An Armchair Traveler’s Guide to Washington State Wine Country

Harvesting Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in Washington's Yakima Valley / Photo by Andrea Johnson
Harvesting Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in Washington's Yakima Valley / Photo by Andrea Johnson

When people think of Washington State, they often think of ever-soggy Seattle. In fact, most of Washington’s winegrowing regions are east of the Cascade Mountain range, in arid and semi-arid desert climates.

The country’s second-largest producer of wine, Washington has 14 federally approved winegrowing regions, or appellations, with six more in review. Each has a distinct topography, soil and climate that produce unique wines.

With warm temperatures during the growing season and a relative lack of rainfall, irrigation is required in most vineyards. However, this gives growers a fine degree of control that has led to consistent quality across vintages.

Here we take you on a tour of some of Washington’s key appellations and wine regions. Also highlighted are upcoming virtual events to learn more about these region’s producers and their wines.

Columbia Valley landscape
Columbia Valley / Getty

Columbia Valley

The Columbia Valley, where 99% of Washington’s wine grapes are grown, lies east of the Cascade Mountains. It offers hot, dry summers and cold winters.

A massive appellation, the Columbia Valley encompasses more than one-quarter of Washington’s total land mass. More than 80 wine grape varieties are grown there, but five account for 80% of production: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Riesling, Merlot and Syrah.

Columbia Valley wines are known for their ripe, pure, plush flavors. The valley, actually more of a basin, also sees large diurnal shifts, the difference between daytime high and nighttime low temperatures. Cool nights help preserve natural acidity. As a result, Columbia Valley wines have ripe fruit flavors, but a brighter sense of acid structure than most warm climate wine regions.

Storms that come off the Pacific Ocean bring an average of 38 inches of rainfall per year to Seattle. As these storms climb over the Cascade Mountains, almost all the precipitation drops out as rain or snow. This creates an effect known as a “rain shadow” in the Columbia Valley, with the region receiving a mere 6–8 inches of precipitation on average per year.

Warm summer temperatures, ample water from the Columbia River and its tributaries, and the area’s sandy, windblown soils make the region perfect for viticulture.

Learn more about Columbia Valley wines

Producer: J. Bookwalter Winery

J. Bookwalter is one of Washington’s founding wineries, now in its second generation, with a focus on Columbia Valley fruit.

Date: April 30, 5pm PDT

Platform: Facebook Live

Topic/Featured wines: Join winemaker Caleb Foster and guest relations manager Ryder Langley in a virtual tasting that highlights the Columbia Valley appellation. They will be opening two Book Club exclusive wines, one from Dionysus Vineyard and one from Conner Lee Vineyard. The pair will dive into what makes these two vineyards unique and why the Columbia Valley is so special for viticulture.

Sémillon being harvested in the Yakima Valley / Photo by Andrea Johnson
Sémillon being harvested in the Yakima Valley / Photo by Andrea Johnson

Yakima Valley

Washington’s oldest appellation, Yakima Valley was the country’s third federally approved winegrowing region, established in 1983 after Napa Valley and Missouri’s Augusta American Viticultural Area (AVA). It’s a subappellation of the larger Columbia Valley.

Yakima Valley is home to approximately 25% of Washington’s grapevine acreage and includes several nested appellations: Red Mountain, Snipes Mountain and Rattlesnake Hills.

Yakima Valley has a mixture of cooler regions as well as some of the state’s hottest sites. Chardonnay is by far the most planted variety, followed by Riesling and Merlot. Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah round out the top group.

While Yakima Valley makes excellent examples of many varieties, its Syrah most often stands out. These wines show remarkable diversity. Depending on the site, they show everything from aromas and flavors of blueberry and raspberry to savory notes like herb, smoked meat and olive.

Typical of Washington wines, plush, vibrant fruit flavors are balanced by natural acidity. Yakima Valley-designated reds tend to have a softer tannin profile than other areas of the state, often with an orange rind accent in aroma and flavor.

The Women Behind Some of Washington's Best Grapevines

Learn more about Yakima Valley wines

Producer: Côte Bonneville

Planted in 1992, DuBrul Vineyard’s 45-acre site in the heart of Yakima Valley is home to Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay and Riesling. In 2001, owners Hugh and Kathy Shiels founded Côte Bonneville to produce their own wines with a portion of their yield.

Date: Thursday, May 7 at 5:30pm PDT (part of Wine Yakima Valley’s weekly Virtual Vineyard Tour and Tasting Series)

Platform: Zoom (check wineyakimavalley.org prior to event)

Topic/Featured wines:Winemaker Kerry Shiels leads a talk on how vineyard characteristics contribute to Côte Bonneville’s 2011 Carriage House red blend.

Aerial photo of the Red Mountain AVA
View from Red Mountain looking onto the Horse Heaven Hills / Photo by Andrea Johnson

Red Mountain

Neither particularly red nor mountainous, Red Mountain is Washington’s smallest appellation at just 4,040 acres. A subappellation of Yakima Valley, itself a subappellation of the Columbia Valley, almost half of Red Mountain’s acreage is planted to wine grapes.

