Washington State - Part I

In a recent post on these pages, I detailed the experience of having attended a trade tasting a couple of months ago. The shoulder seasons are the perfect time for distributors to host these events in preparation for the busy holiday season. As mentioned before, trade tastings are a terrific opportunity for wholesalers and producers to showcase new products coming to market, as well as for people in the retail/restaurant tier to taste a lot of wine and meet the people behind them - all in an efficient afternoon.

I will have the good fortune of attending another trade event this weekend, with an added bonus: the tasting will be accompanied by seminars on Washington state and the Mendoza region of Argentina. The seminars will be conducted by Master Sommelier Matt Citriglia. Very few people have met a Master Sommelier because there are so few of them (fewer than 150 in North America). But having met a few myself, I can attest that these people possess an appealing combination of humility and encyclopedic knowledge of all aspects of wine from history to economics to vinification and, of course, analysis.  So, this will be a treat.

So as not to walk into the seminar completely green, I did a little research on the underpinnings of this important winegrowing region. Even if the climate is not cool enough for certain varieties, I have a long theorized that Washington state offers both quality and value vastly superior to much of California. I've also maintained that the Columbia Valley will be the epicenter for merlot's redemption. While this maligned variety has fallen out of favor since Sideways came out (11 years ago!), it continues to be crafted to excellent results here.

So, is there anything unique about Washington? As it turns out, absolutely:
  • First, when talking about winegrowing, the Columbia Valley is almost synonymous with Washington state as it covers about 25% of the state's landmass and encompasses most of Washington's 13 sub AVA's.
  • With an incredibly arid and temperate climate (getting only 8 inches of rain per year) the Columbia Valley's high desert climate is inhospitable to vine diseases. The soil, predominantly fast-draining sandy loam, is ideal for vinifera. This dryness makes the region dependent on irrigation, but has the enormous Columbia River to draw from.
  • With ideal soil, so little summertime precipitation, and the absence of disease, much of the Columbia Valley is essentially the perfect winegrowing laboratory. Winemakers can control exactly how much water the vines get, and when they get it, translating to terrific consistency from vintage to vintage - something I appreciate when reaching for a Columbia Valley bottling.
  • Sitting mostly north of the 46th parallel (think Montana), the longest days of summer will see up to 17 hours of daylight and a 40° diurnal variation in temperature. These long, warm days allow fruit to fully ripen, while the cold nights help to concentrate acidity in grape berries. 
  • Land is far cheaper here than it is in the chic winegrowing areas of Northern California, translating to less expensive wine. Who doesn't love that?
  • But the secret is out - there are now over 850 wineries in the state.
  • Though riesling gave Washington state it's first real notoriety, winegrowers here have zeroed-in on red varieties - cabernet, merlot, and syrah - as excelling in this climate. Today red varieties make up more plantings and production than white.
  • One criticism that has befallen Washington is that it does not specialize in any particular variety the way, for example, the Willamette Valley specializes in pinot noir. This is a ridiculous criticism that translates to persistent values in the marketplace for the educated consumer. 
I intend to become more educated about this region in hopes of bringing more light to those values. Stay tuned for part two nest week.