Washington State is a relative newcomer to the world of fine wines, but they have made as much progress in as little time as any region in the country. Luckily for the industry as a whole, two large wineries, Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia, have introduced consumers around the nation to the area's wines. Largely focusing on the production of high quality wines at reasonable prices, the state's vintners have begun to firmly set their sights on the production of world class products.

Geographically speaking, Washington is unlike any other viticultural area in the world. With virtually all the vineyards located in the rain shadow of the majestic Cascade Mountains, the area is in reality semi-arid. Only through irrigation with water from the mighty Columbia River and its tributaries can the area produce crops of any sort. Furthermore, virtually the entire Columbia basin shares the same sand based soil structure. This allows for something very unique in viticulture these days: vines planted on their own native rootstocks. Apparently, the root louse that causes Phyloxera doesn't travel very well in the sandy soils, and though it is endemic in some Washington vineyards, there is little alarm.

Eastern Washington is certainly a land of open skies and the region's volcanoes can be seen for hundreds of miles. This serves to illustrate the vastness of the region, and that region's potential. Of the possible vineyard sites, only a tiny fraction is actually planted. The biggest block to their development might be the brutal nature of the region's winters, which in February of 1996 virtually wiped out half of the state's production. Vines, however, are resilient things, and so are the area's vintners, who resumed full production in the 1997 harvest.

Cabernet Sauvignon has been planted for some time in Washington, and in the last 20 years the region’s wine makers have become quite adept at dealing with the varietal. Perhaps through their experience with Merlot, Washington wine makers began to ease up on the extraction of tannins which so heavily marked bottlings from tearlier years. Today, led by the boutique producers from around the state, along with industry giant Chateau Ste. Michelle, Washington Cabernet has taken on a new personality. Supple and brimming with character, the wines are still well structured with an emphasis on balanced acidity. Additionally, they tend to be a degree or two lower in alcohol than their California counterparts, making them quite a bit easier at the table. Today the top end of Washington Cabernet stands with California’s best, and as production increases with the general level of quality, there is no doubt that Washington will earn a reputation not only in this country, but the world over.

Boutique wines such as Leonetti, Andrew Will, and Quilceda Creek and many others have enjoyed remarkable success and are often under severe allocation. While such specialty wines are indeed worth seeking out, there are also some great Washington wines that enjoy wide distribution and consistent supply, while being sold at attractive price points.

Chateau Ste. Michelle, Hogue, and the Columbia Winery broke new ground in Washington in the 70s and early 80s, paving the way for national consumer acceptance of Washington State wines, and the proliferation of boutique wineries in the last 20 years. Their success was built largely on their ability to produce excellent wines at very attractive prices. While they all still have wide ranging portfolios with many wines still at attractive price points; they have also refined and expanded their production at the top end. Vineyard designated bottlings from Ste. Michelle and Columbia in particular figure among the finest produced in the state, and often the country, vintage after vintage. Furthermore with their solid distribution networks, these limited production wines are available both far and wide.

Chateau Ste. Michelle
Largest and probably best known of the trio is Chateau Ste. Michelle, or more accurately, the wine group known as Stimson Lane. Though tracing its roots back to just after prohibition, Ste. Michelle came into its own in the early 70s and spun off another winery, Columbia Crest, in the early 80s. Both wineries are owned by parent company, Stimson Lane. Since its inception, Columbia Crest has actually outstripped Chateau Ste. Michelle's own production becoming the largest winery in the Northwest. While Columbia Crest has focused on moderately priced wines, Ste. Michelle has been largely free to pursue a range of premium wines. This has led to the acquisition of some of the state's best vineyard land and the rapid development of a wide range of vineyard designated wines. In true Ste. Michelle style, success has been swift and spectacular. Wines from Canoe Ridge, Cold Creek, and Horse Heaven Hills have proven exceptional so far, while newer bottlings, such as the Chateau Reserve line, are being released every year. This has given Stimson Lane, from Columbia Crest through the specialty wines of Ste. Michelle, one of the widest ranging and highest quality portfolios of wine in the nation.

Columbia Winery
Known as Associated Vintners until 1984, Columbia is Washington's oldest continuously operating premium grape winery, dating to 1962. A psychology professor at the University of Washington and a number of his colleagues, whose subsequent research provided much of the impetus for Washington's grape planting boom, founded it. In 1979 David Lake, a Master of Wine, arrived to take on the winemaking duties until his untimely death in 2009. Lake's wines were quite refined in style, and though long lived, later vintages were getting more and more accessible in youth. Of particular note were bottlings from the Red Willow Vineyard, one of the state's finest. This property, owned by respected Washington grower Mike Sauer, had been contracted to Columbia for several years, and provided a number of limited production wines, including what was the state's first commercial Syrah.

