Washington State – Meet the Neighbours

Treve’s TravelsOctober 5, 2015

by Treve Ring

Treve Ring

Treve Ring

With America’s second largest wine region, Washington State, bordering BC’s Okanagan Valley, one would imagine there would be some strong similarities and synergies. Amazingly, not so much. An intensive tour and tasting through Washington State’s wines earlier this year cemented that they share far less than their neighbouring geography would indicate.

The 49th Parallel is a mysterious barrier. On the Canadian side, you have some of the Okanagan’s most heralded and pricey vineyards, almost touching the border. As soon as you cross that invisible force field and enter into Washington State, you’ve got – well – desert scrubland. It takes a couple of hours in the car before you reach the northernmost edge of Lake Chelan AVA or Colombia Valley AVA, and the density of wineries that exist in the eastern half of the state.

To Situate : BC vs WA

With 20,000 HA under vine and more than 850 wineries, Washington trumps BC by far; we’ve just under 4000 HA and approximately 275 wineries. Size aside, there are parallels as well as divergence. Washington’s first wine grapes were planted at Fort Vancouver by the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1825, with BC’s first grapes planted shortly thereafter, in 1859, by Father Charles Pandosy at the Oblate Mission in Kelowna. On this side of the border, we have more than 75 varieties planted, while Washington reports more than 45, though the white/red split in both regions is very close (53% white / 47% red in WA versus 49% white / 51% red in BC).

Pinot gris and merlot are BC’s top white and red grapes by acreage, while riesling and cabernet sauvignon lead for WA. We have five designated geographical indicators (GI’s) plus “emerging regions”, while Washington has thirteen American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). BC’s 2014 tonnage was nearing 38,000, while WA bested 227,000 tons in 2014.


BC’s main wine regions, the Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys, share similar climatic growing conditions to eastern Washington, where the vast majority of wine grapes are grown. Osoyoos is the northernmost point of a network of dry, desert-like pockets that stretch from the southern Okanagan down through the USA into Mexico. Annual precipitation ranges from 7-12 inches in eastern Washington and 12-16 inches in the Okanagan Valley, while the ample long-day sunlight hours and massive diurnal shift contribute both to choice potential ripening and freshness. There is ample water found in rivers, lakes and underground aquifers, although water rights in Washington State can preclude vineyard expansion and development.

One convergence is with the soils, and the formation of them. Both regions are a diverse network of volcanic and glacial spread soils, with a wide mix of sedimentation, alluvial (stream deposited) and colluvial (gravity deposited), complexing microclimates further. Washington State’s geology was additionally altered 15,000 years ago by the Missoula floods, the catastrophic walls of water that rushed west from Idaho’s Lake Missoula when ice dams would break during the Ice Age, releasing waves up to 400 feet of water. Successive breaks deposited nutrients all over eastern Washington, up to 1200 feet above sea level. Each flood equaled the volume of all the world’s rivers combined, so you can imagine how much debris it swept west. You can find Missoula flood sediments up to 100 feet deep in some vineyards today. This rests atop basalt bedrock that was laid down by a river of lava that carved out the Columbia Valley 12 million years ago. Classic, typically seen soils today are comprised of wind-blown loess over granitic deposits from the Missoula floods, atop the ancient basalt bedrock. Vine root heaven.

Washington Taste: Driven by Type, Terroir, or Both?

