It was with some dismay that I read a story in a regional business magazine about Washington wine. The recent article bemoaned the homogenization of the Northwest's largest wine-producing region and expressed fears that its success could be its failure.
I've heard this complaint before, and nothing could be further from reality.
Washington's burgeoning wine industry is on the cusp of greatness. Vineyard plantings and new wineries have sprouted up at a dizzying pace. According to my database, Washington had 96 wineries when we launched this magazine in early 1998. Today, there are no fewer than 178, which doesn't count wineries' second labels (Washington Hills Cellars, for example, also makes wine under the Apex and W.B. Bridgman brands). Undoubtedly, there will be a handful more by the time you read this.
Is this a bad thing? Absolutely not. In fact, it's great.
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When I think of homogenization, I think of a television ad for a big California winery. An actor pretending to like the stuff he's trying to sell talks about how wine doesn't have to be snooty and sophisticated. Instead, it can always be the same, always oaky, etc. Invariably, I turn to my bride and growl, "If wine was supposed to always taste the same, then Coca-Cola should make it!"
This isn't happening in Washington. Sure, we have some large wineries that produce a lot of good wine. Columbia Crest, for example, makes 1.5 million cases per year. It's a fact of life that when you make 200,000 cases of Chardonnay, each bottle will taste alike. But because I might only drink one or two of those bottles, that matters little to me. In fact, the message that large wineries like Columbia Crest, Hogue Cellars and Covey Run Vintners send to consumers is that Washington produces consistently world-class wine. That message goes across the continent, and it's a good thing for the rest of the wineries back home.
Another complaint I hear is that the wineries are nowhere near the vineyards.
Washington is in an unusual position in the world of wine. Of the 178 wineries, perhaps 85 are at or near their vineyard sources. Most of the rest are in the population bases of the Puget Sound and Spokane.
This presents an interesting situation because the winemakers are two or more hours away from the fruit they'll eventually turn into world-class wine. Is this important? Apparently not to most of us. Growing your own grapes is not a necessary ingredient to the production of great wine. In fact, most winemakers would prefer to leave the agricultural practices to the experts.
This spring, I spent a few hours at Betz Family Winery in Woodinville. Bob Betz is an executive with Stimson Lane, which owns Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Crest and others, and he and his wife, Cathy, make tiny amounts of red wine on their own in an industrial park a few miles away from Ste. Michelle.
Bob also is a Master of Wine, a degree that's hard to come by and is earned by a small percentage of those who try. He specializes in high-end reds and has a particular interest in Syrah. After we tasted through his current releases, we got into the barrels. Bob pulled samples of Syrah that were picked from four different sites: three from Boushey Vineyard in the Yakima Valley and one from Scott Williams' vineyard on Red Mountain. Bob was animated as he talked about each wine and the grapes they came from. He described the slope, the age of the vines and the technical aspects of the grapes when they were harvested.
Did he grow the grapes? Nope. Would he prefer to? Unlikely. He'd rather leave it to the experts. Does that make him a bad winemaker? Quite the opposite, and his wines are proof in the glass. Are they just like everyone else's Syrah whose grapes come from that vineyard? Absolutely not. That's because he uses different winemaking techniques than the winery down the road: different yeasts, oak styles, aging, blending and a dozen other factors.
From my perspective, there are about 178 stories like this -- and counting -- in Washington. From the largest wineries to the tiny producers making just a few hundred cases each year, each cares about the wine that ends up on our dinner tables and in our cellars. When a guy like Bob Betz is humbled because a customer praises his wine, you know his heart and soul went into that bottle, too, even if he didn't grow the grapes.
Yes, the Washington wine industry has grown at a tremendous rate in the past five years. But we need to keep in mind that even though we're the second-largest wine-producing state in America, we still make just 5 percent of the country's total production.
Homogenization is not on our horizon. And our winemakers have proved they can make truly great and distinctive products no matter how near they are to the grapes.