Best Washington State Red Wines 2011: Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Blends, Syrah and Grenache

From merlots to grenaches, our picks for the very best red wines in Washington state.

By Shannon Borg and Leslie Kelly


March 18, 2011

Merlot winners


Personalities, Places and Trends

Best White Wines

2011 Best Washington Wines Directory


[$20 or under]
Wines of Substance 2008 Merlot, Columbia Valley, $20

You don’t need a passing grade in chemistry to appreciate the attraction of this substantial wine from a geeky cool trio of guys behind this Walla Walla–based winery: Jason Huntley and Jamie Brown from Waters Winery, and Greg Harrington from Gramercy Cellars. It comes on spicy in the glass and explodes with lush berries and black cherry on the palate.

[over $20] –TIE!
Fidelitas 2008 Merlot, Columbia Valley, $25

The lone 2008 in the impressive lineup of Merlot award finalists comes on strong and sexy, its intense, jammy dark fruit character punctuated by earthy, herbal notes. Winemaker Charlie Hoppes, based on Red Mountain, sourced grapes from Connor Lee Vineyard and Weinbau Vineyards on the Wahluke Slope and Stillwater Creek Vineyard near Royal City to create this cellar-worthy wine.

Abeja 2007 Merlot, Columbia Valley, $38
The velvety 2007 Merlot—made by John Abbott (former Canoe Ridge vintner) from some of the state’s older vines at Sagemoor Vineyards, as well as the Gamache vineyard—is beautifully balanced, a complex coming together of ripe plums and cherries playing off a nose perfumed by mint and tobacco.

Merlot finalists $20 or under:
Balboa 2008 Mirage Vineyard Merlot, Columbia Valley, $18
Milbrandt Vineyards 2007 Traditions Merlot, Columbia Valley, $14.99
Nelms Road 2008 Merlot, Columbia Valley, $20
Arbor Crest 2007 Four Vineyards Merlot, Columbia Valley, $15

Merlot finalists over $20:
Northstar 2007 Merlot, Walla Walla Valley, $50
Spring Valley Vineyards 2007 Muleskinner Merlot, Walla Walla Valley, $45
Pedestal 2007 Merlot, Columbia Valley, $55


CABERNET FRANCCab Franc winners

Barrage Cellars 2007 Outcast, Boushey Vineyard Yakima Valley, $35

A bright, rich Cabernet Franc with flowers and black fruit on the nose. Not surprisingly, winemaker Kevin Correll chose his fruit well from Boushey Vineyard near Grandview, our Vineyard of the Year. One judge noted the “perfume!—black plum, herbs and tea.”

Walla Walla Vintners 2008 Cabernet Franc
Columbia Valley, $28

A perennial favorite among Walla Walla Vintners fans, this Cabernet Franc brings out the essence of what this grape has to offer. The vintage showcases more classic flavors of the sometimes herbaceous grape, balanced by blue fruit, earth, minerality and cocoa notes.

Cab Fran finalists $20 or under:
Arbor Crest 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, Stillwater Creek Vineyard Columbia Valley, $20
Brand 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley, $15

Cab Franc finalists over $20:
Andrew Rich 2007 Red Willow Vineyard Cabernet Franc, Yakima Valley, $25
Memaloose 2008 Idiot’s Grace Cabernet Franc, Columbia Gorge, $25



[$20 or under]–TIE!
Chateau Ste. Michelle 2008 Indian Wells, Columbia Valley, $18

From one of Washington’s warmer AVAs, the Wahluke Slope, this New World–style Cabernet Sauvignon (with a bit of Syrah, Malbec and Merlot) from the Woodinville powerhouse winery is a great glass for the price. Full of blackberry, dried cherry and cassis flavors, plus vanilla and smoke aromas, its mouth-filling lushness is precisely what many Washington Cabernet drinkers seek.

Wines of Substance 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley, $20
“Bold cherry fruit with a dark chocolate bite” is what one judge found in this 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon. Walla Walla’s Wines of Substance creates varietal wines (made with just one kind of grape), and while this Cabernet Sauvignon is full of fruit, it also has the classic Cab characteristics of austerity and balance, with black tea highlighting a clean finish.

