Cheerleaders of the Washington wine scene (we include ourselves among them) have long touted Washington as a state that offers wines of incredible value, especially when compared to our two neighboring states to the south.
As our panel of professionals convened to deliberate our 13th annual Washington Wine Awards, it was indeed a series of reasonably priced wines that stole the show. Our red, white and rosé wines of the year all clocked in at about $20. They bested many wines considerably more expensive, underscoring the value of tasting wines blind and proving that you don’t need a new-tech salary to drink well in Seattle.
This is also the first year we elevated rosé to a “wine of the year” category, a change that reflects the incredible growth in quality, value and availability of Washington rosé. It now officially joins the ranks of Washington’s robust reds and crisp whites as a category worthy of standing on its own.
Meet the maker: Syncline’s James Mantone (here in the winery’s estate vineyards, with a view of Mount Hood in the distance) is recognized for his adventurous approach to Washington wine. Photograph by Hayley Young.
Winemaker of the Year
Awarded to a winemaker who is known for the quality of his or her winemaking, for contributions to the winemaking community, and for helping put Washington wines on the national stage.
James Mantone, Syncline Cellars
The Columbia Gorge AVA, spanning the Washington and Oregon sides of the Columbia River around Hood River, Oregon, feels very much like the science lab of Northwest winemaking. Many of the most adventurous winemakers and exciting wines being produced in Washington are emerging from the Gorge. The head mad scientist of that lab earns our title of 2018 Winemaker of the Year: James Mantone.
Mantone’s Syncline Wine Cellars in Lyle, Washington, is the flagship winery of the Gorge; it was launched in 1999 after Mantone spent six years working harvests in the Willamette Valley. At the time, the trifecta of Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot dominated the Washington wine scene, so Syncline’s direction—focused on Rhône varieties such as Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre, and curiosities like Pinot Noir from the Gorge —was positively countercultural. But Mantone’s timing was good. He notes that Syncline launched just as “many growers were becoming open-minded to trying new things” and moving “from conservative, commodity-style grape growing to adventurous attitudes.” Recent years have seen Mantone introduce a new sparkling-wine label—Scintillation—and there are rumblings of other Gorge-centric endeavors on the horizon. “I look forward to seeing some of Washington’s boundaries further broadened,” says Mantone, and it’s clear he’ll be among the winemakers doing the broadening.
In the weeds: Since he took over in 2015, Champoux Vineyard manager Dan Nickolaus has focused on the health of the soil and vines, like this original block of plantings in his Prosser vineyard. Photograph by Hayley Young.
Vineyard of the Year
A Washington vineyard that contributes specific qualities to the wines in which its fruit is featured
Champoux Vineyard, Horse Heaven Hills AVA
There is nothing in washington quite like Champoux Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. The blackest of black fruit combines with persistent graphitic minerality and haunting notes of violet. And that’s just the nose. The texture and mouthfeel of Champoux Cab is equally revered, an exemplar of power and grace combined, full of toothsome tannic power. This is the flagship vineyard, and also the oldest vineyard, of the Horse Heaven Hills.
These are hills that seem custom built to grow Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. A series of south-sloping benches south of Prosser run down toward the Columbia River, the southerly aspect soaking up every iota of Northern Hemisphere summer sunshine, the river providing irrigation water and temperature moderation.
Back in 1972, when it was planted by Don and Linda Mercer, the Champoux site was called Mercer Ranch, but soon thereafter, vineyard manager Paul Champoux purchased the land from the Mercers with four winery partners—Quilceda Creek Vintners, Andrew Will Winery, Powers Winery and Woodward Canyon Winery—and renamed it. Those partners have burnished the vineyard’s reputation for Cabernet, which makes up 80 percent of Champoux’s acreage. The current vineyard manager, Dan Nickolaus, comanaged the site with Paul Champoux in 2014 and then took over when Champoux retired in 2015. He has since focused on soil building and vine health, noting that “healthy vines can take on a lot of stress.” Champoux Vineyard—where stress is alchemized into beauty—seems well poised for another 50 years of compelling Cabernet.
