In the 14 years we’ve been conducting our annual Washington Wine Awards, we’ve seen various themes emerge. But this year, there was no strict formula for success among the winners: The white wine of the year comes from industry vets; the red from a winemaker in that transition period from ingénue to established star; the rosé from a winery not even 5 years old. The winning wines come from vineyards located in just about every grape-growing region in Washington, from Red Mountain to the Columbia Gorge. It’s proof of the strength of Washington’s current wine scene, where award-winning wines can come from all corners.
PLANT POWER: Much of the best wine made by Mike Sharon (left) and Marty Clubb of L’Ecole No. 41 comes from this special Ferguson Vineyard, planted in fractured basalt and overlooking the Walla Walla Valley
WINEMAKERS OF THE YEAR
Marty Clubb and Mike Sharon
L'Ecole No. 41
At Walla Walla stalwart L’Ecole No. 41, Marty Clubb’s title (in addition to owner) is managing winemaker. Mike Sharon’s title? Winemaker. So, who does what? Clubb explains: “I take the viticulture lead and manage all our vineyards and grape growing. I also take the lead on coordinating which wines are produced and in what quantities. Mike is responsible for the management of all winemaking, cellar work, laboratory and bottling activities. We coordinate at harvest time, with me taking the lead in the field, Mike is in charge of the grapes once they arrive at the winery.”
This dual-winemaker model has been growing in popularity among Washington wineries in recent years, but L’Ecole has been at it for some time, with Clubb (who has been with the winery since 1989) and Sharon (since 1996) assuming their current roles back in 2006. The flexibility of the model has been a prominent factor in the winery’s growth, allowing Clubb to carefully manage the development of L’Ecole’s new estate Ferguson Vineyard, which was planted in 2008 and yielded near-immediate acclaim, taking home the International Trophy for Best Bordeaux Blend in the World from Decanter (a prestigious Europe-based wine publication) for the 2011 vintage of L’Ecole’s Ferguson Vineyard blend, among the highest honors ever bestowed on a Washington winery. “Mike and I collaborate on nearly all aspects of winemaking,” says Clubb. What a fruitful collaboration it has been.
MINDFUL MAKER: Head winemaker Ali Mayfield, of Walla Walla-based The Walls, has built a reputation on her excellent whites, including four currently available Chardonnays
WINEMAKER TO WATCH
The way Ali Mayfield describes her state of mind during harvest season—“To be present and think each decision through with respect to the fruit; one change will have a ripple effect on each step to follow”—is equally applicable to her winemaking career in the Walla Walla Valley. After an influential 2005 meeting with the late Stan Clarke (longtime associate director of Walla Walla Community College’s Institute for Enology and Viticulture and a legendary mentor), Mayfield enrolled in that school’s enology and viticulture program, and parlayed it into harvest internships at a pair of highly regarded Walla Walla wineries, Corliss Estates and Long Shadows Vintners, followed by a full-time winemaking position with Corliss.
Mayfield is head winemaker for Walla Walla–based The Walls, a position she has held since the winery’s founding in 2014. She has built a reputation for producing thrilling white wines (no easy feat, considering white winemaking is more technically challenging than red), and sure enough, the current Walls lineup includes four different Chardonnays. But Mayfield’s reds have also been on the receiving end of acclaim in the past few years, including a win in our 2018 wine awards for Stanley Groovy, her Portuguese-inspired blend.
SOMETHING TO DRINK? Seattle’s preeminent steakhouse Metropolitan Grill may be best known for the meat, but sommelier Aaron Wood-Snyderman makes sure Washington wine gets the table space it deserves
SOMMELIER OF THE YEAR
Metropolitan Grill, downtown Seattle
“I have been incredibly fortunate to have found amazing people to learn from,” says Aaron Wood-Snyderman when asked about his career arc, “and I’ve been smart enough to shut my mouth and open my ears and learn as much as I can.” One of the most influential of those “amazing people” is master sommelier Thomas Price, who first nudged Wood-Snyderman toward wine back when Wood-Snyderman was employed at old Pioneer Square haunt F.X. McRory’s (1997–2004) and much more focused on bourbon; Price eventually hired him to work at Metropolitan Grill in 2011. Another of those influential people is Cyril Frechier, who mentored Wood-Snyderman during his time at Campagne (2004–2011).
