Six Myths About Washington Wine (And The Truth)

Nate Crane digging out the last fermentation tank of the vintage, Va Piano Vineyards, Walla Walla, Washington / Photo by Andréa Johnson Photography
Nate Crane digging out the last fermentation tank of the vintage, Va Piano Vineyards, Walla Walla, Washington / Photo by Andréa Johnson Photography

Washington is the nation’s second-largest wine-producing state, with more than 1,000 wineries and 60,000 acres of grape vines. Despite its standing and influence,  many misconceptions persist. Here are the top six.

Myth #1: You’ve got the wrong Washington

When we talk about “Washington wine,” we’re talking about Washington State, not Washington, D.C. While some might assume this to be broadly understood, most every producer in the state would confirm how common this misunderstanding is, particularly as one gets further away from the West Coast.

Master of Wine Bob Betz has spent decades promoting Washington wines and viticultural regions. He tells the story of giving a presentation on the state’s wines years back, where upon finishing someone in attendance asked, “Which side of the Potomac are the vineyards on?”

Aerial view over Benches Vineyard, Horse Heaven Hills AVA, part of Washington's larger Columbia Valley AVA
Aerial view over Benches Vineyard, Horse Heaven Hills AVA, part of Washington’s larger Columbia Valley AVA / Photo by Andréa Johnson Photography

Myth #2: Washington State is too wet and too cold to grow wine grapes

When people imagine Washington State, they often think of evergreen trees, Seattle and rain. How could grapes possibly grow in such a climate?

While some producers do just that, more than 99.8% of wine grapes are grown east of the Cascade Mountains, hours from Seattle. Due to a rain shadow caused by the Cascades, the eastern half of the state is an arid and semiarid desert.

The Diversity of Washington Wine

Washington’s largest grape-growing region, the Columbia Valley, averages a mere six to eight inches of precipitation per year (Seattle averages 37 inches). There is so little precipitation most growers must use irrigation to cultivate wine grapes. The use of irrigation, combined with eastern Washington’s hot summer days where temperatures can hit triple digits, make the region ideal for wine grape growing.

Cabernet Sauvignon—which is definitely not Pinot Noir—at Doubleback winery, Walla Walla, Washington / Credit Andréa Johnson Photography

Myth #3: Washington is Pinot Noir country

Oregon has been enormously successful establishing broad recognition around its world-class Pinot Noir. The state has been so successful that many assume its neighbor to the north makes large amounts of Pinot Noir, too.

Washington does not.

Pinot Noir accounted for less than 1% of the state’s production in 2020, with most of that going to sparkling wine. Still Pinot Noir is a relative rarity in Washington. Oregon’s Willamette Valley is located west of the Cascade Mountains, where the relatively moderate climate is ideal for growing Pinot Noir. In contrast, Columbia Valley lies east of the Cascades, where the warm, desert climate makes it better suited to heat-loving grapes.

Cabernet Sauvignon is far and away Washington’s most planted grape variety, making up nearly a third of the state’s total production.

Person harvesting Cabernet Sauvignon grapes with pruners and metal bucket
Cabernet Sauvignon harvest at Doubleback’s Bob Healy Vineyard, Walla Walla / Credit Andréa Johnson Photography

Myth #4: Doesn’t Washington mostly make Riesling?

Riesling was one of the earliest grapes to put Washington on the map, with Ste. Michelle Vintners’ Riesling winning a Los Angeles Times competition in 1974 (the winery has since been renamed Chateau Ste. Michelle). Unfortunately, this success also helped propagate the myth Washington was north, cold and wet.

While some might be aware that Washington produces Riesling, what many don’t know is that Chateau Ste. Michelle is the world’s largest producer of the variety. That’s right: according to Ernst Loosen, a German vintner who also collaborates on a Washington bottling, a Washington winery makes more Riesling than any producer in Germany, the grape’s ancestral home.

But don’t come to Washington and expect most wineries to be pouring Riesling. Chateau Ste. Michelle has been so successful with the grape it largely owns this market. Instead, for white wines, producers are more likely to pour Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc. Moreover, red wines far outnumber whites in terms of production, so much that many wineries don’t even make white wine.

Red cheat grass blooming between vineyard rows, Kiona Vineyard, Red Mountain AVA, Washington
Red cheat grass blooming between vineyard rows, Kiona Vineyard, Red Mountain AVA, Washington / Photo by Andréa Johnson Photography

Myth #5: The Columbia Valley is a “high desert”

While some know that most Washington wine is grown in a desert, others take it a step further and say that it’s a “high desert.” In fact, the low elevations in the Columbia Valley are the very reason the state is able to grow wine grapes.

Millions of years ago, volcanic basalt belched forth from huge fissures in the earth. This created the bedrock that covers the vast majority of the Columbia Valley. In some areas, this bedrock is as much as 16,000 feet thick.

The Differences Between High- and Low-Elevation Wine

The weight of all that rock caused the earth to sag, lowering elevations. For example, the city of Pasco is a mere 387 feet above sea level, though it’s nearly 240 miles inland. These lower elevations lead to hot temperatures during the summertime that allow wine grapes to ripen. If Washington were a high desert, the state wouldn’t be able to grow wine grapes at all.

Mount St. Helens aerial view
Mount St. Helens, decidedly not “wine country” / Getty

Myth #6: Washington has “rich volcanic soils”

Because the state has five active volcanoes, some believe Washington’s “rich, volcanic soils” play a leading role in grape growing. However, most soils used for viticulture in the Columbia Valley have little to no volcanic rock component, and the soils are certainly not rich.

Eastern Washington’s soils primarily consist of silt and sand sediments derived from the Missoula Floods, a series of cataclysmic events that occurred over 15,000 years ago. These soils are nutrient poor and have a very different mineral composition than volcanic rock. While there are layers of volcanic ash in some areas, they are generally of minor viticultural significance.

The Columbia Valley does have volcanic bedrock. However, very few grape vines grow deep enough to interact with it. Even if they did, those soils are anything but rich. It’s also worth noting that the state’s volcanoes of today are unrelated to this volcanic bedrock, which came from eruptions that preceded them by millions of years.

Published on December 7, 2021