In 50 years, Washington has gone from fledgling wine region to player on the world stage. Quality has never been higher, and the wines have gained critical and consumer attention.
Still, there can be a sameness to many of the state’s wines, and these stylistic similarities are not by chance.
“[People use] the same yeast, the same coopers, and by nature of Washington and its evolution, a lot of the same vineyards,” says Jeff Lindsay-Thorsen, co-owner/winemaker at WT Vintners.
Winemakers also often blend across large regions to protect against periodic frosts and freezes, and to take advantage of the best each area has to offer.
“The convention was the sum is greater than its parts,” says Lindsay-Thorsen. “You take a little bit of Red Mountain, a little bit of Walla Walla, a little bit of Yakima and bring them all together, and you have something that is delicious.”
They’re delicious, yes, and distinctly Washington but not necessarily distinctive from each other or showing a very specific sense of place.
Recently, some winemakers have begun to chart a different path. They craft unique wines that focus on vineyard designates, with fruit picked earlier and low-intervention winemaking methods. In doing so, they are redefining not just what Washington is, but also what it can be.
Savage Grace Wines
A love of Loire Valley Cabernet Franc inspired Savage’s approach at Savage Grace Wines, located in the Columbia Gorge. “You could compare one producer to another, and one vineyard to another, and feel like you’re in a whole different world, but a world that’s connected via the grape,” Savage says of Loire wines. Savage Grace makes four vineyard-designated Cabernet Francs as red wines. There’s also a carbonic maceration offering, a “Blanc Franc” (Cabernet Franc made as a white wine) and a Cabernet Franc pét-nat.
“I liked the idea of showing a vineyard in different stages and showing different winemaking approaches,” he says. “I liked having that same sparkling wine become the red wine. Can you smell the vineyard in both of those wines? That’s a question I think is interesting.”
Savage Grace reds are notable for being up to 3% lower in alcohol than many Washington peers. They’re also known for being released early.
“I didn’t really start out saying I wanted to make lower-alcohol wine,” says Savage.
“But I was against manipulation.” Many wineries pick at higher ripeness levels, but some add water, acid or both to balance flavors with the rest of the wine. “Adjusting wines never felt right to me,” he says. “It never felt honest, and I didn’t think the wines represented the vintage correctly. I wanted to take an absolutely pure approach. Even adding yeast seemed like you’re putting an imprint on the wine.”
In the winery, Savage uses a lot of whole berry and whole-cluster fermentation, with no new oak in aging.
“I want there to be tension in the wines,” he says. “I want you to feel the texture of the tannins and some graininess, but I don’t want it to be bitter and sticking out.”
Doug Frost, MS, MW
When one of four people in the world who holds both Master Sommelier and Master of Wine certifications decides to make wine, wine lovers take notice.
“For me, it’s an opportunity to learn more, and certainly to find out what I know, which I already knew was not enough,” says Frost.
Frost, along with his business partner, Brad Bergman, launched Echolands Winery earlier this year. The winery’s inaugural Syrah comes from well-regarded Les Collines Vineyard. The wine is decidedly higher in acid than most from the state.
“I tend to like things with a bit more tartness than others may,” says Frost. “I have hopes of making wine that appeals to my palate, that is a bit more tense and that has more acidity than I’m used to getting.”
This leads to picking fruit earlier. Frost says when he and winemaker Taylor Oswald dropped off picking bins for their inaugural wine, many in the area were surprised.
“People were poking fun at us, saying, ‘You’re going to pick tomorrow? What’s wrong with you guys? Are you out of your minds?’ ”
Ultimately, Frost’s hope is not only that the wines are higher in acid, but also lower in alcohol.
“We’re not beholden to numbers, but if I had my way, we’d never make a wine over 14% [alcohol by volume],” says Frost. “It’s just that’s what my palate prefers. We definitely end up with a slightly different style because of that.”
The name Echolands is a callout to Greek mythology, where Echo, a mountain nymph, was only able to repeat the last line said to her.
“I thought that was an apt metaphor for the winemaking process,” says Frost. “You don’t get to add anything. The best you can do is to try and take what is given to you and hand it back as unblemished as possible.”
Johnson started Devium Wine out of a rebellious streak.
“I said, ‘I’m going to make my Washington wine different from everything else because nobody else is doing it, and if I don’t push the boundaries, who is going to do it?’ ” he says.
