When my wife and I started tasting wine seriously about 20 years ago, we usually had to travel for miles across Eastern Washington to visit five or six wineries. Now in Woodinville, there are dozens. What’s happened?
Several factors are at work in the Northwest. First, our region is creating new wineries by the score every year. When I came to the Tri-Cities in 1976, there were six bonded wineries in Washington. Now there are more than 690, not counting second- and third-label wines made by the same winery. And frankly, that number is likely out of date, since it was calculated early this year.
At the recent Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers convention, one of the industry folks I talked with said the total has passed 700. Oregon’s growth has been almost as rapid. In 1976, that state had 11 wineries. Now there are about 550, with the largest number in the Willamette Valley west of Interstate 5. In both states, setting a firm count is futile, because new wineries open every week or two.
Idaho and British Columbia haven’t seen such explosive growth, but both are still developing vineyards and other infrastructure needed to support more growth.
This rapid growth has naturally created clusters of wineries in grape-growing regions, but it’s not the sole factor. In Washington’s Walla Walla County, you can hardly drive a few miles in the countryside or walk a few blocks in downtown Walla Walla without encountering several wineries. It’s become the highly touted center of the Northwest’s thriving wine industry, even though the Pinot Noir fanatics in the Willamette might disagree. This county with a population of fewer than 60,000 is home to more than 110 wineries.
That’s because Walla Walla wines are perceived to be among the world’s finest and thus can command the highest prices. Most of the grapes crushed each fall in the county come from elsewhere, but perception is what counts here.
Wine buffs who spend a day or two touring the wineries clustered at the Walla Walla airport will find plenty to like at the 20-plus wineries, which include highly rated Dunham Cellars and Five Star Cellars. The airport property attracted them by offering inexpensive facilities, and its wineries have prospered because as a group they attract far more visitors than any single one could individually.
The Northwest’s premier “wine park,” though, is Woodinville, which about 70 wineries call home and where dozens more have opened tasting rooms that often draw larger crowds than their wine-making facilities and tasting rooms in Eastern Washington.
Seattle, as a major population center whose residents and visitors enjoy fine wine and food, created the possibility for nearby Woodinville’s explosive growth.
It’s the same principle fast-food restaurants discovered a few decades ago: Build together at a busy intersection or highway exit, and crowds will come. Woodinville was the earliest, anchored by Chateau Ste. Michelle and Associated Vintners, which later became Columbia Winery.
Another early, although smaller cluster, was created about 30 years ago in southwest Richland, Wash., when Barnard Griffin, Bookwalter and Tagaris began building on Tulip Lane, a street made famous by Barnard Griffin’s wine label. All three have prospered by offering a different selection of wines, food and entertainment.
Prosser, Wash., also is home to a winery park with some of its tenants in small incubator-type tasting rooms and sharing winemaking facilities. The cluster of wineries just off Interstate 82 includes such longtime Yakima Valley labels as Apex and Thurston Wolfe, plus relative newcomers Coyote Canyon, Millbrandt Cellars and Airfield Estates.
Such successes naturally are prompting plans for similar developments. In the Tri-Cities, for example, the Port of Kennewick and City of Kennewick are partnering to create a similar facility along the Columbia River just inland from the port’s successful Clover Island redevelopment that includes a hotel, restaurants and brew pub. An added attraction for wineries that locate there will be a city- and port-funded effluent treatment system.
The evidence that clustering is working well in the wine industry likely will put several more plans on drawing boards across the Northwest. It’s an exciting concept for wineries and can foster related businesses, attract more wine tourists and pump money into existing hotels, restaurants and specialty shops. And cities, counties and ports see a potential for more tax dollars.
Wine words: Batonnage and sur lie
It’s spring, so it must be time for another trip down the linguistic lane that leads to France. So, imagine you’ve made a perfectly lovely Chardonnay that’s been resting in its oak barrels for a time, but some little thing just seems to be lacking. A thoughtful sip after extracting a sample from the bonde (bunghole), and but of course! It’s time for a little batonnage (using a steel rod with a paddle-shaped end, now usually driven by an electric drill) to stir up the lees — alias barrel sediment, which contains fine particles of dormant, dying or dead yeast.
Chardonnay left to age sur lie, with a little judicious stirring, can develop an amazing toasty and hazel nut-like flavor and aroma. The process also can help create a creaminess and freshness and soften the oak flavors from the barrel. If done well, the result is a Chardonnay that might compare to the famed wines of Montrachet.
In sparkling wine, or Champagne, if the wine is made in that region of France, sur lie aging, minus the batonnage and plus riddling, helps create the toasty, yeasty aromas that sparkling wine buffs adore. Sur lie aging also is commonly used in Muscadet wines of the Loire Valley to add the same complexities to that region’s wines made from Melon de Bourgogne grapes.
--Ken Robertson, the retired editor of the Tri-City Herald, has been sipping Northwest wines and writing about them since 1976.