Washington's wine industry has reached a tipping point. It can no longer be called a burgeoning industry. Rather, it has matured into a small but important global region.
Several milestones and developments along Washington’s historical timeline have helped the state reach this critical juncture, including:
• Quilceda Creek Vintners' multiple perfect 100-point scores from The Wine Advocate.
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• The Columbia Crest 2005 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon earning the No. 1 position on Wine Spectator’s 2009 list in the top 100 wines in the world.
• Ste. Michelle Wine Estates’ rise not only as the dominant wine producer in the Pacific Northwest but also a vital player on the global stage. This is from winemaking as well as becoming the exclusive U.S. importer and distributor of top labels around the globe.
• The arrival of several important wine producers in Washington, including Constellation Brands, E&J Gallo, Duckhorn, Banfi and Cakebread, to name a few.
• The impressive growth of “made in Washington” wineries, including Precept Wine, Charles Smith Wines, Maryhill Winery, Hedges Cellars, Desert Wind Winery and Barnard Griffin.
• Fascinating international collaborations at Ste. Michelle (Col Solare and Eroica) and Long Shadows (seven international winemaking stars working with Washington grapes).
• Washington vineyards surpassing 50,000 acres, and Washington wineries growing beyond 800.
• The establishment of large collections of wineries in Woodinville, Walla Walla and the Yakima Valley.
• Construction of Washington State University’s Wine Science Center.
And while these are highlights, something deeper is going on: an understanding of the land, the vines, the grapes and the winemaking behind them.
This struck me as I spoke this year to winemakers who have moved north from California wine country in the past several vintages and how they had to adjust their winemaking techniques and styles from what they were used to in Sonoma County or Napa Valley.
I first noticed this as I went through my notes of Bob Bertheau’s top-end Cabernet Sauvignons. Bertheau worked for a couple of decades in Sonoma County before heading home to Seattle to take over the head winemaking role at Chateau Ste. Michelle.
Bertheau is the first to admit that his reserve and vineyard-designated Cabs from his first three or four vintages were good but not nearly at the level of quality he can now achieve. For the past several vintages, it’s easy to see Bertheau has his style dialed in. He might walk more vineyard rows than any winemaker in Washington, especially from the weeks leading up to harvest until the last grapes are brought in.
Understanding the fruit flavors, the acidity and the tannin structure have been the greatest challenge — and now his finest reward as he becomes more and more comfortable.
In 2010, Linda Trotta arrived from Sonoma County, where she was a head winemaker for most of the prior 20 years. One of her first purchases when she took the head winemaking job at Swiftwater Cellars in Cle Elum, Wash., was a pallet of tartaric acid, a necessary additive in California, where grapes often arrive at wineries with little natural acidity.
When Trotta left her position at Swiftwater this fall, that pallet of tartaric acid was intact because she discovered she didn't need it.
Stories like these abound across Washington wine country. Many of the state's early winemakers learned their craft at the University of California-Davis. But what has been taught within America's most hallowed winemaking halls applies primarily to the Golden State. Winemakers who come north have found they need to relearn their techniques because the climate in Washington's Columbia Valley is so vastly different.
The most recent example of greatness at a global level occurred this summer, when L’Ecole No. 41’s 2011 Ferguson Vineyard was rated the best Bordeaux-style high-end wine in the world by none other than revered Decanter magazine in London. That this occurred using grapes from the challenging 2011 vintage was remarkable. That this was the first wine to be produced with owner Marty Clubb's newest vineyard is downright incredible.
To me, this indicates that grape growers and winemakers are more easily able to recognize the right grape varieties for the right land. We're seeing this not only in the Walla Walla Valley (on both sides of the state line), but also on Red Mountain, in the Yakima Valley, in the Horse Heaven Hills and in the Ancient Lakes.
Now that Washington is a full member of the world wine fraternity, the expectations are higher than ever. It’s a little like the New York Yankees making the playoffs: It's only news when they don’t.
With the near-perfect 2012 reds hitting the market and the warm 2013 and 2014 vintages lined up behind them in barrel, the bright lights shining on Washington should be kind for at least the next three years. And during that time, we will see more wineries opening and more investments from around the world. And that will shine the light even brighter.
Hold on for the ride.