Vineyard with a view: Michael Savage stands in Underwood Mountain Vineyard in the Columbia Gorge, the source of his winery’s Riesling and Gruner Veltliner wines. Photograph by Hayley Young.
Winemaker to Watch
A winemaker who is crafting wines of distinctive style and making an impact on Washington wine.
Michael Savage, Savage Grace Wines
Music industry veteran Michael Savage launched his Woodinville-based winery in 2011, and he has quickly established a progressive house style, crafting low-alcohol, food-friendly wines bottled and released early for freshness and vigor. “From the beginning,” Savage notes, “I wanted to work with cool climate sites.” That has meant chasing vineyards located in two of Washington’s colder pockets: the Columbia Gorge (Savage cites Syncline winemaker and our Winemaker of the Year James Mantone as a big influence) and higher elevations in the Yakima Valley, which tend to produce lighter-bodied, more elegant wines.
The Gorge is the source for five of Savage’s white wines: Chardonnay from Celilo Vineyard; Riesling and Grüner Veltliner from Underwood Mountain Vineyards; and two Gewürztraminers from Oak Ridge Vineyard—one made using traditional white wine techniques, and the other done in what’s known as an “orange wine” style, with extended skin contact. Savage’s reds come mostly from cooler Yakima Valley sites: a pair of Cabernet Francs, one from Copeland Vineyard, the other from Two Blondes Vineyard; Cabernet Sauvignon from 7-Mile Vineyard; Malbec from Boushey Vineyard; and Syrah from Red Willow Vineyard (winner of this year’s Best Syrah $25–$40 category). A quick look at the vintages (mostly 2016) and the low alcohols (12.4–12.7 percent) show that Savage is making a very different style of red than most mainstream Washington wineries. “I don’t think the idea of low-alcohol wine is that shocking to people in the Washington wine industry any longer,” Savage says. “It seems like the pendulum is swinging back towards wines with more balance.”
Over the barrel: Kevin White, pictured in his eponymous Woodinville winery, loves how wine and food play together. Photograph by Hayley Young.
Best Emerging Winery
Awarded to a young winery with fewer than five vintages and that has made a distinct impression for its quality and style in a short period of time
Kevin White Winery
Along with Winemaker to Watch Michael Savage, Kevin White is part of the Washington vanguard emphasizing purity and elegance over concentration and power. White says that his style is “heavily influenced by the role that wine plays with food; to form a symphony and bring a meal together.” He launched his eponymous winery (based in Woodinville) with a single wine from the 2010 vintage, a Syrah from Olsen Vineyard in the Yakima Valley, all while maintaining a day job at Microsoft (a gig he holds to this day). His focus on Rhône varieties has continued from there, with three Grenache-Syrah-Mourvèdre blends (red wine, La Fraternité and Pionnier) and one Syrah (En Hommage).
From the beginning, White’s vineyard sourcing has been excellent. He purchases his Rhône varieties from Yakima Valley stalwarts like Boushey, Upland and Olsen vineyards. For now, White has capped his total production at 1,500 cases, in order to “focus on increasing quality versus making more wine.” La Fraternité has won awards in two of our past three Wine Awards, including this year’s Best Rhône Blend, More than $25 category. At $28, it bested wines that cost nearly twice its price, underscoring White’s well-earned and enduring reputation for value.
Fine wining: The Canlis wine cellar is legendary, and sommelier Nelson Daquip presides over it all. Photograph by Alex Crook.
Sommelier of the Year
Awarded to a sommelier or wine director whose program emphasizes Washington wines, and who delivers exceptional service and education to guests and staff
Nelson Daquip, Canlis
At nearly 90 pages, the wine list at Canlis is the size of a novella, and its lead author, Nelson Daquip, is our Sommelier of the Year. Daquip joined Canlis in 2002 after moving to Seattle from his home state of Hawaii, where he had been lead server at Alan Wong’s Honolulu restaurant. His subsequent ascent was astonishing: from server’s assistant to wine director in a span of four years. His quick rise was helped along by a placement in Canlis’ “Vinternship” program, designed to foster young Seattle sommeliers, and by mentorship from Shayn Bjornholm, Canlis’ wine director at the time.