For all their divergence, there are certainly parallels between BC and Washington’s wine regions, especially with regards to the intrinsics: climate and soils. So what contributes to the massive stylistic differences? I reckon Type. In The Science of Wine, Dr. Jamie Goode notes that “Most definitions of terroir rule out human intervention as part of the equation, but could winemaking play a role in maintaining type?” It certainly appeared the case during my travels and tasting, with many (*note I’m generalizing here for an overview, I’m not stating all) wineries striving for a riper, fuller, richer, dare-I-say Napa-esque, Parker-driven type. Of course, type depends on the intrinsics – the heat, sunlight, diurnal shift and soils – but when many winemakers across a wide area use similar techniques to achieve common styles, you have a distinctive, regional type. With the abundance of favourable weather and sun, a full, rich, voluptuous type is natural and achievable. Some winemakers nurture this nature further, with very late picking, overripe grapes with high sugar and alcohol content and the practice of watering back. The procedure involves leaving grapes hang until they are super ripe, up to 28 Brix (or more?), and then diluting with water so alcohol is not in the fortified range. This keeps most of the ripe, opulent fruit while satisfying alcohol demands. Of course, one adjustment soon leads to another, and acid adjustments often are necessary. Though I observed watering back to be widely used and discussed in Washington, it is a controversial practice that is seen unfavourably in many other wine regions. Dr. Goode goes on to say “Winemakers could also be adapting their techniques to best exhibit regional differences. This type, owing more to human intervention than classical definitions of terroir, is still of merit because it helps maintain the sort of stylistic regional diversity that makes wine so interesting.”

The abundance of all the grape-friendly resources, like sun, soils and water, have allowed for a wide range of grapes to be planted. So much so that Washington vintners themselves have a hard time when asked to pick a signature grape. “We do them all so well” was a common reply to the question. “Everything grows so well, so easily here.” Of course, with such a young wine region, ascending commercially since the 1970’s, experimentation is healthy and expected. While Bordeaux red varieties lead the day (especially in the ratings race), syrah is a strong contender, and frame or complete most of my top red wines. With whites, riesling rules, with Chateau Ste. Michelle making more riesling than any other winery in the country  – 1.1 million cases. Chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, both oaked and unoaked but all with a richer, riper core, follow.

AVA’s : The Where and the What to Know About

I’ve isolated a few of the AVA’s and some key points of difference.

Yakima Valley
The first recognized AVA, established in 1983, it contains more than one-third of Washington’s vineyards. Yakima is the largest sub-appellation of the Columbia Valley and contains three distinct sub-appellations within: Red Mountain, Snipes Mountain and Rattlesnake Hills. Vineyards stretch across nearly 100 miles, encompassing a wide range of sites and climates, from cooler sites that specialize in riesling and chardonnay, to warm areas where ripe red-fruited merlot and promising syrah shine.

Red Mountain
The smallest AVA, established in 2001, is less of a mountain than a steep, southwest facing slope. This is a premium site for red grapes, especially full, dense, dusty and tannic cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc and syrah. Very arid region, with water rights entirely dictating plantings. Red Mountain came into news in 2013 when BC’s Aquilini Group swept in and purchased 670 acres for a cool $8.3M at auction.

Arid landscape of Red Mountain

Arid landscape of Red Mountain

Snipes Mountain
The second smallest AVA, Snipes Mountain was established in 2009. Vineyards have been planted on these slopes since 1914. Its elevated topography and unique soils make it distinct; many small gravel deposits left by the ancient flow of the Columbia River dot the vineyards, and a larger percentage of soils are Aridisols, low in organic matter and aid to reduce vine vigor and naturally increase fruit concentration.

Horse Heaven Hills
Established in 2005, this region is naturally bounded by the Yakima Valley AVA to the north, and by the moderating Columbia River at the south. Many vineyards are planted on south-facing slopes, at altitudes up to 550m. Significant winds are common, toughening grape skins and concentrating prized cabernet sauvignon and merlot.

Walla Walla
From a Native American term for ‘many waters’ Walla Walla is well known for its rich, supple reds and its postcard picturesque, tourism-ready main street. Established in 1984, Walla Walla now has the highest concentration of wineries in the state. Syrah shows distinct smoked meat, and earth, while cabernet sauvignon demonstrates ripe blackberry and ample structure. An amazing cobblestone riverbed runs along the extreme south, dipping below the WA/OR border into a very exciting sub-appellation known by the sexy name of The Rocks District of Milton Freewater AVA. The Rocks, nested within Washington’s Walla Walla AVA, lies entirely within Oregon; a case of AVA’s following geographical rather than political boundaries, and a somewhat controversial area to label for both Oregon and Washington wineries.

