The Best New Washington Wines
Washington wine is coming of age in a big way, with a tally of more than 750 wineries, top scorers in the national media, and exciting educational winemaking programs in Seattle and Walla Walla that are bringing young talent to the dynamic and ever-evolving vineyards and wineries in our state. The old guard is branching out to new projects (some crossing the border from Oregon to make wines with Washington grapes), and the younger generation is stepping up and bringing new energy to family businesses. Behold, the top new releases that best tell the evolving story of Washington wines.
The Trend: Doing Double Duty
In the past few years, several seasoned Washington winemakers have gone out on their own, starting new labels to follow their winemaking dreams. For example, from Woodinville’s DeLille Cellars, one of the grand dame wineries in the state, former co-winemaker Chris Peterson and partner Marty Taucher started their own label, Avennia, whose first releases from the 2010 and 2011 vintages are gaining fans for its elegant reds.
Photo: Sarah Goedhart of Ambassador Wines checks color, courtesy of Ambassador Wines
In 2008, industry master winemaker Chris Upchurch from DeLille Cellars planted a vineyard from scratch on Red Mountain for his Kirkland-based eponymous label (made at DeLille), making it one of the first low-input viticulture and enology (LIVE) vineyards in that small American Viticultural Area (AVA). His first release, a 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, is a stunner, with balanced deep red fruits and fine tannins, and notes of chocolate and dried herbs. upchurchvineyard.com
Must-try bottle: 2011 Upchurch Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, $60
After producing beautiful Rhône-style wines using Grenache, Syrah and Viognier, and exploring the reaches of single-variety wines using more obscure grapes with roots in the Rhône, such as Counoise and Mourvèdre for reds, and Picpoul and Grenache Blanc for whites, Doug McCrea of Olympia-based McCrea Cellars decided to start from scratch. With the Salida label, also made at the McCrea winery in Olympia, he is continuing his fascination with odd varieties, now of the Spanish ilk, such as Tempranillo, Albariño, Granacha, Monastrell, Graciano, Garnacha Blanca and the (just-planted) Portugese Touriga Nacional. You can enjoy a little trip to the Continent by tasting these delicious wines at the Salida Wine Bar in Yelm. salidawine.com
Must-have bottle: 2011 Tempranillo, Yakima Valley, $24
The ineffable Peter Dow, former owner of Kirkland’s Cafe Juanita turned winemaker, has branched out from his mini-cult winery, Cavatappi, in Kirkland, and started Crane Prairie, balancing herbal character, acidity and moderate tannins. And to top it off, the fact that Dow can put this good of a wine together at this price is pretty amazing.
Must-try bottle: 2009 Crane Prairie Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley, $9.99
Photo: The stunning view from Lady Hill Winery, courtesy of Lady Hill Winery
The Trend: Movin’ on Up
Washington wine wizards aren’t the only ones branching out. Several Oregon winemakers have been so drawn to the luscious fruit from our state that they’ve started ventures here. David O’Reilly of Owen Roe, based in Newburg, Oregon, has built a new winery in Union Gap in the Yakima Valley, while continuing his Oregon winery. Acclaimed Oregon Pinot Noir winemaker Ken Wright created Tyrus Evan, a second label devoted, in part, to Walla Walla fruit, used in some of his delicious Syrahs.
Most recently, Andrew Rich, who has been making wines in Carlton, Oregon, using both Oregon and Washington fruit for years under his eponymous label, also started another label called Tabula Rasa, featuring affordable wines that include a luscious, balanced red Rhône-style blend of Syrah, Mourvèdre and Grenache. Each year, the blend is different (he makes one rosé and one red per year), but it is always a great value and a well-made wine. Delicious with food, this wine is showing up on restaurant glass pour lists and grocery store shelves as well. andrewrichwines.com
Must-try bottle: 2009 Tabula Rasa Red, Columbia Valley, $20
Lady Hill Winery
Another Oregon winery taken with Washington fruit is Lady Hill Winery, which opened in St. Paul, Oregon, in November 2013. Using grapes from some of Washington’s best vineyards—Red Willow (our 2013 Vineyard of the Year) and Slide Mountain in Yakima Valley, and Tapteil on Red Mountain—Lady Hill makes wines it calls “True Northwest.” Rather than marking a clear separation between Oregon and Washington, Lady Hill makes wines from the historic “Oregon Country,” which stretched into Washington and even British Columbia before the state borders were set. Owners Jerry and Elaine Owen have a family of one son and seven daughters (hence Lady Hill), and several labels for various styles of wines. The Radicle Vine label (the name refers to the first root sprouting from a grape seed) features affordable wines from the Columbia Valley, including a red wine blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Barbera, a juicy and spicy wine. ladyhill.net
Must-try bottle: 2012 Radicle Vine Red Blend, $18
Photo: Michael Savage of Savage Grace Wines in Woodinvile, courtesy of Savage Grace Wines
The Trend: A Good Day for Chardonnay
It turns out that a lot of winemakers have a passion for Chardonnay. In the past three years, Woodinville’s Chris Gorman and Walla Walla’s Charles Smith (of their individual eponymous wineries) have created labels focusing on this grape alone. Henry Smilowicz of Woodinville’s Array makes only Chardonnay—four different styles that show the range of elegance this chameleon grape can reveal.
