Vines & Vittles

Taste, balance, finesse: The other Washington

What words come to mind when I say Washington?

I bet dysfunction, quagmire, loggerhead and unyielding are among the most defining words you might use to describe that place. But when I think of Washington, words such as balance, nuance, depth and finesse immediately come to mind.

Obviously, we’re describing two different places. In fact, I often use the products produced in the kinder, gentler Washington to soothe and anesthetize me from the vitriol and vinegar of that other place with the same name.

Of course, I’m referring to Washington State. That bastion of good taste in the Pacific Northwest is often overlooked by wine lovers who seem to gravitate more to California and Oregon when looking for some of the best wines produced in the U.S.


If you’re one of those folks, you should really give Washington State another look. In a region of the country perhaps better known for producing cherries, hops, apples, apricots and RAIN, thousands of acres of grapes have been planted. And the wines produced from these grapes are truly exceptional.

In the past 40 years, the wine industry in Washington has exploded. In 1981, there were only 19 wineries in the state and today there are more than 900 scattered over 14 American Viticultural Areas (AVA’s).

Most of us who live east of the Rocky Mountains think of Seattle when we think of Washington State. But Seattle sits smack dab between the Cascade Mountains to the east and the Olympic range to the west, and has rain forest-like weather. And while there are a few vineyards in the Seattle/Puget Sound area, the overwhelming majority of wine is being produced from vines grown across the mountains in Eastern Washington.

So what makes this northwest corner of the U.S. so special? It’s the superb terroir
(pronounced tare-wah). Terroir is defined as the combination of soil, climate and geographic location that determine the quality of a wine appellation. Washington’s terroir is superior and suited for growing some of the world’s greatest wine grapes including, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah, chardonnay, riesling, gewürztraminer and semillon.

Washington white wines are the equal to anything produced in California or Oregon, particularly the riesling, chardonnay and gewürztraminer. And the cabernets, merlots and syrahs are truly exceptional and can compete with wines produced from similar vines anywhere else.

In fact, Washington State produces one of my all-time favorite cabernet sauvignons – Quilceda Creek. It’s a very small production winery and has gained cult status from several 100-point scores regularly awarded to it by critics such as Robert Parker. I was fortunate enough to get on their mailing list 20 years ago. But there other equally good, red wines produced in Washington that are readily available and don’t take a back seat to any other region in the world.

That’s a pretty bold statement, but in addition to intensity, richness, elegance and power, Washington State red wines have the potential to achieve a qualitative attribute uncommon in many wine regions: balance.

Here are a few of my favorite labels from Washington State that you should find in wine shops around the state: Mercer Canyons; Kiona; Saviah Cellars; L’Ecole No. 41; Columbia Crest; Canoe Ridge; Hedges; Leonetti; Waterbrook; Quilceda Creek; Woodward Canyon; Covey Run; Milbrandt; Walla Walla; Chateau Ste. Michelle; Columbia Winery; DeLille Cellars; and Barnard Griffin Winery.