About 15 years ago, I began traveling to California a few times per year to judge in wine competitions.
Back then, when I was introduced as a Washington wine writer, people would smile at me like I had a learning disability. Then they would pat me on the head and say, “Oh, you’re from Washington? It’s so cute how you guys think you can make wine up there.”
That’s an exaggeration — but only slightly.
Even with the success of such wineries as Leonetti Cellar, Woodward Canyon, L’Ecole No. 41 and Quilceda Creek, there was little respect for Washington wine. Even as the numbers in Washington grew — acreage, wineries, scores — the industry was given little consideration from California.
I was recently told a story by a Washington winery owner who went to University of California-Davis to take some winemaking classes. On the first day, the instructor said fine wine could not be made in Washington.
As this attitude persisted, it also helped drive the Washington wine industry forward, if only to stick it to the naysayers from the south.These days, the temperament is much different. I still head to California a few times per year to judge, but now when I see my friends from Napa, Sonoma, Paso Robles, Temecula and all points in between, their demeanor has radically changed.
“What’s going on in Washington?” they want to know. “What’s new in Walla Walla? Who’s buying property on Red Mountain? How many tasting rooms does Woodinville have now? What should I be drinking?”
It’s not mere idle curiosity. And it’s not exactly fear. It is a thirst to know what’s happening in the next great American wine region. It is out of respect for what has been accomplished.
What has happened in the past 15 years to put Washington in good standing with some of the best wine regions in the world? Plenty.
The first true shot across the bow was Quilceda Creek’s 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon earning a perfect 100-point score with Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate. Prior to that, only 15 American wines had earned perfect scores from the venerable newsletter. Then it happened again, then a third time, and then a fourth. Only five wines worldwide had ever earned consecutive 100-point scores. How many have received four in six years? Maybe only one.
In 2009, Wine Spectator — the planet’s largest and most important wine publication — shocked the wine world when it named Columbia Crest’s 2005 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon as its wine of the year. Columbia Crest! A $25 wine from Washington was better than the tens of thousands of wines the periodical tasted that year.
These were the two seminal moments. Some shook their heads, while others paid attention to the fact that something was going on in Washington.
The outside world has long nibbled around the edges in Washington, making occasional investments. In 2001, Constellation bought into the Northwest by purchasing Columbia Winery and Covey Run (along with Idaho’s Ste. Chapelle). The New York-based wine giant later acquired Hogue Cellars, along with several British Columbia wineries. In 2008, Ascentia Wine Estates in Healdsburg, Calif., bought Columbia, Covey Run and Ste. Chapelle. By 2012, Ascentia was imploding and sold Columbia and Covey to Gallo.
And now the floodgates are beginning to open from California.
In 2007, the owners of Pine Ridge Vineyards in Napa Valley’s Stags Leap District (which also owns Archery Summit in Oregon), bought land adjacent to Champoux Vineyards in the Horse Heaven Hills and planted Double Canyon Vineyard. Its first Cabernet Sauvignon from that site was released last year.
In 2008, Foley Wine Group from California bought Three Rivers Winery in Walla Walla.
A little over a year ago, Cakebread Cellars of Napa Valley announced it would launch Mullan Road, a brand using Walla Walla Valley grapes.
Last fall, Duckhorn Vineyards in Napa Valley announced it was launching Canvasback, a brand using grapes from Red Mountain. In November, the CEO of Duckhorn came to Washington to buy land at an auction. He — and every other bidder there — lost out when the owner of the Vancouver Canucks hockey club bought all the land. But Duckhorn got its piece of Red Mountain a month later, when it purchased 20 acres of prime land high on Red Mountain.
Foley. Gallo. Cakebread. Duckhorn. Pine Ridge. Big names in California wine — all now a part of the Washington wine landscape. They are among the first, but they will not be last.
On a weekly basis, I hear rumors about more California wineries sniffing around the Columbia Valley. Why? Because Washington has proven itself, especially with Cabernet Sauvignon.
And land here is relatively inexpensive. Even $50,000 an acre for undeveloped Red Mountain land that has grown only sagebrush (and maybe marijuana) is a bargain compared with what has been paid for Napa’s precious soil.
Washington is now an important part of the discussion. It has earned respect. It is finally a player.
-- Andy Perdue is the editor and publisher of Great Northwest Wine and wine columnist for The Seattle Times. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com.