HOLLA! What’s this west coast girl doing in New York City? Well, that is a story for another day – but if there is one thing I love, it is wine from the west coast, and especially the Northwest region.
I recently attended an event in NYC with a few of my favorite winemakers from the Pacific Northwest—that is Washington and Oregon for the geographically challenged folks! Shout Out to the International Wine Society for letting me attend. What’s better than a night at the Yale Club with:
Ken Wright (Ken Wright Cellars)
Steve Doerner (Cristom) winemaker
Mike Etzel (Beaux Freres)
Charles Smith (K Vintners)
Chris Upchurch (DeLille cellars)
Drew Bledsoe (Doubleback)
I know, poor me. It’s OK—I survived!
I was sitting next to Steve, the winemaker from Cristom on one side and Ken Wright Cellar on the other both located in Oregon. Oregon wine really kicked off with Papa Pinot (David Lett) of Eyrie Vineyards planting vines in Willamette Valley (Dundee Hills) in 1966. His Burgundian-style Pinot Noir came in 2nd in a French wine tasting competition in the 1970s, and that established Oregon as a quality wine region. Soon after, Drouhin (one of my faves from Burgundy) established a vineyard nearby in Dundee Hills.
What I didn’t know about Oregon is that these guys know how to party! I showed up a tired mom of three, and these winemakers ran circles around me! Is it all that time drinking in the vineyard? The Jory soils? I really feel like I should plant some grapes in my greenhouse and just sit out there drinking and pretending to make wine. I’ll just keep saying “it’s research” when my kids ask. Or maybe I’ll take up surfing like the guys from Beaux Ferres. I’m going to figure out the secret here. I’ll get back to you on this one!
I hear this a lot from friends: “I don’t like Pinot Noir – it’s too light”.
This statement is a misnomer, just like when people think Washington State is too cold and wet to grow grapes. Pinot Noir is a kickass grape – it can be made into wines that are light, bold, big or elegant, and it is mostly just fantastic. It can take on many styles, but it is a hard grape to manage, which makes the praise extra special when it is made well. And Oregon is Pinot Noir country (as well as home to Riesling, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc).
However, Oregon is changing. I liken it to a young kid growing up on a farm who is suddenly discovered as a model/musician, and instantly becomes famous.
A few things are happening here: the smaller tight community is growing, with outsiders coming in (Jackson family for example) and buying land (still relatively cheap), which will definitely create a new path here. The other interesting thing happening is mother nature: The last three vintages have been warm years, and Pinot Noir grapes can really suffer when it gets too hot. Steve Doerner of Cristom Vineyards explained to me that winemakers here now have a better handle on dealing with warm years. He has been leaving a little extra fruit on each vine, so the plant has more bunches to ripen, which takes it longer to do and creates a later harvest. Steve says, “In the end, it makes better wine (in my opinion) because the sugar accumulation isn’t so fast that you pick before physiological ripeness just to keep alcohol under control”. Oregon was blessed with good vintages in 2014, 2015, and 2016, and the increasing spotlight on quality that is coming out of here should cement it as a high quality Pinot Noir region.
Could warmer vintages mean Syrah could also be planted here? Only time will tell!
Some of my favorites in Oregon are from Domaine Serene, Cristom, Drouhin, Beaux Ferres, Evelshem Wood, Eyrie, Harper Voit and Ken Wright. These wineries are really creating good wine consistently, and the wines are regulars in my house!
Next up is Washington State, and many of my friends seem shocked they are making good wines, mostly because everyone associates Washington State weather with Seattle – cold and damp. But Eastern Washington is a desert located in the rain shadow of the Cascade Mountains, which makes for hot, dry conditions during the day and cool temps at night, perfect for growing grapes. It’s all a matter of taste in Washington, whether you reach for DeLille’s Bordeaux blends, Ch. Ste. Michelle’s Riesling or Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon wines—you will not be disappointed.
Washington State is a land of many grapes and expressions of styles. Currently, it is best known for its Bordeaux varietals, with 80% of Walla Walla plantings made up of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah; Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Chardonnay, Riesling and Chardonnay are among other varieties planted here. The land price in Washington is cheaper than in Napa/Sonoma, so there is more opportunity for experimentation with different varietals, which has been beneficial for French grapes Petit Verdot, Picpoul and Rousillon. The real appeal here is quality wine with a lower price tag than its neighbor California—and with deep concentration. You can find good wines here for $8 and up.
Washington is now coming into what I call the 3rd kid syndrome. It takes the first two kids to figure out how to do it right, without freaking out and worrying. By the time you are raising your third, you are educated, calm and on the right track. This has been the path of Washington State wine—a process of trial and error. They didn’t have the luxury of imitating what Oregon and California were because they had completely different growing conditions, which meant they had to blaze a new trail.
Currently, Washington is the 2nd largest wine producing state behind California in the US.
Ch Ste Michelle has done an incredible job in delivering quality wines at a lower price tag. I can’t think of a winery in the US that can really compete with their $10 Riesling.
The trial and error phase means Washington State has moved into a period of rising quality. In the mid 90s, Washington had about 15 wineries; it now has around 800. There has been major growth there, and I can only imagine it will continue.
In terms of what to look for on a label, the US uses the term ‘AVA’ (American Viticultural Area) to define wine regions. These are somewhat imperfect – meant to mimic European land classification based on soils, topography, climate and micro-climates, the system delineates particular plots of land considered special…and for Washington State, the big kahuna is Columbia Valley AVA. Columbia Valley grows 99% of Washington State’s wine grapes. It contains several smaller AVAs, such as Yakima Valley; however, you will most likely see Columbia Valley on a wine label – the AVA covers a vast amount of mountains and valleys, all churning out quality wine.
Whatever you’re drinking, do yourself a favor and try some of these wines—you will not be disappointed. Some of the best Washington wineries I know are: K Vinters/Charles Smith wines, DeLille Cellars, Doubleback, Andrew Will, Betz Family, Bordeaux Cellars, Cadence, Cayuse Leonetti Cellar, Owen Roe, Hogue Cellars, Sheridan, Sleight of Hand, Zero One, Gramercy Cellars, Leonetti, Pepper Bridge, and Woodward Canyon.
To read more in-depth about Oregon, read my friend Amanda’s blog (she’s kickass too!) –