Six years ago, Washington seemed near a tipping point. Supported by strong vintages from 2005–08, this rapidly growing wine region seemed to be emerging from California’s long shadow and ready to gain broader awareness.
Then the lingering effects of the Great Recession hit home. Consumers tightened their purse strings and bought less expensive wines, challenging the state’s numerous boutique wineries. Successive cool vintages in 2010 and 2011 produced an abundance of high-quality wines, but wines that were less accessible than the norm.
Today, propelled by the landmark 2012 vintage and the three strong years that followed, Washington’s time may have finally arrived.
From afar, it can seem surprising that Washington is able to grow wine grapes at all. Many equate the state with often-soggy Seattle.
“When I travel, people always say, ‘It’s cold and rainy there. How do you ripen Cabernet?’ ” says Chris Peterson, winemaker for Avennia in Woodinville.
Bob Betz, MW, winemaker for Betz Family Winery, has had similar experiences:
“You get a novice wine drinker and they think, ‘Washington. That’s just south of Anchorage, right?’ ”
“Even when we have a challenging vintage, the wines are still good-plus or better. That’s not a bad problem to have.”
While you may chuckle, it’s no laughing matter to the state’s wineries. Washington’s association with rain-soaked Seattle and confusion with the nation’s capital have long been hindrances to growing the state’s wine brand.
While Seattle does see more than its fair share of gray, gloomy days, almost all of Washington’s wine grapes are grown hundreds of miles to the east. There, thanks to a rain shadow caused by the craggy Cascade Range, lies a desert region with 300 days of sunshine, averaging just 5–8 inches of rainfall each year. (Seattle averages 38 inches.)
“People are always surprised how dry it is here,” says Chris Figgins, president and winemaking director at Figgins Family Wine Estates in Walla Walla. “Most people think of the Northwest as a wet, green place. People don’t understand that we’ve got this whole different climate in the eastern part of the state.”
Washington’s Columbia Valley—which encompasses almost all of the state’s grape-growing regions—is so dry that viticulture would be impossible in most locations without irrigation. However, water from various rivers and aquifers, along with consistently warm summers, give the state’s grape growers a high degree of control during the growing season.
“With irrigation, we have the capacity to control canopy growth, shoot length, berry size and cluster weight,” says Marty Clubb, co-owner and managing winemaker at L’Ecole No 41 in Lowden. “It’s a very powerful tool.”
The results are consistent, high-quality wines across vintages.
“We’re one of the more reliable places on the planet to grow grapes,” says Figgins. “In our almost 40-year history at Leonetti Cellar, we’ve never had a harvest compromised by weather. If you look around the world, that’s pretty unusual.”
Clubb agrees: “Even when we have a challenging vintage, the wines are still good-plus or better. That’s not a bad problem to have.”
While consistent quality across vintages is indeed one of the state’s calling cards, not all vintages are created equal.
“I used to read that we didn’t have any vintage variation in Washington,” says grower Dick Boushey, of Boushey Vineyards in the Yakima Valley. “Well we do, and it can be both subtle and dramatic.”
The last six years have provided examples of both. After the warm 2009 growing season was punctuated by a fall frost, the next year saw the coolest growing season in more than a decade. Wines were noticeably higher in acid and less accessible immediately than normal, but also offered focused fruit flavors and tremendous cellaring potential. The 2011 season was cooler still, producing lighter, more elegant wines than usual.
Then came 2012—a Goldilocks vintage for Washington.
“It was almost a perfect year,” says Boushey. “Not too hot, not too cool. Everything lined up.”
Heat accumulation during the growing season matched 20-year averages, resulting in an abundance of top-quality wines.
“Virtually all of the wines on the shelf are good,” Clubb says. “We had such excellent conditions for ripening in terms of fruitfulness, acidity and structural balance. The wines just came out near perfect.”
One word recurs when talking with growers and winemakers about the 2012 vintage.
“The 2012 wines are what Washington does so well,” says Figgins. “They’re voluptuous and fruit driven, with big, thick middles, but with good acid. They are really, really pretty wines.
It’s balance, says Betz. “Regardless of variety or vineyard, there’s a purity, balance and harmony that the grapes had in 2012, and you can see it in the wines.”