Hogue Cellars
In 1949 the Hogue family started a farm in the heart of Washington's Yakima Valley. Hops, asparagus, potatoes, and a number of other crops formed the backbone of the family's production until the late 70s when the patriarch's son, Mike Hogue, decided to plant wine grapes. It proved to be a fortuitous decision as those early wines, produced in a small concrete shed on the property, won quick acclaim. This began what has been a truly meteoric rise, as Hogue is now among the state's largest wineries. In the late 80s their Riesling gained a national following while Chardonnay and Merlot followed in the 90s. 1989 saw the building of a new winery, and for the Hogue family the sky still seems to be the limit. This, however, has not changed their refreshing perspective on what for them is just a special part of the family business. Mike Hogue explains, "We've always had a lot of pride in what we produce, but as soon as the crop was brought in and sold, our identity was lost. With wine it's different. It's our wine, with our pride in it, and the family's name on the label." Something, no doubt, many a consumer understands all to well.

Walla Walla and the Canoe Ridge
While Washington's large wineries have made a splendid reputation for producing high quality wines at reasonable prices, the process has come full circle and paved the way for consumer acceptance of the boutique wineries which have sprung up in the 20 years. Much attention in particular should be paid to the exciting wines coming from the Walla Walla Valley and Canoe Ridge in particular. This is true not only of Merlot, but also of Cabernet and Chardonnay along with some interesting varietals such as Syrah and Semillon.

The AVA system in Washington was underdeveloped, with a huge swath of land relying on the use the Columbia Valley appellation. More recently, however, a continuing recognition of the diversity of the state's wines has led to the creation and pursuit of more precise appellations. The Walla Walla Valley is one such area.

Long home to a famous onion producing industry (Walla Walla Sweets), the Walla Walla Valley is in the extreme southeastern portion of the state of Washington, and spills over the border into Oregon. This quirk of political map drawing makes Walla Walla one of the very few cross-state appellations in the country. Lying in the rain shadow of the towering cascades to the west, the area, like all of eastern Washington is semi arid. Agriculture is made possible through the use of irrigation. For most this means precisely controlled drip irrigation, which puts the water where it is needed, when it is needed, and in the quantities required. Of the potential vineyard acreage in Walla Walla, only a tiny percentage has been planted thus far, making the areas potential for continued growth quite exciting. The only limiting factor will be ever growing demands on the Columbia River and its tributaries for water rights.

Leonetti Cellar, founded in 1977, was Walla Walla's first winery, and foreshadowed the development of the area as a boutique wine haven. Walla Walla wines tend to be lush and endearing with a heavy reliance on oak seasoning. The Merlots of Leonetti, Waterbrook, L'Ecole No. 41, Patrick M. Paul, and the like are highly coveted and eminently accessible. As for Chardonnay, many of the wines swing for the fences, but can always rely on the tell tale acidity that Washington wines usually possess for balance. It must be noted that similarities among the area's wines have much to do with winemaking practices, as many of these wineries' bottlings utilize grapes grown outside the Walla Walla Valley. As opposed to offering proof of Walla Walla's supremacy for grape growing, the region's wines actually show how a close knit winemaking community has helped with the exchange of ideas and allowed the enological equivalent of an artistic colony to develop.

Unlike Walla Walla, the wines of the newer micro-appellation, Canoe Ridge, owe their startling quality to the region itself, in addition to the skill of the wine makers. Lying well to the west of Walla Walla on the banks of the Columbia River, Canoe Ridge is a 1,000 foot hill rising from the river and looking out over the barren scrub land on the Oregon side. Named by Lewis and Clark on a 19th century expedition through the area, the hill resembles an overturned canoe. It is jointly owned, in its entirety, by Chateau Ste. Michelle, and the Canoe Ridge Winery, a member of the prestigious Chalone family of wineries. Planted only in the late 80s, it would be an understatement to say that the initial releases were promising. They are now some of the best Merlots in the state and the country, and Chardonnay has proven exceptional as well. Somewhat more restrained than many Walla Walla wines, Canoe Ridge wines show attractive fruit, while being relatively elegant and restrained. As an added bonus the wines are blessedly devoid of harsh tannins.

With Washington wines on the whole that's much of the idea. Often referred to as one third California and two thirds Bordeaux, the region's wines offer the ripe and forward qualities of fine New World wines with the crispness and drinkable structure of the Old. Never overpowering or alcoholic, Washington wines are best defined in one word: balance. (Wine/Appellations)