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Washington wine seeks its moment

In the past 30 years, Washington's wine industry has grown from a novel gamble to become the nation’s second-largest producer of premium wines. Now it hopes to take the mantle as a worthy competitor to California.
Washington wine seeks its moment
Kim Carney / MSNBC

Progress in the wine business is often counted in centuries. Washington state can’t wait that long.

Within the past two decades, this state’s wine industry has grown from a novel gamble to become, as its boosters explain, the nation’s second-largest producer of premium wines. Reviewers rave about well-crafted reds and innovative whites grown on land that once supported wheat or scrub grasses. If they were until recently curiosities on the best wine lists in New York, or in national magazines, now they sit without explanation.

With hundreds of wineries and strong growth, Washington is hoping to take the mantle as a worthy competitor to California, which has comfortably enjoyed its crowning role in American wine.

“Maybe we should no longer be calling ourselves ‘that emerging region,’” says Linda Chauncey, director of wine education at Stimson Lane, which owns such major Washington labels as Columbia Crest and Chateau Ste. Michelle. “Maybe we’ve arrived.”

The scope of the state’s $2.4 billion industry was thoroughly apparent at last weekend's annual food and wine festival, Taste Washington.  The three day event attracted thousands of enthusiasts from around the country and some of the world’s finest wine writers. Combined with road shows designed to take the gospel of the grape to New York and San Francisco, the message was clear: Washington has become a player.

Its growth, certainly, has been explosive.  Even in the early 1990s, the state had just a few dozen wineries and 11,000 acres of wine grapes.  Last year, over 240 wineries produced bottles from some 29,000 acres of grapes. 

The rapid growth has been helped by the efforts of the Washington Wine Commission, a public state board that promotes a more collegial spirit than is found in California’s cutthroat industry.  The message is clear: Help sell the state, and you’ll sell your wine.

“They embrace the message that the state comes first,” says Jamie Peha, the commission's marketing director.

Responsible for millions of cases per year, the state’s largest producers -- including Stimson Lane’s brands, Canandaigua Wine’s Columbia Winery and Covey Run, and R.H. Phillips’ Hogue Cellars -- have taken that message to heart.  Former employees from those wineries often branch off and start small labels.  Indeed, the majority of the state’s wineries are boutiques that turn out just a few hundred or a few thousand cases.

Far, far away
Rapid growth has left the state with curious quirks.  If California’s wine nuclei of Sonoma and Napa are just an hour’s drive from San Francisco, most Washington facilities are a bit harder to reach -- at least three hours from Seattle in a broad swath extending from Yakima, in the state’s center, to Walla Walla, near its southeast corner.  Much of that terrain is essentially desert, though the waters of the Columbia and Snake rivers provide ample irrigation. 

What its wineries offer in quality, they may lack in that certain romance of the grape.  Operations are now often built with stylish tasting rooms, but the industry’s earlier years were starkly practical, with few visitors and vineyards that looked more like industrial farms.

“Making wine in 1983 in this state was like making wine in Siberia,” says Mark Newton, whose DiStefano Winery turns out about 6,000 cases, including some well-rated reds. (Newton also has a day job at Microsoft.)

Part of the industry’s no-nonsense aesthetic could be chalked up to its early promoters, who were more focused on vines than on villas. Though the earliest grapes were planted here in the mid-1800s, what little wine was made before the 1960s was mostly high-alcohol rotgut sold for consumption within Washington, which retained its Prohibition-era limits on out-of-state wine. 

But growers in the ‘60s, spurred in part by California’s court fight to open state markets, got serious about plantings, an effort helped in large part by horticulturist Walter Clore. Since the 1930s, Clore had studied how to grow grapes in the often withering climates (summers over 100 degrees, winters below freezing) of the state’s agricultural regions. He pushed growers to innovate and try different varietals.

