The second-largest wine producer in the U.S., Washington State is eclipsed in consumers’ eyes by its viniferous neighbors to the south, California and Oregon. But for many sommeliers and wine directors, the Evergreen State is their go-to for well-made whites like riesling and chardonnay, rich and spicy reds and especially Bordeaux-style blends, cabernet sauvignon and syrah—and most importantly for great value. According to preliminary estimates by the Beverage Information Group, Cheers parent company, volumes of Washington wine were up a respectable 3.3 percent in 2010, to 9.3 million 9-liter cases. With more consumer education and on-premise promotions showing off Washington’s depth and breadth, the state will be able to take its place in the pantheon of world-class wine.
“Washington gives you a better bang for the buck than California,” declares Scott Harney, wine director at Eno Wine Bar in the almost 800-room Hotel Intercontinental Chicago, part of a five-unit chain owned by Chicago-based Strategic Hotels & Resorts. Eno offers some 800 wines by the bottle, ranging from $20 to $3,500; but more than half are priced under $50. Over 10 percent are from Washington State, says Harney, largely cabernet sauvignons and Bordeaux blends.
“Washington wines are definitely good value,” echoes Jeffrey Dorgan, sommelier at Sullivan’s Steakhouse in Seattle, part of the 29-unit Sullivan’s/Del Frisco’s steakhouse chain. Of the restaurant’s 450-bottle list (priced $25 to $650), about 150 are Washington wines. Columbia Crest is the house pour; 30 wines are available by the glass, priced $8 to $17. The Seattle location accounts for part of that specialization, but Dorgan says that Washington wines are well represented at the other Sullivan’s and Del Frisco’s restaurants.
Many of the state’s great value wines are produced by multi-label powerhouse Chateau Ste. Michelle, whose total production is estimated to account for slightly more than one third of the state’s total wine production according to last year’s figures from the Washington State Liquor Control Board. Its dominance of the wine market is generally viewed in a positive light as the company has been historically supportive of the state’s many other wineries.
Selection Across Price Points
Washington boasts over 700 wineries with 40,000 acres planted statewide. “In spite of the recent economic malaise, we continue to grow, both in terms of number of wineries and acres planted,” says Ryan Pennington, a spokesperson for the Seattle-based Washington State Wine Commission. “And the state continues to see growth in sales as well.”
Washington’s top varietals include riesling, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and Cchardonnay, with each accounting for 18 to 20 percent of total production. The state is perhaps best known currently for its Bordeaux-style blends.
“I look to Washington for Bordeaux-style wines, cabernets and merlots and white blends, sémillon and sauvignon blanc,” says Jenni Cameron, wine director at Eno Vino Wine Bar & Bistro in Madison, Wis. Right now she carries just a handful of Washington wines but aims to add more as she doubles her list to 300 bottles. Eno Vino’s bottles are priced $28 to $400; 42 wines are offered by the glass, priced $7 to $13.
Syrah is another important varietal for the Evergreen State, accounting for six to seven percent of production, but generating outsized interest among wine professionals lately.
“Wines from Washington are just phenomenal, but what’s really up and coming there now is syrah,” enthuses Michael M. Scheifler, area manager at the Pacific Northwest restaurant the Artist Point in Walt Disney World’s Wilderness Lodge in Orlando. The state’s wines are a natural for the restaurant, which draws inspiration from Northwest National Park lodges. About half of the 130 wines on Artist’s list hearken from Washington; bottles run $35 to $230; the selection of 50 glasses is priced $8 to $15. Scheifler adds that many other Disney restaurants offer Washington wines as well.
“One thing they do really well in Washington is syrah and Rhône varietal blends,” concurs Peter Powlovich, one of the wine managers at Grill 23 & Bar, a steakhouse in Boston. “It’s been cited by a lot of other sommeliers and the wine magazines.” In Grill 23’s inventory of 1,700 bottles, priced from $30 to more than $4,000, Washington wine accounts for about 50 of the selections, including a score of cabernets and Bordeaux blends and 10 syrahs. “You can find great quality and great value coming out of Washington. It can be hit or miss, though,” amends Powlovich.
With over 700 wineries and 40,000 acres planted statewide, Washington ranks second only to California in terms of production. Almost all wine grapes are grown on the east side of Cascades, where the desert-like climate enjoys over three hundred days of sunshine annually. Because of its northerly latitude, at the height of the growing season, Washington receives nearly two hours more of daylight per day than California, extending the growing season and boosting flavor development from greater hang time.
“It’s perfect for grape-growing there,” says Disney’s Scheifler. “The dryness stresses the vines; the temperature is cool and the grapes love it. The glacier flows brought much volcanic ash and nutrients to the vineyards, so the wines have a lot of minerals.”