In Daquip’s dozen years of running Canlis’ wine program, he has expanded the Washington wine selections to include not just tried-and-true wineries, but also several younger, more experimental producers. Furthermore, he has collaborated with a number of wineries from Washington and other top wine regions around the world to create special house bottlings for Canlis. The culmination of all this hard work came in 2017, when Canlis finally won its first James Beard Award (on its 10th nomination) for Outstanding Wine Program. Queen Anne, 2576 Aurora Ave. N; 206.283.3313
The Shop Keepers: Chuck LeFevre purchased Esquin from its founder in 1997; today he runs it with his daughter and store manager Stephanie Burkhart. Burkhart's daughter, Mary (not pictured), also helps out. Photograph by Hayley Young.
Best Place to Buy Wine
A brick-and-mortar or online retail operation (shop, grocery store or liquor store) with a strong presence of Washington wine, run by someone with a commitment to showcasing Washington wine
Esquin Wine and Spirits
Esquin’s roots run deep in Seattle. When Rand Sealey launched the shop in 1969, there was no Washington wine scene to speak of. To put things in perspective: In 1969, Chateau Ste. Michelle was exactly 2 years old. The shop has grown in tandem with the Washington wine industry and is now deeply interwoven with it and the Seattle wine scene.
Esquin has changed hands only once in its half-century existence. In 1997 current owner Chuck LeFevre purchased the business from founder Sealey, and there are now three generations of LeFevre’s family involved in the store: LeFevre, his daughter Stephanie Burkhart (the current store manager), and Burkhart’s daughter Mary (who just started working at Esquin earlier this year). The family’s success has been spurred by Esquin’s terrific central location in SoDo, its huge selection (more than 5,400 wines and 1,200 spirits at recent count) and a series of customer-friendly ancillary services, such as wine storage, free tastings, educational seminars and a robust online presence. SoDo, 2700 Fourth Ave. S; 206.682.7374
Character driven: The Walls’ labels are drawn by cartoonist Joe Dator, who modeled recurring protaganist Stanley (as in wine pioneer Stan Clarke) after a character called Walter Groovy he’s drawn for The New Yorker. Photograph by The Walls.
Coolest Wine Label
Visually impactful labels that communicate an idea or theme
One of the most exciting new wineries to launch over the past few years in Washington has been The Walls, based in Walla Walla. Co-founders Mike Martin and Ali Mayfield engaged Gauge Branding (offices in Chicago and Napa) to create the label concept for The Walls, and also to audition artists and cartoonists. The winning cartoonist, Joe Dator, will be familiar to readers of The New Yorker, in which his cartoons appear regularly, often featuring a character whom Dator calls Walter Groovy. For The Walls, Walter was renamed Stanley (in honor of the late Washington wine pioneer Stan Clarke).
Stanley appears in a number of poses on The Walls labels: sitting on a chair for his eponymous (and now award-winning) red blend, perched on a wall for Chardonnay labels and scurrying away from a bull for the Tempranillo label. “Given that we were seeking to create a wine brand,” notes co-owner Martin, “it is important to have thoughtfully designed labels. We wanted that brand to convey to consumers that we were hyper-focused on producing small lots of interesting, sophisticated and elegant wines at a world-class-quality level.”
The Washington State Wine Honors: Presented in Partnership with the Washington Wine Commission
Food and wine: Ray’s Boathouse wine director Chip Croteau (right) and general manager/co-owner Doug Zellers raise a glass on the restaurant’s iconic balcony. Photograph by Hayley Young.
Best Restaurant to Experience 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.
Ray’s Boathouse and Café
Ray’s in Ballard, overlooking Puget Sound and the Olympics, boasts some of the best views available to Seattle diners. And yet a certain subset of wine-obsessed patrons is as likely to be staring at Ray’s remarkable wine list as it is at the sunset descending into the Olympic Mountains. Depending on your perspective, the views can be equally divine.
