brutally honest, your article reads more like a brochure. Your learned opinions will bring the most interest, but I’m not sure quoting everyone else’s opinions (or scores) on Washington is the way to go, either. But at the moment you venture to express your own opinion by saying “I’ve decided that Washington’s signature red wine is Syrah and its signature white wine is Riesling” you make no effort to support your choices (btw, you wouldn’t have to if you chose words like “for me, the signature varietals are…”, but you pronounce it as a generally accepted truth, which it’s not…