That willingness to experiment has paid off. The state’s diverse climates -– dry in the east, wet in the west – support more than 40 types of grape, everything from Tuscan sangiovese to obscure German varietals like siegerrebe. Extreme aridity in many areas (as little as six inches of annual precipitation) has allowed winemakers to emulate growing conditions found almost anywhere in the world. 

“The great thing about Washington is we can control the vigor,” says Co Dinn, winemaker at Hogue Cellars.

Seeking an identity
Yet much of the production still goes into core varietals popular with American palates: Cabernet sauvignon, merlot and chardonnay. With so much competition in the market, the focus on the familiar may ultimately be a tricky sell, especially as Washington winemakers expand overseas. Hence why many wineries here have turned to grapes like syrah, which European drinkers have long embraced and Americans are coming to appreciate, often by its Australian name, shiraz.

Even so, Washington wines have yet to make a splash in places like London, where U.S. bottles compete with affordable offerings from South Africa, South America and Australia.

“For a region, they either have to offer incredible value or have some presence of some tip-top wines,” says wine writer Jancis Robinson. “At the moment, sadly, Washington is neither of those things.”

But Robinson, a designated master of wine, is hopeful Washington will carve a healthy chunk of the global market as the state’s identity comes clearer.  If California’s destiny is wrapped up in Cab and chardonnay, and Oregon’s in pinot noir, Washington has yet to stake its claim.

Winemakers are tackling not only that but another identity problem: the huge size of the state’s appellations, the geographic names they can use to describe a wine’s origin. 

Such things mean little to buyers of $6 bottles, but make a crucial difference to those who seek out a Chateauneuf-du-Pape, not simply a Rhone red.  So the state’s vineyards have been appealing to the government to subdivide some of the largest American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), as U.S. appellations are called.

The first small AVA, Red Mountain (just 700 acres) was approved in 2001.  Further changes would allow wines to proclaim heritage from the Horse Heaven Hills or Wahluke Slope, not just the Yakima or Columbia valleys, which comprise millions of acres.

Quality as a mandate
Sometimes, especially when tackling the California issue, small has advantages. No one disputes the Golden State’s overwhelming advantage in grape production –- 3.1 million tons last year -- but a good portion of that fruit goes into cheap wines used for cooking or sold in bulk. (The success of Two-Buck Chuck is testament to California’s enormous production volumes.) 

If Washington vintages still struggle to match the stratospheric reviews for the toniest Napa Cabs, they often come without the price tag -– and without California’s other reputation, stemming largely from the 1970s, for jug wines and low-grade swill.

By contrast, Washington growers have specific rules on grape quality and bar the use of bulk wine labels like Chablis. As such, the state enjoys a terrific niche in the $9 to $15 range, a key price point for more affluent drinkers.

“I think they’re stunningly good for the price,” says Bill Nelson, vice president of WineAmerica, the trade association for U.S. wineries. “They’re not going to run California off the map, but you do very well when you look in that price range for Washington wines.”

There are other strategies at work, too. A recent tourism study found overnight stays in the state’s wine country were up 29 percent since 2000. And the town of Woodinville, just outside Seattle, now hosts tasting rooms for wineries as small as DiStefano and as big as Chateau Ste. Michelle.  An easy day trip for tourists, it has essentially refashioned itself as Washington’s answer to Sonoma.

Now the state just needs to find its compelling story, a bit of mystique to woo wine lovers, that it can pair with the success of hard enological science. The wine commission has a national ad campaign in the works and is searching for a new executive director. (Its current chief, Steve Burns, is returning to California after eight years.) Or it could position itself as a domestic alternative to Australian wines, which have been a hit but are –- like all imports –- being hurt by the weak U.S. dollar.

Still, Washington faces competition from other comers like New York and Virginia, and from Oregon, which produces very different wines but often shares the Northwest spotlight. And of course, it will keep its eye on that big player to the south.

Says Andy Purdue, editor of regional magazine Wine Press Northwest: "Washington is still in a pioneering state of mind."