[over $20]
Woodward Canyon 2007 Old Vines Cabernet Sauvignon, Washington State, $79
Rick Small’s Woodward Canyon Winery in Lowden is a true Washington classic. In the Old Vines Cabernet—from the Champoux Vineyard in Prosser, containing some of the oldest vines in the state, the earliest of which were planted in 1972—our judges were impressed with its sweet fruit, cedar, dried fig and chocolate flavors, with balancing acidity and soft tannins giving it exceptional complexity and elegance.

Cabernet Sauvignon over $20 finalists:
Abeja 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley,$43
Fidelitas 2007 Champoux Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Horse Heaven Hills
Pepper Bridge 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, Walla Walla Valley, $55
Tempus Cellars 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley, $30

Cabernet Sauvignon finalists $20 and under
Arbor Crest 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, Stillwater Creek Vineyard Columbia Valley, $20
Brand 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley, $15


Red blends winners


[$20 or under]
Dumas Station 2007 Cow Catcher Red, Walla Walla Valley, $19
Hello, gorgeous! This beauty from Minnick Hills Vineyard estate fruit has the backbone of a Cab, combined with the spice and softness of a Petit Verdot, making for a knockout pour. The wines are made by Doug Harvey and self-proclaimed “recovering wheat farmer“ Jay Dewitt in a historic apple-packing shed near Waitsburg. Not surprisingly, this limited release of just 281 cases has long been sold out, but the latest vintage was released in February.

[over $20]
Guardian Cellars 2007 Gun Metal, Conner Lee Vineyard, Columbia Valley, $37
Woodinville-based police officer/winemaker Jerry Riener’s blend blew away some high-powered competition with its concentrated berry flavors and dazzling finish. Flavors have plenty of time to develop and integrate, because the wine, made from Connor Lee Vineyard fruit, is aged for nearly two years in new French oak and bottle-aged for more than a year. Get this while it’s smoking hot, because only 300 cases were produced.

Red Bordeaux-style Blend $20 and under finalists:
Gilbert Cellars 2007 Left Bank, Wahluke Slope, $20
Kiona 2004 Cabernet-Merlot, $12
Townshend Cellars T3, Columbia Valley, $18

Red Bordeaux-style Blend over $20 finalists:
Andrew Will 2007 Sorella, Horse Heaven Hills, $64
Cote Bonneville 2005 DuBrul Vineyard, Yakima Valley, $120


[$20 or under]
Syncline Wine Cellars 2009 Subduction Red, Columbia Valley, $18
Syncline winemakers and owners James and Poppy Mantone make delicious Rhône-style blends, traditionally made with Syrah, Grenache and several other grapes. Subduction Red is the Columbia Gorge winery’s version of the Côtes-du-Rhône village style, this one based in Mourvèdre (39 percent), with Counoise (19 percent), Syrah (17 percent), Grenache (16 percent), Cinsault (6 percent) and Carignan (3 percent). Cranberry and pepper aromas lead to lusher black plum fruit, giving this wine a tart/sweet balance and a long, lovely finish.

[over $20]
Brian Carter Cellars 2007 Byzance, Columbia Valley, $30
Brian Carter shines with southern Rhône-style blends, which typically use as many as two dozen whites, such as Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne, and lesser-known red grapes such as Counoise and Carignan. Byzance is a blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre, a bright, exhilarating wine with a nose of pepper, dried cherries and red raspberry, dust and cocoa. The Woodinville winemaker’s lineup of well-crafted blends fill an important niche in this state’s journey toward world-class Rhône-style wines.



[$20 or under]
Brian Carter Cellars 2007 Abracadabra, Columbia Valley, $15
This wine has the heft of much pricier bottles, a feat we attribute to the powers of veteran Woodinville winemaker Carter, who has access to some of the state’s finest fruit and maintains his sharp focus on blending those grapes. He sometimes experiments with unusual combinations and finds the strengths of each grape—such as spice, fruit or tanning—and brings out their best characteristics in the blend. Judges lauded the wine’s elegant balancing act, a lively portrait of jammy fruit and plucky acidity.

