Washington State has become a powerhouse producer of impressive and well-priced wines. The Seattle-based Washington Wine Commission estimates that the state is home to nearly 800 wineries, up from about 50 in 1987.
The bulk of Washington’s wines come from hotter-climate AVAs such as Yakima, Tri-Cities and Walla Walla. All of these AVAs are close to the state’s Eastern border, and some of them overlap with climatically similar growing regions in northern Oregon.
The state’s wine-producing kingpin is Chateau Ste. Michelle, the Woodinville, WA-based winery behind the TvIndian Wells, Eroica, Canoe Ridge and Columbia Valley labels, among others. The company planted its first vines sat Cold Creek Vineyard in Eastern Washington in 1972; it built a French-style winery chateau in Woodinville four years later and changed its name to Chateau Ste. Michelle.
“Chateau Ste. Michelle really helped to put Washington State wines on the map, and many [consumers] have heard of them from around the world,” notes Chad Mackay, president/chief operating officer of Seattle-based steakhouse chain El Gaucho. This has has helped the region’s other producers “who have created specialty wines that have given Washington a well-rounded [wine] portfolio,” he notes.
El Gaucho—which also runs seafood restaurant Aqua—offers about 250 Washington wines on its lists, priced from $40 to more than $200 a bottle.
Chateau Ste. Michelle’s reputation “is a positive presence for wines in the region,” agrees Sarah Evans, a San Francisco-based marketing specialist for Vino Volo, which operates wine bars in airports. The Seattle location of the chain carries 85 Washington wines, which are priced from $16 to $145 for by the glass and the bottle options.
Several well-known and talented winemakers got their start with Chateau Ste. Michelle, and the brand continues to be “a great supporter for many of the small wineries and vineyards in Washington,” notes Douglas Snyder. The certified sommelier and general manager at Ruth’s Chris Steak House’s Savannah, GA, location, carries some 30 Washington wines on his list, priced from $35 to $170 a bottle.
Are these wines popular? Snyder says wines from Washington are seeing an uptick in sales, something he attributes to both his own passion for the state’s wines and a focus on education about them for his sales staff.
BETWEEN THE OLD AND NEW WORLDS
Several operators believe that Washington State’s reds are on par with those from many regions in California, and they tend to be better bargains. “Washington marks sort of a mid-point between the fruit-forward style of California and warmer climates like Australia, and the Old World, cooler climates like France, Italy and Germany, where earthy, non-fruit components often play a leading role,” says Snyder.
Washington State wines are often the next frontier for both operators and their guests looking for new flavors, and values along the lines of wines they might find from California. The state’s big red wines are often focused on single-varietal merlots and cabernet sauvignons, whereas the blends run to robust red Bordeaux mixes. The state also excels with a handful of Rhône varietals, both red and white.
Many Washington wines also have “big fruit and bright acidity but retain a sense of balance,” Evans says. “They are made in an overripe style, which customers seem to enjoy.”
California still dominates the U.S. wine market, Snyder says, “but for people looking for something that provides more ‘bang for the buck,’ I generally steer them to Washington.”
Many of the state’s wines are initially hand sells, he notes, but tasting is believing. Once you have introduced people to these wines, Snyder says, they tend to seek them out for the “compelling values and incredible quality.” ·
Washington State Fast Facts:
Yakima, Tri-Cities, Red Mountain and Walla Walla, generally hotter-climate regions, with exceptions.
Highly diverse, from cool and damp in the West to hot and arid in the East.
Classic Bordeaux red varietals, riesling and Rhône whites and reds.
Chateau Ste Michelle and its multiple labels, Columbia Winery.