Greetings from the Biggest Wine Region You Don’t Know

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Greetings from the Biggest Wine Region You Don’t Know

Here are the tasting notes on the fair-trade pour-over coffee from Costa Rica that I’m drinking: “Bergamot; sunflower seed, organic green grapes.” I manage to order a cappuccino from the ironic-facial-hair grunge-meister barista without asking how you discern “organic” versus conventionally grown green grape in the flavor profile of a cup of freaking coffee. I mean, I could tell you if an actual green grape was a Thompson’s or a Perlette, but as far as whether it met organic cert standards, I’d be guessing. And that’s before you get to the part where we are talking about not actual grapes but coffee, which, let’s be fair, tastes overwhelmingly of… coffee.

Oh, I have a point, and it’s even about grapes.

I’m in Seattle. It’s March, which means Japanese cherries and star magnolias are running riot and it’s colder than a well-digger’s ass out here. The wind is piercing, the clouds are doing their best to look more mountainous than the mountains, and large branches are being ripped from cedar trees and flung at people as I write. I’ve just discovered there is a huge wine scene half an hour northeast of Seattle. I’m half wondering why I didn’t know that – being no stranger to wine or to the Northwest – and half wondering how. You can grow some amazing things in western Washington, and if wine could be made from rhododendrons or Japanese camellias or cedars this would be God’s Wine Country… but no way, no way could this climate produce a wine grape. Right?

Righty-o. A hundred wineries. Zero grapes.

Welcome to Washington, a land of mysteries, moonscapes, contradictions and conundrums. (But not Conundrum, that stuff’s entirely California’s karma.) Of course there are zillions of exceptions but the Napa / Sonoma wine industry grew in the tradition of French and Italian winemaking – Grow Your Own. Estate vineyards, proprietary fruit harvested right outside the doors and pressed, aged and bottled on site. Washington is different. Grapes do not generally fare well west of the Cascade Mountains (the Puget Sound AVA seems to be managing with a few varietals), but they find many attractive niches in the east – from the relatively cool and wet Walla Walla region to the arid sagebrush desert of the Columbia Valley and from the high-elevation ridges of Rattlesnake Valley to the cool river-fed niches of the Columbia Gorge. It is geologically diverse, has vast differences in weather from region to region and even from one side of a given AVA to the other, and is home to a large and rapidly growing expanse of vines – over 40 different varietals sprawling over more than 71,000 square miles. Washington is the second largest wine producing region in the US and, like many things in the Pacific Northwest, it’s an eccentric and fascinating scene that somewhat defies categorization.

In a sense, the Seattle-adjacent wine producers congregated in and around the city itself and in nearby Woodinville, are all “urban” wineries. Some are tasting room outposts or partial production facilities of wineries whose main operations are in the east (Woodinville flagship Domaine Sainte Michelle processes some white wines on their stunning property in Woodinville and reds on the other side of the mountains). Most of the almost 100 wineries in Woodinville are small producers operating entirely out of warehouse spaces or other non-vineyard properties, crafting wines from grapes sourced from one or several of the AVAs on the other side of the Cascades. Some own the land their grapes grow on; others form trusted partnerships with particular farmers. Some haul grapes into their facilities and some bring juice post-crush. Some feel the terrain and terroir of eastern Washington is grape heaven and some think it’s hell. Some are on a mission to make a $50.00 wine that they can safely sell for $20.00, and I’d be lying if I didn’t privately believe there are a handful doing the opposite. (Sorry.) But the upshot is people have a wildly diverse range of practices and attitudes about producing wine here, and there are so many varietals and attitudes that it is very hard to pin down a definitively “Washington” winemaking style. What they all agree on is that the harvest season commute is a bitch.

There is something for everyone in this neck of the woods – for sure the most physically dazzling for visitors are the parklike grounds of Chateau St. Michelle and nearby JM Cellars, which is on a terraced hillside property previously owned by hardcore horticulturalists and has enough spectacular rare trees that they get their own tour. If you’re going for the picnic factor, no one competes with those two. As for the wines – CSM has a Sauv Blanc that displays an unusually broad spectrum of floral aromatics including a pronounced linden-blossom note I don’t think a California Sauv would be capable of, and their “Erioca” Riesling is pretty dang good. JM Cellars is harder to find (small winemakers might be the best justification of Internet-based retail) but boasts a killer Petit Verdot and a red blend called “Bramble Bump” that could easily become your new best friend.

Janiuk / Novelty Hill has a gorgeous tasting room and a serious portfolio of Cabernet Sauvignons from both Michael Janiuk’s collection and the Novelty Hill label. Cabernet Sauvignon is an entirely different beast in Washington than in Napa Valley, leaner, stonier, more dignified – and if you’re not familiar with it, Janiuk’s a great place to start. Novelty Hill is working with one of my fetish varietals, Roussanne, and I think that might have been my favorite pour of the day. Intense florals, citrus and slate at heart. But these guys are turning out a lot of different wines and every one of them is good.

