The Washington wine region, which celebrated the dedication of its first American Viticulture Area (AVA), Yakima Valley, in 1983, is still an adolescent compared to regions of Europe. However, despite the challenges of being a newer wine region, Washington producers are proving that quality wines, and a unique expression of terroir, exist in Washington. (For wine neophytes, terroir describes the environmental conditions, particularly soil and climate, under which grapes are grown and which contribute to the flavor and aroma of wines.)
“Every great wine region has some form of terroir,” says Shayn Bjornholm, Master Sommelier and Examination Director of the Court of Master Sommeliers. “At its best, Washington combines the best of the Old World structure with the New World, fruit-driven power. Washington just hits that sweet spot.”
Pioneers of the Washington wine scene, such as Chris Camarda, winemaker and owner of Andrew Will, the winery he started to prove that Washington can produce distinct wine, says, “I didn’t do this to be a forerunner; I did it to satisfy myself.
“It was like pursuing an academic course of study,” he continues. “I wanted to produce wines from the regions in Washington that were at the time significant, to show the difference between regions.”
Andrew Will’s first harvest in 1989 started with a 450-case production, and is now up to roughly 4,500 cases each vintage. According to Bjornholm, Camarda understood the Old World-New World dynamic of Washington when he started Andrew Will. He used to produce Merlots from six different vineyards, but he now focuses on blended wines instead of specific varietals.
“He’s just a brilliant guy,” says Bjornholm. “If you look in his personal cellar, he has a great collection of all the Old World European wines that he uses for inspiration.”
Camarda isn’t alone in looking to the Old World for inspiration in his winemaking style. “As a sommelier, we have an idea of what Syrah from the Northern Rhône should taste like,” says Greg Harrington, founder of Gramercy Cellars and a Master Sommelier. “It’s why we work on a blending model, not a viticulture model.”
Harrington worked in restaurants in New York City, but knew he wanted to do something other than restaurants. After a wine-tasting trip to work the harvest in Walla Walla, Washington, in 2004, he and his wife were blown away by the wines, community, and low cost of entry compared to California. With his wife’s blessing, Harrington founded Gramercy Cellars in 2005, which started with 800 cases and is now producing 5,000 cases a year.