The results are prototypically Washington.
“The 2012 wines are what Washington does so well,” says Figgins. “They’re voluptuous and fruit driven, with big, thick middles, but with good acid. They are really, really pretty wines. It’s a great year for consumers to benchmark Washington.”
In some ways, the state’s 2012s can be deceptive. The aromas and flavors are so generous and appealing that it’s easy to think the wines might just shine in their youth and then quickly fade. But there’s enough flavor intensity and structural stuffing to offer immediate appeal and cellaring potential—the best of both worlds.
“People sometimes think the 2012s will be early drinking wines, but I don’t agree with that,” Peterson says. “There’s richness and complexity with a lot of depth and a lot of structure. I think they’re going to have a long life.”
The three subsequent, increasingly warm vintages also have winemakers giddy with anticipation, beginning with the 2013s, just starting to hit shelves.
“There’s more muscle to the ’13s,” Betz says. “A greater sense of ripeness and fatness. But if you made good decisions on viticulture and picking date, they can be every bit as balanced.”
Figgins calls the ’13s “darker and a little more forward” than the super-approachable ’12s, also noting that they “have a bit more grip behind them and are a bit more focused.”
So far, the vintage also seems to be particularly strong in the value tier, which is something consumers can celebrate.
Though 2014 and 2015 can be described as hot and hotter, the state seems to have come through just fine, especially with more acreage devoted to heat-loving Cabernet Sauvignon.
“When it’s warm, like in ’14 and ’15, if it cools down during final maturation like it did, you end up with smaller berries, thicker skins and superb quality,” Clubb says. “That’s what we got.”
Six years after Washington’s wine industry seemed poised to bust out, it yet again looks ready to make a splash. Four high-quality vintages coming to the shelves will help do just that. Perhaps now, people will no longer ask winemakers which side of the Potomac the grapes are grown on.
Gramercy Cellars 2012 Lagniappe Syrah (Columbia Valley); $55, 95 points. Blended from Red Willow, Marcoux and Oldfield vineyards, this 100% Syrah offers aromas of green olives, brown stems, dried herbs and raspberries. The palate has densely rich yet exceptionally well-balanced fruit and savory flavors that are creamy in feel. It’s flat-out stunning, winning on grace and elegance rather than sheer power alone.
Reynvaan Family 2012 In the Hills Estate Foothills in the Sun Vineyard Syrah (Walla Walla Valley); $60, 95 points. A wine glass can hardly contain this lightly colored wine’s generous aromas of black olive, sea salt, crushed flowers, orange peel, black pepper, mineral and smoked meat. The smoke and savory flavors display a fascinating mixture of lightness and intensity, leading to a floral finish that seems near endless. Editors’ Choice.
Sleight of Hand 2013 Psychedelic Stoney Vine Vineyard Syrah (Walla Walla Valley); $60, 95 points. The winery’s first release off its estate vineyard in The Rocks offers expressive, captivating aromas of peat, dried flowers, fire pit, herbs, grilled asparagus, funk and green olive. The flavors are sweet, sumptuous and rich, showing depth and detail. It’s a complete knockout. Editors’ Choice.
Cab & Cab Blends
Quilceda Creek 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley); $140, 95 points. All Cabernet from Champoux, Klipsun, Palengat and Wallula vineyards, this wine offers aromas of blackberry, incense, blueberry, pencil lead and barrel spices. On the palate, it’s tightly wound with black fruit flavors and a firm backbone of tannins. The oak is primary right now. It needs extended time in the cellar to show itself fully, and will be best from 2022–30. Cellar Selection.
Cadence 2012 Bel Canto Cara Mia Vineyard (Red Mountain); $60, 94 points. Cabernet Franc (84%) takes the lead on this wine, with the balance equal parts Merlot and Petit Verdot. It opens with aromas of flowers, dried herbs, earth and mineral. The mouthfeel is dazzling, showing depth and intensity, with enough structure to go the distance. Editors’ Choice.