If you are the kind of person who thinks they “don’t get wine” or that you don’t have enough of a trained palate to know your way around – this is the perfect region to visit or to buy from because it is proof positive that there are as many ways of contending with a grape as there are people doing it. You want to have a really fun sensory freakout? Try side-by-side tastings from Savage Grace and. Michael Savage and Jeff Lindsey-Thorsen are close neighbors, and even pick from some of the same vineyards. Taste the Syrahs and you will not believe you are drinking the same varietal, much less the same vintage and the same vineyard. Savage’s wines are the soul of restraint – lean, austere, even – the closest thing I have tasted in a while to drinking liquefied stone (and that isn’t a jab; they’re marvelous). Card carrying members of the Anything But Chardonnay club should reserve judgment until they’ve experienced Savage Grace – he also forced me to admit I don’t hate Malbec after all. His Syrah is a beauty – a light, ruby-colored, tart cherry affair with a ton of wet stone. Jeff Lindsey-Thorsen of WT Vintners, meanwhile, is more opulent and voluptuous in his winemaking tendencies, and while there is still plenty of minerality in those wines (you’d be hard put to drive it out, many Washington AVAs sit on basaltic bedrock that can be so close to the surface it’s hard to drive stakes into the ground to train the vines) – we’re talking decadent fruit and heady aromatics. Blueberries, cacao, violets, olive leaf. Both are valid expressions of Syrah and both are excellent – but they could not be more different. Which is fun. And weird. And surprising even when you understand it. Maybe that’s the cleanest definition of Washington wine you can even get to.

Covington Cellars / Two Vintners’ Morgan Lee is another example of a “skin contact” guy, and he gets some beautiful stuff out of that method. My personal fave is the 2V ramato Gewurtztraminer – a normally white wine, this one is left in touch with its tinted skins until it turns a soft salmon-orange and starts exuding all kinds of Grand Marnier and rose petal and tangerine peel goodness. But if you’re imagining a syrupy residual sugar bomb, think again. There is a persistent whisper of stone in almost everything that grows up here, and it’s not missing from this stuff either.

Many Woodinville wineries are small production run (some are large) and they are widely varied in their distribution (I don’t know many people down here who know about JM Cellars; they’re pouring Savage Grace at the airport; Chateau Sainte Michelle you can stumble over just about anywhere.) Since the Internet doesn’t have a zip code this is no biggie shopping wise – but Woodinville’s situation is kind of unique for the in person experience, because with very few exceptions, the wineries are walking distance from each other, which is not a thing with vineyard estates. And it’s a blessing in terms of sketchy auto traffic on winding backroads, which is seriously a thing with vineyard wineries.

For those interested in a Seattle-based wine-frenzy, some spots you don’t want to miss would include Jet City – a large urban winery with dazzling views of Mount Rainier from their site at the edge of Boeing Field. Winemaker Brennan Leighton is turning out really, really good stuff, and at their production volume it would be easy not to. They have an easygoing, zero-preciousness aesthetic and a diverse portfolio, including a Riesling that would pair really well with spicy Asian dishes and an extremely user-friendly Merlot whose name “Velvet Devil” pretty much sums it up. Great Syrahs and a couple of really charming red blends are also easily had, as well as they fairly supermarket-ubiquitous “Charles & Charles” rosé, which I will say is ubiquitous for a reason – accessible and refreshing at a really friendly price . Ask Brennan about his Petit Verdot if your socks are in need of knocking off.

If, like me, you happen to be a Grenache freak, your man is Ryan Crane at Kerloo Cellars, also south of Downtown. These wines are small production runs with a lot of attention to detail (and be careful because they will sell out and leave you pining for more) – not a lemon in the portfolio but for me the star of the show at this winery is Grenache in all of its forms.

If your thing is brooding, full-figured Malbec, lucky you because you’re only a few blocks from Elsom Cellars. Jody Elsom’s exceedingly fabulous tasting room is shared by a trekking organization so it’s not unusual to grab a glass of Cab and listen to an interesting talk on an exotic travel destination at the same time. Elsom wines do not become available to the public at a young age – they do serious barrel time and they are intense. My favorite was a blend named “Isabella” after Elsom’s daughter – beautifully balanced, a little peppery, very lush.

And that’s for starters. Washington is a younger wine region than Napa – or anywhere in Europe – but its diversity is startling and it’s a fascinating place to visit whether in person or by the glass. You might find yourself agreeing with some of the local winemakers that Washington has not quite found its “signature” grape and that it will turn out to be Syrah, the way Chenin Blanc is synonymous with South Africa or Cabernet Sauvignon with Napa Valley. You might hold with the equally vocal crew who feel it’s all about aromatic whites. You might find yourself completely able to render a verdict because pretty much whatever you can think of, someone’s growing it and doing something relevant with it. If anyone is in need of proof that there is no one right way to make wine, no one way of perceiving terroir, no one correct opinion about how to contend with a grape – this is your spot. Eccentrics, mavericks, ideologues, rockers, chemists, poets, traditionalists, upstarts, little guys, big guys, lifers, dabblers – there’s a little of everything up here. Much of it is stellar; all of it is worth investigating.

Check out the gallery to see what Washington’s wine scene is all about.