This is a good time to be a fan of Pacific Northwest wines. Make that a great time. Even the best of times.
As Wine Press Northwest enters its fifth year of publication, I am amazed and inspired by how many good wines our region produces.
In this issue, Wine Press Northwest celebrates top wines and wineries. For the first time, we're announcing a Pacific Northwest Winery of the Year award. Some might be surprised it's Columbia Crest, a winery known for making a lot of good wine. The Northwest's largest winery just reached annual production of 1.5 million cases. That's 18 million bottles of wine, a magnificent feat when you consider the quality and price of the end product.
We also celebrate the "best of the best" in our second annual Platinum judging, in which we blind tasted 174 gold medal winners. You can imagine my feeling of vindication that Columbia Crest's eight gold medal winners showed so well among their prize-winning peers, including a Platinum for its $11 Grand Estates Cab and an unprecedented Double Platinum for its $25 Reserve Cab.
But I want to talk about more than Columbia Crest.
We are in a truly remarkable time and place. As wine historians likely would tell you, it is unusual that so many good things could come together in one region for so long.
In more famous wine regions like Northern California, Bordeaux, Burgundy and Chianti, bad things can happen to grapes, including rain, phylloxera, diseases and more. And bad things happen in the Northwest, too. Often, it's weather, be it rain in Western Oregon, harsh winters in Eastern Washington and Idaho or cool autumns (or worse yet, warm winters) in B.C.'s Okanagan Valley.
But we've had pretty good luck the past several vintages. Western Oregon has been the most amazing, with four straight years of good weather during harvest, leading to one of the longest streaks of fortune in the region's winemaking history.
In Washington's Columbia Valley, one must go back to 1993 to find a difficult vintage. (Some would argue that 1995 wasn't great, and certainly it was uneven. But many wonderful wines came out of that vintage.)
Beyond the weather, Northwest grape growers and winemakers are learning how to get the most from the vines. They're using the good times to prepare for the bad. The most vivid example is in the Willamette Valley, where industry leaders are pushing the envelope of viticulture to promote ripeness early enough to avoid autumn rains. Led by such mavericks as Ken Wright of Carlton, Ore., vintners are doing everything they can from spring to fall to ensure their Pinot Noirs are expressions of the grape and not necessarily the weather.
Site selection is a major reason for the success. In the wine industry's fledgling years, little thought was put into what grapes went where. Today, older vineyards' success largely are a result of serendipity and hard work. We're discovering great places to grow grapes, including the Black Sage Bench in the Okanagan, Red Mountain and the Wahluke Slope in Washington, the Sunny Slope area west of Boise and fascinating microclimates in Oregon's Rogue and Umpqua valleys.
And oh the winemakers we have!
We've been blessed over the past quarter-century with a number of great winemakers. The talent pool today is deep. A journey along the back roads of Oregon's Yamhill County reveal so many tiny producers crafting wonderfully silky Pinot Noirs. And if big, jammy reds are your thing, the Walla Walla Valley is laden with small wineries making huge Cabs, Merlots and Syrahs.
But we'd be foolish to limit ourselves to the glittering stars because with nearly 450 wineries in our midst, we must take advantage of the opportunity to explore lesser-known regions. Southern Oregon is a prime example, as are Vancouver Island, Idaho and Spokane. And let's not overlook the venerable Yakima Valley, where the modern Washington wine industry was born.
The Northwest has emerged as a world-class wine region and has been able to do in a quarter-century what it took California and Europe much longer to accomplish, thanks primarily to the decades -- sometimes centuries -- of work and experimentation by wine producers and grape growers in those regions.
So let's take advantage of our embarrassment of riches. Let's enjoy the great Pinot Gris, Cabs, Pinot Noirs, Syrahs and more. Let's explore lesser-known varieties such as Viognier and Sangiovese and revisit such old friends as Riesling and Gewuerztraminer. Let's celebrate the small winemaker and marvel at what the larger producers are able to accomplish.
Let's toast the grape and those who nurture it from the soil to the glass.