For Johnson, that process starts with distinctive vineyard sites. One example is a northeast-facing block of Mourvèdre on a steep, gravelly slope. Another is Malbec planted at 3,000 feet above sea level, twice as high as most surrounding vineyards.
“I only work with vineyard sources that have a voice, that have something to say,” says Johnson.
Grapes are picked at substantially lower sugar levels than the norm in the state, and with higher acidity. In the winery, fruit for red wine is left unsorted and in whole clusters.
“[Whole cluster] gives you the magic that exists in the margins,” says Johnson. “I don’t care if my wine tastes like cherry or blackberry. What I do care about is, is there a little bit of magic in it? A little bit of soul? That’s all I’m looking for.”
Wines are subsequently put in neutral oak and generally left alone, with minimal sulfur added.
“I am simply trying to distill my winemaking down to the purest form so that I am truly representing my vineyard sources,” says Johnson.
He says that response to the wines, which buck the ‘big red’ style common in Washington, can be varied.
“I’m not going to lie and say that being different has made this easier. But what mark do you want to leave in this world, and how to do you want to live your life? For me, I have something to say, and my wines have something to say, which I hope is a low-alcohol, low-intervention window into the soul of the vineyard.”
When Austin and his wife, Kelly, began to explore wine, they made a point to seek out new varieties and regions. When they started Grosgrain Vineyards in Walla Walla in 2018, that adventurous spirit informed their approach.
“We really wanted to have that energy of exploration be a part of what we were doing,” says Matt, who serves as winemaker.
In its inaugural vintage, the winery made 13 wines. One is a Lemberger pét-nat from Red Mountain, an appellation best known for its burly, full-bodied reds. The wine is light, bright and airy.
“It’s one of our most popular wines,” he says.
Grosgrain has two estate properties in Walla Walla Valley planted to Grenache, Carignan and Italian varieties. Macabeo, Xarel-lo, Vermentino and Ribolla Gialla are slated to be planted shortly. For some of these grapes, this will be the first commercial plantings in the state.
While Washington is known in large part for full-bodied reds, Grosgrain focuses on a bright, elegant style.
“We really wanted to explore lighter, fresher styles across the lineup, going from the whites all the way even to the reds,” says Matt. This is achieved by cropping heavier in the vineyard and less extraction in the winery.
“We’re not doing saignée or trying to extract as much from the skins as possible during fermentation,” he says. “We do really gentle punch downs and keep our fermentations cool to help control extraction.”
Red wines spend about a year in barrel, almost all neutral oak.
“I think with our style, we don’t have that density of tannin and big structure that sometimes takes a lot of time to evolve,” he says. “I’m really trying to preserve some of the fresh aromatics, as opposed to emphasizing that aging character.”
From its inception, WT Vintners has focused exclusively on vineyard-designated wines.
“I could probably make ‘better’ wine through the art of blending,” says Lindsay-Thorsen, the co-owner/winemaker. “But I felt like there was an opportunity for all of these really special places to be at the center, versus just mentioned on the website.”
Lindsay-Thorsen believes most of the work should be done up front in the vineyard.
“The ultimate goal is to mitigate any need for manipulation in the cellar,” he says. “Everything you add is taking something away from the place.”
Grapes are picked earlier to maintain freshness, something that aligns well with Lindsay-Thorsen’s training as a sommelier.
“I don’t want to drink big, bombastic wines all the time,” he says. “I want nuance, and a little less alcohol can help with that.”
In the winery, Lindsay-Thorsen describes his style as “doing as little as possible,” though he eschews the label of natural wine.
“I am 100% not in the natural wine camp,” says Lindsay-Thorsen. “Wine without a winemaker is vinegar. Some intervention and guiding of the process is absolutely necessary. But by doing less, I think the wines can be more.”
Like a number of other wineries mentioned here, WT emphasizes spontaneous fermentation over commercial yeast, with the belief that it better reflects the vineyard. Lindsay-Thorsen foot-treads the grape cap throughout fermentation, rather than using mechanical methods.
“Punch downs with whole cluster become a really violent act,” he says. “By going in and doing it by foot and hand, it becomes a really gentle process.”
The result is wines unique for Washington.
“We stand out in our style as different, but it’s not because we’re doing anything special,” says Lindsay-Thorsen. “I’m just listening to my elders and doing that, versus reading the latest catalogue and trying to streamline things.”