As you’d expect from a seafood-focused restaurant, the selection of Washington white wines is extensive. Perhaps more surprising is the breadth of red wine options, ranging from traditional (Washington Cabs, Merlots, Syrahs) to a section of the list called “Interesting Washington Reds” (Sangioveses, Cab-Syrah blends, etc.) The list at Ray’s (curated by wine director Chip Croteau) includes both treasures—library vintages from Quilceda Creek Vintners and Long Shadows Vintners’ Poet’s Leap—and under-the-radar gems like Amavi Cabernet Sauvignon. The restaurant also hosts numerous winemaker dinners and catered events for Washington winery clubs. A partnership with Walla Walla-based L’Ecole No. 41 produces “Ray’s Cuvees,” a lovely Chardonnay-based white and a red blend, both of which are poured by the glass and presumably guzzled on the Ray’s deck all summer long. Ballard, 6049 Seaview Ave. NW; 206.789.3770
Shelf life: Mark Takagi oversees the wine selection at all Metropolitan Market stores, including this beautiful new location in Sammamish. Photograph by Hayley Young.
Retail Wine 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
Mark Takagi, Metropolitan Market
“I go way back,” says Mark Takagi, wine, beer and spirits specialist at Metropolitan Market, with a chuckle, noting that when he began his career in the late ’70s, there were “maybe 75 wineries in Washington, and the shelves were dominated by California wines.” Over his four-decade career, spanning stints at McCormick’s Fish House, Safeway, QFC and Metropolitan Market, he has helped to right that imbalance, developing carefully curated retail wine sections that allow grocery shoppers access to some of Washington’s finest boutique wines.
In his role with Metropolitan Market, Takagi oversees seven stores. “Washington wines are a major focus,” says Takagi, “representing the biggest share by far of our wine sales.” There are two main reasons for Washington wines’ prominence at Met Market. First, the locally owned company (founded in 1971) is committed to supporting local products as part of its corporate culture. And second, asserts Takagi, the wines are just good: “There’s no argument that Washington produces not only world-class wines but some of the greatest-value wines on the market.”
Dr. Terroir: Geology professor Kevin Pogue is an advocate for planting grapes on edgier sites, like this steep, south-facing hillside in the Walla Walla Valley AVA. Photograph by Hayley Young.
The Washington State Wine Walter Clore Washington Honorarium
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
Kevin Pogue, Ph.D.
After the attacks of September 11, 2001, Kevin Pogue’s work at the time—on the geology of the Himalayans of northern Pakistan—became untenable. So, the Whitman College (Walla Walla) geology professor and native Kentuckian shifted his focus closer to home, and eventually became obsessed with the notion of terroir: that the place where a grapevine is grown can impact the flavor of the eventual wine itself. He has subsequently been as influential as anyone in Washington’s second wave of vineyard plantings, and in the resulting evolution of Washington’s wine industry.
The first wave of wine-grape plantings generally took place on flat, fertile soils; terrific for many crops, but not so nice for grapes. Over the past dozen years, Pogue has helped convince farmers and winery owners that the truly compelling sites for planting grapes were on what he refers to as “edgier sites”: hillsides, poor soils, marginal climates—places where vines had to struggle to establish toeholds. His influence is felt keenly in his home valley, both in The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater (a sub-appellation of the Walla Walla Valley AVA, which Pogue helped to establish), and in new vineyards on steep, basalt-based soils in the southern reaches of the valley, which have shown gorgeous results from early bottlings. Ask Pogue if we’ve already planted out all the best pockets of terroir in Washington, and his response, after the laughter dies down, consists of four words: “Are you kidding me?”
See which reds, whites and roses are winners in the 13th Annual Wine Awards here.
Seattle Magazine's Washington Wine Awards program is produced and managed by Yashar Shayan. For more details on our tasting methodology and to meet our tasting panelists, click here.