The Other Washington

For most consumers who do not live on the West Coast of the United States, Washington is the capital of the country, not some obscure state in its most distant, upper left-hand corner. And, geographically, the state is split into two completely different halves, which may be labeled the "wet side" and the "dry side." The Cascade Mountain range separates the two halves. The dry side produces 90 percent of the vinifera grapes.

A few statistics about Washington wines:

  • Second in premium wine production in the United States,

  • Washington state is home to over 650 wineries,

  • There are 32,000 acres of vineyards producing over $3 billion annually for the state, and

  • the main export markets are Canada, United Kingdom and Japan.

While Washington state is known for its software, coffee and airplanes, it is very much an agricultural state. Eastern Washington (the dry side) is farm country where wine grapes are an important fourth crop, behind apples, pears and cherries. It has a continental, semi-desert climate and receives only eight inches of rain a year. Winters can be harsh, so vines are planted on slopes with good airflow to protect from frosts and freezes. During the growing season, there are 17 daylight hours per day. Soils are sandy loam, and irrigation is necessary as summers are hot and dry but with cool nights. All of these elements result in small fruit, vibrant fruit flavors, excellent acidity and dense tannins.

Western Washington (the wet side) is home to many wineries/tasting rooms but few vineyards as it has a mild, damp climate. Most of the grapes are from the east side and are trucked over the pass.

There are 11 federally designated regions called American Viticulture Areas (AVAs). The first was Yakima Valley established in 1983 and the last two were added in 2009; Snipes Mountain and Lake Chelan.

Washington produces more than 20 wine grape varieties. The red varieties include: merlot, cabernet sauvignon, syrah, cabernet franc, lemberger, sangiovese, malbec, pinot noir, zinfandel, nebbiola and petit verdot. The white varieties include: chardonnay, riesling, sauvignon blanc, semillon, gew├╝rztraminer, chenin blanc, aligote, madeleine angevine, muscat canelli, roussanne and viognier.

The evolution of the wine industry in Washington has come as far as or farther than California, in less time. Today there is rich history with vineyards moving into the fourth and fifth decade and wineries that can put together vertical tastings going back 25 years or more - thanks to the visionaries and pioneer growers who believed there was something magical in the land, who bought barren acreage on a desolate hill called Red Mountain (added as an AVA in 2001) and grew cabernet sauvignon. Today the red wine grapes of Red Mountain can stake legitimate claim to greatness.

Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia Crest (of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, now the ninth largest wine company in the world) have been largely responsible for establishing a market presence for Washington wines outside of the state. Their investment of millions of dollars in the 1980s in a state-of-the-art winery and 2,000 acres of new vineyard represented a huge commitment to the wine industry. Alongside of the giant Chateau Ste. Michelle, several boutique bottlers were gaining fame with their cabernet sauvignons and are still considered among the very best in the state. So, from the first commercial-scale planting and modern winemaking in the 1960s to the present day, Washington state is going to become one of the greatest wine regions in the world in the 21st century. In 2009 Wine Spectator Magazine selected a Washington cabernet sauvignon as its number one wine of the year - the first time the region has won this honor!


Durella DeGrasse
Certified Wine Professional

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