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Washington Wine Grows Up

Posted on  | April 22, 2015   Bookmark and Share
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Quietly, Yet Unmistakably, Washington Has Become a Force to be Reckoned With.

Marty Clubb, co-owner of L’Ecole No. 41 in Walla Walla, WA, has had a finger on the Washington wine industry’s pulse since the 1980s. He has served on the Washington Wine Commission board, helped found the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance and, with partners Norm McKibben (Pepper Bridge) and Gary Figgins (Leonetti Cellars), established Seven Hills Vineyard, acclaimed by Wine & Spirits magazine as one of the world’s top ten.

Yet the remarkable expansion of the industry can still catch him by surprise. “I’ll pick up an unfamiliar label in a Seattle wine shop,” he says, “turn the bottle over, and it says ‘produced in the Walla Walla Valley.’” L’Ecole was the third winery in the nascent Walla Walla AVA; now there are over 100. “Back then it was ‘What are those crazy people doing out there?’”

Now second and third generations of those not-so-crazy people are driving the industry. Bob Betz spent 28 years in winemaking at Chateau Ste. Michelle, the trail-blazing, door-opening behemoth, before founding Betz Family Winery (first crush 1997) which he and wife Cathy Betz sold in 2011 to Steve and Brigit Griessel. Allen Shoup, Ste. Michelle’s influential CEO for 20 years, who helped create Col Solare in a high-profile partnership with Piero Antinori, has gone on to establish Long Shadows, collaborating with international vintner partners to release unique micro-wines.

However, despite admirably fine-tuned vineyards and cellar practices, producers still grapple with developing a more recognizable face—or faces—in the marketplace. Washington maintains a firm number two position among states in wine production, with an $8 billion industry employing 70,000 people. Yet the tired old line about the geographically challenged consumer not knowing “they make wine in DC” lives on. And that’s not so funny anymore. Some continue to assume Washington and Oregon to be a marriage of likes. Truth is, except along their easternmost border, climates and varietals and nearly everything else diverge. Meanwhile, few Washington wines break a budget; very good (and good-scoring, for those who care) wines under $15 abound, and many wines with the highest acclaim check-in shy of $50. 


One palpable factor that has kept Washington’s recognition more modest than its numbers is that, unlike elsewhere, Washington can’t claim one signature grape. Merlot, Syrah have and Riesling still gets lots of nods as strong candidates. But ask an insider, such as Judy Phelps of Hard Roe to Hoe Vineyards in the tiny Lake Chelan AVA (350 acres) about a signature there and she names four(!) reds and three whites. 

But, no doubt, this Northwest corner has some enviable things going for it. Doug Gore, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates Senior Vice President, working here since 1982, recalls the evolution of matching variety-location-grower: “Everybody used to plant everything everywhere. Now we stick to formulas.” And, by the 1990s, after a study with Washington State University, irrigation practices changed drastically. “We learned that by ‘eye-droppering’ exact amounts of water we can control the canopy—and allow the varietal character to come through. This [precision irrigation] has become a tool to stylize wine in the vineyard.”   


A lot of land in the fertile Yakima Valley has spent its agricultural life as fruit orchards. Wheat flourished in Walla Walla. As apples and pears and grains gave way to grapes, another revenue source—with all-important marketing legs—cropped up: wine tourism. Tasting rooms now beckon from suburban Woodinville to Prosser (Millbrandt, Thurston Wolfe and eight others conveniently clustered in Vintner’s Village; 14 Hands and the Walter Clore Wine & Culinary Center in a second walkable area) to artsy, trendy Walla Walla. Woodinville alone has over 100 tasting rooms and wineries, and drew 300,000 visitors last year. Can all this help clarify Washington’s identity on a national level? And give retail sales a bump?

The majority of the state’s 13 AVAs lie within the vast Columbia Valley AVA, an upside-down J-shaped chunk of real estate roughly in the state’s midsection that also dips into northern Oregon following along the Columbia River. A half dozen AVAs, including the highly regarded Red Mountain, cluster from Yakima southeast to Tri-Cities. Will new AVAs, such as the Rocks of Milton-Freewater—lying on the Oregon side of the border, with wineries on the Washington side—confuse things further? “A lot of people don’t know what Columbia Valley means,” cautions Marty Clubb.


Some overarching questions hang while individuals choose paths forward. Some follow the muse of a varietal vineyard site: Kate and Thomas Monroe make their Division-Villages “L’Isle Verte” Chenin Blanc in Oregon, sourced from old vines (1970s) in Yakima AVA. Juergen Grieb at Treveri Cellars produces only sparkling wines, most under $20 RSP, including a Müller-Thurgau, a Riesling, a Pinot Gris and a Syrah. Many others, such as Cultura Wine and Reflection, both in Zillah, hand-craft 1,000 or so cases, tops.

Ron Griffin and Deborah Barnard pioneered winemaking and wine marketing when they started crushing grapes and bottling with a memorable full-color tulip-design label back in 1983. “It was scary then,” says Griffin, “overcoming the climate, dealing with surprise freezes in October. I had come from Sonoma with some preconceived notions. Reds were looked on with tredipation. And I had to get comfortable with Rieslings. Experimenting was essential.” He surpassed comfort and got skillful at making a reliably silky, honey-tinged Riesling that today bears an equally elegant golden mythical griffin-figure label. “Part of the reason to change our logo is recognition of a new generation.” He means that literally. Daughter Megan Hughes, who got her start as a young child hand-pasting those tulip labels, is taking over Barnard Griffin winemaking responsibilities.

Big Vision

Yet another reason Washington’s growth has transpired so quietly is that its undisputed leading supplier, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, remains so focused on the real business of wine. SMWE President & CEO Ted Baseler says, “There were 20 wineries [in Washington 25 years ago] when I started out; now there are over 800. Our philosophy has been let’s grow Washington’s wine industry. We have a vision that Washington will be seen as one of the top three wine regions in the world.”

The company has much to be proud of lately—the largest organic vineyard in the Northwest at Columbia Crest, for instance, and a red blend, Hot to Trot, so successful that it earned its own facility. But, characteristically, Baseler is happy to remain focused on the big picture when he talks about how to reach that vision: “One, with Washington State University’s new Wine Science Center, best in the world, will teach rigorous science. Two, it takes time to figure planting density, best vineyard sites for each varietal; we are now hitting that pinnacle. Three, we have advanced so dramatically [within the industry], but we still have a big job with consumers and collectors.” 


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