While Wood-Snyderman’s wine list at the Met is broad, covering every important wine-producing region in the world, there is a real emphasis on Washington wines, and that is no accident. “If we were going to hang our hat on something,” he says, “it would be Washington wine.” This focus culminated in a Wine Spectator Grand Award in 2018, and Wood-Snyderman takes a little extra pride in the title of the article: “Metropolitan Grill: A steak house that highlights Washington reds.” “I can’t tell you how happy I was to bring Washington wine a Grand Award–winning wine list that unequivocally proclaims that the wines from this state deserve the same sort of attention that the wines from all other great growing regions deserve.”
ART ATTACK: It may be uncouth to buy wine based on label alone, but this is one you can bet is backed by exceptional wine in the bottle
The Secret Squirrel Project—a sister label of Corliss Estates and Tranche Cellars—launched in 2016 with a 2012 vintage and has taken Seattle by storm in the few years since. Certainly some of the winery’s success can be attributed to the quality of the juice inside; after all, Secret Squirrel has had a winning wine in three of our past four wine awards (2016, 2018 and again this year with its 2015 Bordeaux Red, which took home top honors in the Everyday Bordeaux Red Blend category). But the clever label that prominently features the eponymous rodent staring intensely at the consumer through a wine-red masquerade mask probably hasn’t hurt sales either.
The Corliss/Tranche team spent more than two years developing the design, engaging Gauge Branding, a Napa- and Chicago-based design firm. “It took a long time,” recalls winemaker Andrew Trio, “but we’re really happy with the results.” As Trio notes, a thoughtfully designed label is not only important because it looks great; it also “reflects the underlying quality and attention to detail that we show through our entire grape-growing and winemaking process.”
FAMILY AFFAIR: This stunning Red Mountain vineyard is owned by Vicky (left) and Scott Williams; Scott’s father planted the first grapes there, and their son JJ is now the third generation to run the vineyard
VINEYARD OF THE YEAR
Kiona Vinedyards' Heart of the Hill Vineyard
The accumulated wisdom of three decades of farming on Red Mountain went into Kiona’s Heart of the Hill Vineyard. The site is owned by Scott and Vicky Williams, and it was Scott’s father, John Williams (along with Jim Holmes), who planted the original Kiona estate vineyard in 1975, back when Red Mountain was an unassuming sagebrush slope. In 2006, the Williamses began planting Heart of the Hill, a process that continued piecemeal until its completion in 2014. There are now 148.5 acres under vine, on a site that JJ Williams (Scott and Vicky’s son, and the third generation of Williamses to work on Red Mountain) calls “ideally situated on the slope.”
The family has bet big on Bordeaux varieties (they represent 94% of total planted acreage), and especially on Cabernet Sauvignon (81%), which has proven itself perfectly suited to this part of the Red Mountain slope, located just downslope from Col Solare Vineyard and just upslope from Ciel du Cheval Vineyard. And that bet is already paying dividends, with luminaries such as Betz Family Winery, Abeja and Long Shadows happily purchasing fruit from this young, exceedingly promising site right in the heart of Red Mountain.
BOSS OF THE BOTTLE: Erin Lyman and her partner have only owned Champion Wine Cellars for the last two years, but it’s already a Greenwood claim to fame
RETAIL STEWARD OF THE YEAR
Bestowed to an individual who has proven to be a passionate, engaged and dedicated ambassador of Washington state wine by continually educating herself or himself and raising awareness of Washington state wine.
Champion Wine Cellars
Among wine sellers, Champion Wine Cellars has some of the deepest roots in Washington wine. The first chapter of the story begins in 1969, when a group of business professionals opened the original Champion shop in downtown at a time when the Washington wine industry was barely a concept. Chapter two begins in 2017, when Erin Lyman and Suthap Manivong purchased the soon-to-be-demolished shop and relocated it to its current home in Greenwood.