The Standout: Savage Grace
One Chardonnay producer of note who came onto the scene just this past year is Michael Savage of Woodinville-based Savage Grace Wines (named for his wife, Grace). Like many winemakers, Michael Savage wants to make wines that express the place from whence they come. He focuses on fruit from some of the cooler sites in Washington—the Yakima Valley AVA’s Red Willow Vineyard for the Sauvignon Blanc, the Rattlesnake Hills AVA for the Cabernet Franc and Syrah, and the Columbia Gorge AVA for the Riesling, Pinot Noir and a wonderful Chardonnay. In the Gorge, the long days and cool nights let the fruit develop a complexity and acidity similar to those valued in the best regions of Burgundy. This Chardonnay is soft and luscious, but crisp and light as well. A truly special wine. savagegracewines.com
Must-try bottle: 2012 Savage Grace Chardonnay, Celilo Vineyard, Columbia Gorge, $21.99
The Trend: Négociant Wines
Following in the footsteps of 19th-century wine sellers in France, luxe wine retailers are now bottling their own wines.
The Standout: Ded.reckoning
Doug Charles of Compass Wines, an Anacortes retailer specializing in hard-to-find wines (with a significant focus on Washington vino), has access to some of the best wines in the world—and top-notch customers, as well. It was a natural next step for Charles to create a label of his own, which is called ded.reckoning. “Yes, we have spellcheck,” Charles says. “We choose the theory that [the name] is an evolution of ‘deduced reckoning,’ not [a] reference to a corpse.” The name does refer to the practice of finding one’s location through the use of a compass only, rather than the stars or landmarks. Charles works with some of Washington’s finest winemakers, such as Scott Greer, Paul Golitzin, Chris Camarda and Gordy Venneri, to produce wines that are almost exclusively available at Compass Wines and through the ded.reckoning website. Chris Figgins of Leonetti Cellar crafted The Rancher, a classic Bordeaux-style blend from Figgins’ Walla Walla Valley estate, with aromatic floral notes, red raspberry and blackberry bramble, and spice notes. dedreckoning.com or compasswines.com
Must-try bottle: 2011 ded.reckoning The Rancher, Walla Walla Valley, $59.99
Photo: Hillary Sjolund of Sonoris in Richland, courtesy of Hillary Sjolund
The Trend: Women of the Vine
Women have always been deeply involved in the wine world, as far back as les veuves, or the widows, who took over family wineries when their husbands died, such as Veuve Clicquot and Veuve Amiot in France. In the past few years in Washington, women-owned wineries, such as DaMa Wines (Mary Tuuri Derby) in Walla Walla and the spirited Working Girl Wines in Port Angeles, have been popping up.
The Standout: Sonoris
Of recent note is Richland-based Sonoris Wines, owned by winemaker Hillary Sjolund, who created a winery to explore her passion and honor her family. The former winemaker for Distefano Winery, Sjolund started as a premed major at the University of California–Davis. That was until she took a class in the enology department and was hooked; she has been working in labs at wineries since she was 20. Her labels feature family members (grandmother Verna Mae’s high school picture adorns one), and she relies on family, especially her father, for advice. But this talented winemaker creates wine with an elegant vision all her own. The Mia Corsa, a red blend of 63 percent Petit Verdot from Walla Walla’s Blue Mountain Estate Vineyard, and 37 percent Merlot from Red Mountain Vineyard. This lush wine shows the earthiness of the Walla Walla Valley, balanced with soft vanilla and dark cherry notes. Facebook, “Sonoris Wines”
Must-try bottle: 2010 Sonoris Mia Corsa Red Blend, Columbia Valley, $40
Photo: Seville artist Salustiano, whose “Instante de Eternidad” appears on Upchurch’s Cabernet Sauvignon label
The Trend: Group On! Partnership Wineries
Since the nascent days of Washington wine, people who have done well in medicine, business, law and other professions have created partnerships to pursue their collective passion for wine. But that trend has become even more prevalent in the past decade, with numerous small wineries, such as Corliss Estates, Wilridge, Wineglass Cellars and Fidelitas, popping up with Boeing engineers, financiers and lawyers at their helms.
The Standout: Ambassador Wines of Washington
Often, these partnerships have the resources to hire the best, and Red Mountain–based Ambassador Wines is a superb example. Launched by lawyer Jeff Smyth (with two others) and now run by Smyth with former Washington Mutual executives Michael Towers and Michael Amato and WaMu officer Allison Engman, Ambassador hired one of Washington’s most in-demand vineyard managers, Dick Boushey. They also brought on award-winning winemaker Sarah Goedhart, daughter of Tom and Ann-Marie Hedges (to whom she recently sold the Goedhart Family label she started with her husband, Brent). Ambassador’s goal is to make outstanding Red Mountain wine, and the vineyard has a prime neighborhood to grow in, situated just below Col Solare and near Fidelitas, Hedges, Hightower and Ciel du Cheval vineyards. The wines, such as this Cabernet Sauvignon, are big and bold examples of Red Mountain fruit, and show the restraint that only a winemaker like Goedhart, who has dealt with this intense fruit for years, can practice. ambassadorwinery.com
Must-have bottle: 2010 Ambassador Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Mountain, $35
The Trend: The Next Generation
Leonetti, Hedges and many other Washington wineries have spawned second generations, some branching off entirely on their own, others creating second labels in-house.
The Standout: Lone Birch
The Miller family has been farming for four generations and growing grapes for three in the Prosser area of Yakima Valley; and in 2005, they started Airfield Estates, featuring delicious, well-priced wines. Since 2009, son—and Airfield Estates winemaker—Marcus Miller has been making wine for the family’s new label, Lone Birch, named after a 70-year-old tree planted by his great-grandfather. Miller spent time working in wineries in New Zealand, and his wines reflect the fresh, fruity, food-friendly style for which the Kiwis are known. The Chardonnay, with just 10 percent neutral oak, retains its acidity and fresh citrus flavors (similar to wines fermented in stainless steel, an approach that is becoming popular in Washington), highlighting the beautiful fruit from the Miller vineyard. An excellent wine with fish, poultry and vegetables. lonebirchwines.com
Must-have bottle: 2012 Lone Birch Chardonnay, Yakima Valley, $11.99