[over $20]
Col Solare 2006 Red Wine, Columbia Valley, $75
This pet project winery in Benton City makes just one wine a year: a collaboration between Chateau Ste. Michelle and Marchesi Antinori, a centuries-old Tuscan winery that introduced the concept of the super-Tuscan wine (the addition of Cabernet Sauvignon or other international varieties to classic Tuscan Sangiovese). This wine might be called a super-Washington blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and a bit of Syrah. Italian winemaker Marcus Notaro taps his knowledge of Italian wine to bring out the best in Washington fruit, and this is a rich, silky example of how perfect fruit and finesse in winemaking create a wine that is at the pinnacle of the craft in Washington state.

Red Rhone-style Blend over $20 finalists:
Doyenne 2008 Metier, Yakima Valley, $34
McCrea Cellars 2007 Sirocco Red, Yakima Valley, $28
Owen Roe 2009 Sinister Hand, Columbia Valley, $24
Rotie Cellars 2008 Southern Blend, Horse Heaven Hills, $35

Red Proprietary Blend $20 and under finalists:
Airfield Estates 2008 Bombshell Red, Yakima Valley, $16
Tamarack Cellars 2008 Firehouse Red, Columbia Valley, $16



Syrah Winner

[$20 or under]
Olsen Estates 2007 Syrah, Yakima Valley, $20
This stellar selection from the now-closed Prosser-based winery (though wines are available for another year or so), made with estate-grown fruit, is “stinky, but in a good way,” one judge raved. Some judges picked up on a nose packed with bits of smoky bacon, coffee and chocolate. Add Syrah’s telling characteristics of spicy fruit and the results are a wine with depth and richness. Some of those fine qualities might be attributed to 16 months of aging in French oak barrels.

[over $20]
Waters Winery 2007 Syrah, Forgotten Hills Vineyard, Walla Walla Valley, $45
This earthy Syrah is a king of the Waters lineup—or should we say queen? It is delicate but also bold, and Old World in feel with blueberry, spice, bacon, iron minerality and smoky notes. This 100 percent Syrah is grown in the Waters estate vineyard Forgotten Hills, at about 1,000 feet elevation at the foot of the Blue Mountains in Walla Walla. One judge wrote: “A pretty wine with a long finish—the best of a great flight!”




A few years ago, Syrah, traditionally the star of the northern Rhône, was touted as the next big thing in Washington. Everyone planted it, everyone made it. The reality has been a slow arc of growth, but the good ones have risen above the rest. If Syrah is a star on its own, Grenache is usually in the supporting role. Around the world, however, it is one of the most planted grapes because it can thrive in heat and drought conditions. In the southern Rhône, Grenache is widely popular primarily as a blending grape, giving brightness of fruit and spice to food-friendly blends. Here in Washington, Grenache is growing, and more and more wineries are making single-varietal or Grenache-based blends to highlight the medium body and lovely fruit of the heat-loving grape. Because of Washington’s long growing season, this late-ripening grape is finding a home—and plenty of fans. This category, last year’s Best Emerging Varietal, was open for submissions by any winery. Wines listed here are our judges’ five favorites.

Betz Family Winery 2008 Bésoleil, Alder Ridge Vineyard, Columbia Valley, $46

Milbrandt Vineyards 2008 The Estates Grenache, Clifton Vineyard, Wahluke Slope, $25

Dusted Valley 2008 Grenache, Stone Tree and Lonesome Spring Ranch Vineyards, Columbia Valley, $28

Almquist Family Vintners 2008 Grenache, Northridge Vineyard, Wahluke Slope, $25

Darby 2008 Grenache, Stillwater Creek Vineyard, Columbia Valley, $45

Grenache finalists:
Maison Bleue 2008 Le Midi, Boushey Vineyard, Yakima Valley, $29
Gramercy Cellars 2008 Third Man, Alder Ridge and Minick Vineyards, Columbia Valley, $45
Maison Bleue 2008 La Montagnette, Alder Ridge, Horse Heaven Hills, $25
Grand Reve Vintners 2008 Collaboration Series V, Ciel du Cheval Vineyard, Red Mountain, $55