While Lyman is relatively new to retail, she is a seasoned veteran of the Washington wine scene, especially on the restaurant side. Stints at the Washington Athletic Club under Doug Zellers (now general manager at Ray’s Boathouse), at Purple Café and Wine Bar under Chris Horn, and at Café Campagne under Cyril Frechier and Daisley Gordon were all influential to Lyman, a native of Honolulu who moved to Seattle in 2005. She distills her philosophy at Champion into two main tenets: First, she wants to be “a small shop that supports small guys,” with a special emphasis on family-owned estates and wineries that focus on sustainability and responsible practices; second, she wants to focus on wines that offer compelling value. As Lyman puts it, “Wine is of the people and for the people.”
DRINKING PARTNERS: At RN74, wine director Jeff Lindsay-Thorsen (left) and sommelier Paul Swanson have a deep list of recommended wines from Washington wineries
BEST RESTAURANT FOR ENJOYING WASHINGTON WINE
A Puget Sound-area restaurant that hasn’t won in this category before and that offers exceptional opportunities to taste Washington state wine through Washington-wine-focused lists, unique tasting events and a professional, educated wine service staff.
RN74 is the lone Pacific Northwest outpost of Mina Group, internationally acclaimed chef Michael Mina’s restaurant management company, which stretches from Mina’s California base of operations to such far-flung locales as Dubai. The name refers to Route Nationale 74, a highway that runs directly through the Burgundy region of France. It’s no surprise that the restaurant features a broad selection of Burgundian wines, but under the leadership of RN74 wine director Jeff Lindsay-Thorsen (who also owns award-winning Woodinville winery W.T. Vintners) and sommeliers Paul Swanson and Jim Provance II, the wine list insistently highlights a wide swath of Washington producers.
The “Featured Washington Red” section of the RN74 wine list is nine pages long and includes informative blurbs about each of the more than 30 wineries highlighted. In addition to current releases, the RN74 list also presents a wonderful selection of older Washington bottles. For example, a quick glance at the Andrew Will section of the list displays more than 20 bottles from vintages in the 1990s. It’s a playground for enthusiasts of our state’s vinous history.
TASTEMAKER: Director of liquids for Heavy Restaurant Group (and Seattle magazine wine awards judge) Chris Horn provides both support and context for Washington wines
WALTER CLORE AWARD
Presented to an individual in any aspect of the wine industry who has demonstrated a significant dedication to the advancement of the Washington state wine industry as an ambassador, mentor and champion of Washington wines.
A recent version of the encyclopedic wine list at Seattle’s Purple Café and Wine Bar displays the qualities that make Heavy Restaurant Group’s director of liquids, Chris Horn, special. (Heavy owns all three Purple Café locations, as well as seven other Seattle-area restaurants.)
First, there’s Horn’s writing style, at once intelligent, playful and insistently unpretentious. Of the grape variety Gamay Noir, he writes: “Pinot Noir is clearly the Harry Potter of red wines. Which makes Gamay Noir Ron Weasley. Not the chosen one at the center of attention, but still quite capable of doing magical things.”
Second, there’s his unwavering support of Washington wines—carefully cellared older wines from established Washington wineries as well as compelling wines from newbies—which can feel almost countercultural among the Seattle sommelier set.
Finally, he puts Washington wines into a world context, mostly via a series of wine flights. For example, a recent Chenin Blanc flight included one from Washington, one from Vouvray in France and another from South Africa.
Horn has been at Purple Café since 2006, a gig that followed multiyear stints at Salty’s on Alki and Wild Ginger downtown. But his first job in wine was busing tables at a now-shuttered University District Italian restaurant. As he recounted to us after he was named Sommelier of the Year for our 2015 wine awards, “Every night at the end of the shift, there would be a plate of food and a bunch of opened wine, and I remember thinking, ‘Man, I have to make this my life.’”
Editor’s note: This article has been updated since print publication.