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.
“We found we could make wines that were ripe, but with higher acidity and lower alcohol,” says Harrington. “And although I said I’d never make Cabernet, now it’s 40 percent of our production.”
Washington producers focus mostly on Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah. And although eastern Washington is one of the highest-latitude wine regions in the world, it is also one of the driest—receiving merely seven to 12 inches of rainfall a year and 300 days of sunlight. Washington also has some of the most dramatic fluctuations of day and night temperatures, known as a diurnal shift, of any wine region in the world. The results are grapes that are balanced between ripe sugars and crisp acidity. While many consumers compare Washington to California wines, the continental, semi-desert climate make the Bordeaux region a much more relevant comparison.
“Winemakers from Europe come to taste our wines and are surprised,” says Andrew Will’s Camarda. “I think Bordeaux is a good comparison to Washington wines, and California wines are better compared to Australia. In fact, I feel like I’ve proven that we are as good as, if not better than, Bordeaux at growing Bordeaux grape varietals.”
According to the Washington State Wine Commission website, eastern Washington has 11 separate AVAs, covering over 43,000 acres of vineyard land varying from 100 feet above sea level to 1000 feet above sea level, with all degrees of aspect to the sun. The microclimates provide distinct styles of wine from one AVA to the next, which has taken several decades for producers to discover.
As recently as 20 years ago, there were only 100 wineries; now there are more than 700. Quality has improved as well as quantity: “I think we have much better winemaking than we did ten years ago because we have people who understand the vineyards better,” says Camarda.
Washington, like any region, continues to evolve, and the producers are continuing to learn about winemaking and terroir—unsurprising given that the average age of the vines is only 12 to 13 years. But that hasn’t stopped them from producing great wines, according to Bjornholm.
“Washington doesn’t really care about the hype and circumstance,” says Bjornholm. “They’ll never have the market share that Napa, Bordeaux, or Tuscany have. So they know it has to be what’s in the bottle that grabs people’s attention. People don’t really understand how great Washington is and that’s the challenge.”
Camarda agrees that Washington has little history and market share compared to these classic wine regions. “But I also realize we have great possibility,” he says. “You talk about California, and you have Hollywood, the gold rush, all these things people associate with it that makes them think it’s attractive. We basically had Microsoft and Starbucks coming out of here. Until we can achieve a culture that we can export, we won’t be able to reach a peak. We have to define ourselves in some way that is different than California, and then people will be able to see us.”