In general, Washington wines are typified by a combination of the balance and structure of Old World wines with the bright and vibrant fruit flavors and approachability of New World wines. They also possess high levels of natural acidity, which make the wines very food-friendly.
Despite the many enological advantages, Washington wines command only a four percent market share nationally. Why are they not top of mind with most American consumers? Several factors conspire to dampen awareness: misperceptions about the state’s wine regions, many small producers, a shortage of wide distribution and lack of a strong niche.
“When most people think of Washington, they think of rainy Seattle,” explains Cameron. That’s why Eno Vino’s wine list contains a map of Washington indicating the growing regions. “It’s just a graphic element, but I think it’s helpful for customers to see where the wines come from,” say the wine director.
“With awareness of the state with room to grow, it will be some time before the sub-regions can begin to make names for themselves,” says Pennington. “Once we establish the state in consumers’ minds then we can provide opportunities for them to learn more about our appellations.”
“Washington came a little late to the wine game,” posits Harney. “Other than Chateau Ste. Michelle, the wines don’t have a lot of recognition across the country.” Sullivan’s sommelier Dorgan agrees that, “Part of the issue is that the majority of the wineries have very small production and are not distributed outside of the state.”
“The biggest challenge I face is finding vendors who can bring the wines into Florida. There are many wonderful boutique wineries that I am not able to get here,” laments Scheifler.
Finding a Niche
Just as Oregon made its reputation by focusing on pinot noir, some observers feel that Washington would benefit from a similar strategy. “Washington is still finding its niche,” observes Powlovich. It might help, he says, if the state were to latch onto a grape and a region, like Oregon did with pinot noir and Burgundy. “You can’t compare American syrah to the Rhône wines, but if Washington could find a way to connect, that could help.”
“If Washington were known for one particular grape, that might be good for marketing, make it easier for consumers to grasp,” concedes Dorgan. But he believes the diversity of grapes grown in Washington—malbec, tempranillo, grenache and Albariño to name just a few—is one of the state’s strong points. “It’s not a one-trick pony.” Whichever direction vintners take, ultimately it’s up to restaurant and bar operators to sell their customers on Washington wines.
“It all comes down to education on our part as a sommelier,” declares Powlovich, who believes in the power of hand-selling. In addition, Washington wines are often spotlighted on Grill 23’s “The $23 List.” Those are featured wines discounted at $23 on Sundays and Mondays in the dining room.
Eno Vino’s wine locker program is an opportunity for Cameron to showcase interesting wines, including those from Washington. Each month she adds a new wine to members’ lockers for them to try. Wine and Tapas Tastings on Wednesdays are another promotional venue; it’s a three-course dinner paired with three wines. “Washington wines tend to pop up quite a bit, because there are so many varietals I can offer,” says the wine director.
Eno Wine Bar was honored with a Washington Wine Restaurant Award for its wine list and promotes that award on its website and social media pages, as well as in a blurb on its wine list. But, says Harney, most promotion is via hand-selling. “When businessmen come in asking for a California Cab, our staff will turn the page to introduce them to a comparable Washington wine,” explains the wine director. The wine bar also spotlights lesser-known, niche Washington wineries like Buty or Dusted Valley, when winemakers walk around to talk with customers and engage them one on one. At these events, Harney pours entry level wines as well as the reserves.
By turning blind tastings into a game on Sundays and Mondays, Eno Wine Bar encourages education and experimentation. Customers try to guess the country, grape, style, age and other factors in a flight of three wines, which are priced according to the score, from $5.05 for an ace to $18 for nonstarter. “It’s fun but it can be humbling,” notes Harney. “The low-alcohol, high-acid wines from Washington are perfect for pairing with food,” says Scheifler. Artist Point’s dinner menu suggests a wine pairing for every dish. For example, Butternut Squash Risotto with Crispy Berkshire Pork Belly is paired with a Kiona Lemberger. Guests can also take away a PDF file of the wine list so they can look for them at their local shop.
Dorgan promotes local wines via quarterly wine dinners and weekly Tuesday tastings, which spotlight specific wineries. “I’m very into staff education,” says the sommelier. He conducts frequent field trips to wineries.
Passing the State Line.
Sommeliers can’t keep their delicious secret for long. The tide will turn for Washington. “Right now I don’t feel that Washington wine is as popular as California,” concedes Cameron at Eno Vino. But she says her customers are requesting more wines from the Northwest and she will add more to her list. “Washington produces some really great wines and the more people learn about them, the more they will experiment and try other regions besides California.”