Unique terroir of The Rocks

Unique terroir of The Rocks

Columbia Gorge
The region is defined by the Columbia River Gorge, a dramatic narrow corridor carved into basalt bedrock and flanking the Columbia River as it slices through the Cascades en route to the Pacific. A relatively cooler region, where white grapes outnumber red – quite rare for Washington. Vineyards range from near sea level to up to nearly 600m elevation, and encompass more maritime climates in the west (dry-farming is possible here – another extreme rarity) to continental in the east. Very exciting area due to relatively lower vineyard land value and innovative winemakers drawn to experimentation with acidity and altitude.

Who: Wineries to Watch

The 49th parallel does more than just end stop the Okanagan wine region. It also prevents many of these recommended wines from reaching our shelves. That said, some will have limited distribution in pockets across Canada, and you can always search them out while you’re Stateside. Here are some of the highlights tasted during my visit in May 2015.

W. T. Vintners
I’ve followed Jeff Lindsay-Thorsen rise through the ranks of sommeliers into one of the top wine directors in Washington State, overseeing the list at Seattle’s RN74. Talented, whip smart and humble, he began making wine in 2007 with a friend out of a home garage, developing his passion into W.T. Vintners. Now he makes 1300 cases of wine with a friend out of a slightly larger garage, in the Woodinville Warehouse district (“wine ghetto”). His elegant, expressive single-vineyard wines were the highlight of my trip. 

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2014 Grüner Veltliner, Underwood Mountain Vineyard: One of the rare few working with grüner in Washington, which is a pity. At 379 cases, this is his largest production wine, sourced from Columbia Gorge. Reductive notes blow off to reveal green apple, crisp lemon pith and beauty, precise minerality. Bright and lean, with herbal meadow florals and finely rasped white pepper on the finish. 89 points.

2012 Red Blend Stonyvine Vineyard Dalliance: This GSM is sourced from Walla Walla AVA. Wild black cherry, herbal cured meats and distinct sea salt scents entice to perfumed raspberry, strawberry and an underlay of herbal sweet sap. Bright, seamless acidity carries the layers of herbal perfumed fruit across finely textured tannins. Unfined and unfiltered. 92 points.

2011 Damavian Sryah Les Collines Vineyard: Loving the cooler 2011 vintage here. Expressive blacked pepper, cracked clove and thorny cassis opens this beauty syrah from Walla Walla, made with 50 percent whole cluster. Thorn and perfumed violets continue onto the firmly structured, finely textured palate, with wild black cherry and broken stones lifted with bright, effortless acidity. Power plus finesse. 93 points. 

Gramercy Cellars
Master Sommelier Greg Harrington worked high-flying restaurant positions across the States for 15 years when he decided to come to Walla Walla for holiday in 2004. He liked it so much he put down roots, quite literally, opening Gramercy Cellars the following year. His 8000 case winery focuses on Rhone and Bordeaux varietals, all with detailed precision, authenticity and verve.


2010 Lagniappe Syrah: A treat to taste this Columbia Valley syrah with some age on it (2012 is current vintage), allowing all the expressive black cherry, mineral salts and time-worn savoury notes to shine. Perfumed cassis, thorns and violets are veined with iron and framed with firm, finely grained tannins. Very fine black pepper lingers on the finish. Beauty precision and finesse here, and a wine still with 5+ years to go. 93 points.

2012 l’Idiot de Village Mouvédre: Lovely fragrant cracked spices, floral cassis, perfumed violets, lavender and thyme swirl through the depth of this fine grained, finessed red. Smoked meats and medicinal tinged currants linger on the spicy finish. 91 points

IMG_2160Savage Grace
Working out of a small space (right next door to Jeff at W.T. Vintners) in the Woodinville Warehouse district, recording-studio owner turned wine-nut Michael Savage is a true garagiste vintner, produces 2000 cases a year from grapes sourced across Washington.