Figgins 2012 Estate (Walla Walla Valley); $85, 94 points. Closed up at present, this aromatic brooder has notes of red and black fruit, scorched earth and herbs, along with a floral top note. It has a mountain-fruit profile of firm, chewy tannins, tart acids and dense flavors. Time in the cellar is required to fully appreciate it. Let it be until at least 2020, but it should have a good 15 years beyond that. Cellar Selection.
Woodward Canyon 2013 Merlot (Columbia Valley); $52, 93 points. Wood spice and vanillin are out in front on the aromas followed by mocha, raspberry and dark fruit. The palate brings lush, concentrated flavors and a finish with lots of hangtime. It drinks beautifully out of the gate, but should have a long life ahead of it. Editors’ Choice.
Januik 2012 Merlot (Columbia Valley); $25, 92 points. With grapes coming from Weinbau, Klipsun and Ciel du Cheval vineyards, among others, this wine offers brooding aromas of dark raspberries and bittersweet chocolate. The oak (half new French) provides a perfect complement, with flavors of coffee and spice mixing with dark fruit. It’s hard to put the glass down.
Stevens 2012 Stevens Merlot (Yakima Valley); $32, 92 points. This blend of DuBrul and Meek vineyard fruit broods with aromas of dark raspberries and licorice. Ripe fruit flavors accompany exquisitely balanced tannins and acidity. It’s drinking well now, but should have a long life in front of it. Editors’ Choice.
Other Wines to Try
Horsepower 2012 Sur Echalas Vineyard Grenache (Walla Walla Valley); $115, 97 points. Despite its lighter color, this wine explodes from the glass with a complex, near-endless list of aromas that include sea breeze, crushed flowers, peat, green olive, fire pit, smoked meat, pepper, orange peel and sea salt. Its ethereal, elegant style belies the outrageously rich, exquisitely flavorful savory notes that won’t quit, offering a completely captivating walk on the variety’s wild side. Editors’ Choice.
Baer 2012 Star (Columbia Valley); $32, 94 points. Made with 75% Merlot and the rest Cabernet Franc, this wine commands attention, with aromas of dried and fresh herbs, black fruit, toast and flowers. The dark fruit flavors are rich, layered and tightly coiled, captivating attention with spot-on balance. Editors’ Choice.
Rasa 2012 Living in the Limelight Dionysus Vineyard Petit Verdot (Columbia Valley); $55, 93 points. This rare single-vineyard, single-varietal offering has brooding aromas of high-toned flowers, fresh herbs, cherry and coffee. It’s full bodied, but doesn’t overwhelm with its brawny, well-integrated tannins, reserved fruit flavors, bright acid and long finish. Editors’ Choice.
Best Values from 2013
Chateau Ste. Michelle 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley); $15, 90 points. The aromas offer notes of boysenberry, herb and barrel spices, with the Syrah blended in (11%) showing itself. The blue and black fruit flavors are lush and fruit forward, with soft tannins, a silky mouthfeel and a sustained sense of balance. It drinks best at a cool 62 degrees. Best Buy.
Columbia Crest 2013 Grand Estates Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley); $12, 90 points. Cocoa, plum and vanilla aromas are followed by creamy-feeling blue-fruit flavors that display a mixture of fruit and barrel. The barrel influence is heavy but it’s delicious all the same. Best Buy.
Dunham 2013 Three Legged Red (Washington); $19, 90 points. The bouquet offers intriguing aromas of berry, black olive, vanilla and other barrel spices. The chocolate and cherry flavors are elegant, soft and creamy in feel, showing a pleasing sense of balance. A delicious and attractive red that’s drinkable now.
Hogue 2013 Genesis Merlot (Columbia Valley); $16, 90 points. Aromas of huckleberry, herbs and spice are fresh and focused. The fruit flavors are concentrated, with a supple feel and soft tannins. It displays a good sense of balance.
North by Northwest 2013 Red Blend (Columbia Valley); $15, 90 points. Aromas of coffee, toast, vanilla spice and dark fruit offer immediate appeal. The black-fruit flavors are ripe and generous, sticking around on the tart finish. Best Buy.
Lone Birch 2013 Syrah (Yakima Valley); $13, 89 points. Blue-fruit and spice aromas are vibrant and expressive. The palate is plush and flavorful with a supple feel, while the oak seems dialed back and the balance spot on. Best Buy.