Due to its hot temperatures, Red Mountain is almost exclusively red wine country. Cabernet Sauvignon is king of the mountain, with 60% of planted acreage. The next most planted varieties are Merlot and Syrah.

With elevations that vary by about 1,000 feet from bottom to top, Red Mountain is consistently one of Washington’s warmest winegrowing regions, if not the warmest.

Hot summer temperatures, combined with consistent winds, lead to small berries with thick skins. For this reason, Red Mountain is known for its powerful, rich, structured Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux-style blends that show great ageability. Cool nights help preserve natural acidity and give the wines a sense of ripeness and distinctive freshness.

Learn more about Red Mountain wines

Producer: Fidélitas Wines

Planted in 2007 to five acres on Red Mountain, Fidélitas Wine’s estate vineyard has since expanded its growing area and varieties produced Charlie Hoppes, formerly of Chateau Ste. Michelle, and his son, Will, focus on wines made from classic Bordeaux grapes and blends.

Date: Thursday, April 30, 4pm PDT

Platform: Facebook Live

Topic/Featured wines: Charlie and Will Hoppes will lead guests through a pairing class to demonstrate Washington wines and grape varieties that go best with steaks, burgers and classic grill fare.

Additional Red Mountain Virtual Tastings: Red Mountain AVA Facebook

Seven Hills Vineyard in Walla Walla Valley
Seven Hills Vineyard in Walla Walla Valley / Photo by Andrea Johnson

Walla Walla Valley

Walla Walla Valley is known for its scenic beauty, with rolling wheat fields and the majestic Blue Mountains as a backdrop. It also has the highest concentration of wineries and tasting rooms in Washington, more than 120 that include many of Washington’s founding wineries. The region is known particularly for its Syrah, as well as for Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

Syrahs from here, particularly those from the Rocks District, are world-class wines. They’re known for strong, earthy, savory components, with notes of black olive, smoked meat, wet stone and firepit. Some confuse them with Northern Rhône wines, but it’s the soft, velvety mouthfeel that distinguishes Walla Walla Valley offerings.

The valley lies in the southeast corner of eastern Washington, a subappellation of the larger Columbia Valley. For generations, the region has been known for wheat and sweet onion production. In 1976, Gary Figgins and his family planted the valley’s first modern vineyard.

Due to its proximity to the Blue Mountains, Walla Walla Valley is considerably wetter than most regions of the Columbia Valley, with an average 12–20 inches of annual rainfall from west to east.

Soils in the valley range from deep, windblown silt, or loess, to a cobblestone strewn riverbed in The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater, a subappellation in the southern part of the valley.

The Women Behind Some of Washington's Best Grapevines

Learn more about Walla Walla Valley (WA) wine

Producer: Seven Hills Winery

Seven Hills is one of Walla Walla Valley’s founding wineries, established in 1987. Like many in the valley, Seven Hills Winery makes a combination of Walla Walla Valley wines and bottlings from other Washington appellations.

Date: Thursday May 7, 5pm PDT

Platform: Zoom

Topic/Featured wines: Founder/winemaker Casey McClellan and tasting room lead Danielle Christopher will guide guests through a flight of varietal wines that represent the individual components of many Washington Bordeaux-style blends. This will include its 2018 Cabernet Franc, 2016 Petit Verdot, 2016 Malbec and 2018 Carmenère.

Additional Virtual Tastings: Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance Virtual Experiences

Chateau Ste. Michelle
Chateau Ste. Michelle / Photo by Andrea Johnson

Woodinville Wine Country

Woodinville is not a designated AVA. However, it’s very much Washington wine country.

The town lies about 30 minutes from downtown Seattle. Ste. Michelle, one of Washington’s founding wineries, moved to Woodinville in 1976 and subsequently rebranded itself Chateau Ste. Michelle.

Over time, other wineries congregated in this agrarian town and took advantage of office parks with roll-top doors that assisted with winemaking. Collectively, these are referred to as the Warehouse District wineries. Other wineries are clustered around the Hollywood Schoolhouse area near Chateau Ste. Michelle.

In the 40-plus years since Chateau Ste. Michelle planted its flag, Woodinville has become home to more than 100 wineries and tasting rooms run by producers from all over the state. It allows wineries to be close to Seattle’s residents, and offers visitors to the city easy access to many of the state’s wineries.

Learn more about Woodinville wines

Producer: Chateau Ste. Michelle

Chateau Ste. Michelle is one of Washington’s founding wineries, having celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2017. It makes a variety of widely available, entry level and higher-tier Columbia Valley wines.

Date: Thursday, April 30, 4–4:30pm PDT

Platform: Instagram Live

Topic/Featured wines: Wine 101 Tasting and Food Pairings with Lush Life. Featured are Columbia Valley Riesling, Columbia Valley Rose, Columbia Valley Sauvignon Blanc and Indian Wells Red Blend.

Additional Virtual Tastings: Woodinville Wine Country

Published on April 28, 2020
Topics: Washington State Wine