2013 Chardonnay Celilo Vineyard: 40-year-old vines from Colombia Gorge are split between stainless and neutral french oak. Lovely creamy shoulders, with fine lees, subtle apple moving with gossamer fluidity and lingering with fine spices on the finish. Finessed and delicate. 92 points.

2013 Pinot Noir Underwood Mountain: One of the most impressive pinot noirs of my trip. Dry farmed, high altitude, volcanic slope soils in Colombia Gorge. Fragrant raspberry, perfumed cherry and ripe, wild strawberry flow across very finely textured tannins. Elegant and melodic. 91 points.  

Hedges Family Estate
One of the first to really cement Red Mountain as an area for serious, finessed wines, the family views themselves as guardians of this special terroir, preserving and protecting the area for future generations. Now into the second generation with siblings Christophe (in the vineyards) and Sarah (in the winery) continuing to farm biodynamically and produce low interventionist, authenticity-seeking wines.

2012 Hedges Red Mountain Cuvee Marcel Dupont Les Gosses Vineyard: Alluring iodine, earthy herbals, and fragrant violets open this finessed, elegant syrah. Wild cassis, thorn and black cherry are textured with anise and dried herbs, framed with quietly firm tannins. Great length and presence. 93 points. 

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Long Shadow
Allen Shoup has long been a driving force in the Washington wine industry, growing Chateau Ste. Michelle as CEO for 17 years and tirelessly developing wine culture through organizing associations to support, unite and promote wineries. He continues to draw attention to Washington’s wine potential with his Long Shadows project, drawing influential winemakers from around the globe to each make one label in the project. Michel Rolland, Randy Dunn, Ambrogio and Giovanni Folinari, John Duval, Philippe Melka and Armin Diel each make one distinct wine.

2012 Feather Cabernet Sauvignon: Randy Dunn was the winemaker for this Columbia Valley cabernet. 22 months in 90% new French oak barrels has built a structured, integrated and complete wine, showing very well in youth but with reams of potential ahead. Perfumed cassis, black raspberries, wild cherry and anise is carried upon those structured, lightly grippy tannins. Tight and spicy on the end, with a potent, peppery, lingering finish. One to hold 5-10 years. 91 points. 

IMG_2108Betz Family Winery
When Steve and Bridgit Griessel purchased Betz Family Winery from Bob and Cathy Betz in 2011 they insisted Bob remained on as the winery’s “patriarch” and winemaker for at least 5 years. When you take over the keys to a hallowed project like Betz, there could be no other apparent solution. The team has continued to make very small amounts (5500 cases) of highly lauded, individual wines, sourced from across the state.

2012 Bésoleil : The generous 2012 vintage was captured in this very well knit Southern Rhone inspired red, a blend of grenahce, cinsault, mourvedre and syrah sourced from Yakima Valley, Red Mountain and Snipes Mountain. Sweet herbs, thistle, wild strawberries and thorny blackberries open this characterful, medium bodied red. Though edges are soft and rounded, there is a bamboo firmness to the backbone, with cured meats and wild herbs texturing gentle red fruits and perfumed florals. Confident depth, lifted with fresh acidity to the lingering finish. 91 points.

Syncline Wine Cellars
When Poppie and James Montone moved to the Pacific Northwest to get into vineyards and winemaking it was after a great deal of travelling (her) and studying (him) and with a huge passion for wine. They met working at a custom crush facility in Oregon, and decided to move to Columbia Gorge to start their own project, releasing Syncline’s first vintage in 1999. Their 6000 case winery focuses on Rhone varietals.

2013 Grenache Carignan: Sourced from the Horse Haven Hills AVA, this bright, savoury red carries raspberry, wild strawberry, cherry and candied strawberry gracefully along very fine tannins. White pepper and dried herbs texturize the medium-bodied palate, finishing with a subtle salted plum note. 90 points.