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Washington Vintners Seminar

About a week ago, I had the absolute privilege to attend both the seminar as well as, the walk around tasting that the Washington Wine Association put on in San Francisco.  Often, I walk around from these large scale tastings feeling like they were a waste of a few hours, this was completely the opposite.  Information about the regions in play and some impressive wine, this almost immediately became one of my favorite tasting events in SF.  I hope they come back next year.

Perhaps the most important aspect to the entire tasting was one of the first things we were all told: This was the largest showing of Washington wine in SF in 15 years.  Given the rapid gain of market share for Washington wine of late.  It makes sense.  This is a clear growth industry for the state.

First, a little bit of background. I personally have a deep respect for what’s possible in Washington in terms of quality wine production.  I spent a week in Walla Walla over the summer, I came away impressed by both the small town nature of the place, the wine being produced, & pretty happy to find a nice melting of the first generation of vintners in the region, with folks just starting now.  One of the things I enjoy most about the wine industry in general is that there is a real collaborative nature to the industry in general, but that was on display in spades in Walla Walla.

Washington vintners have a real ace up their sleeve when it comes to growing their industry, Seattle.  Much like San Francisco offers small scale and startup wineries in Sonoma and Napa Valley a number of logical targets for local sales and sales calls: Seattle offers much of the same setup for wineries in the state.  There’s a local food scene of course and the 60+ tasting rooms in Woodinville, offer something of a tasting in an urban environment.

There is however, massive room for growth.  For someone who really does all that is local, it’s pretty shocking when I read that only 24% of all grocery store sales in the state are WA wine.  I know California has a stranglehold on distribution systems & there aren’t many Washington wineries producing enough wines to be carried into, but that seems like an obvious area for growth.

The panel consisted of two Sommelier’s, as well as, a winemaekr who happens to be a former Sommelier. They were:

Matt Stampf: Grew up in the restaurant trade in Omaha, was the Somm at the Farmhouse Inn and Restaurant, before taking a job at French Laundry. He’s moved on, but I’m guessing that’s a good one for the resume.

Greg Harrington Winemaker Gramercy Cellars (full disclosure, I’ve shipped these wines before)

Geoff Kruth: Reformed software engineer, turned Somm. Was at Farmhouse before taking over Guild Somm and one of about 200 Master Sommelier’s worldwide.


Goeff: When I was born there were less than 10 wineries in Washington State, now there’s over 800. Confluence of being north, but about the same latitude as Burgundy and Bordeaux. Latitude is not correlated to weather, but is to sunshine hours. Also 2 large mountain ranges, cause desert levels of rain. About 1/5th the rain of Napa. Lower disease pressure.

Matt: 50,000 acres in the state. 45k in Napa Valley alone. 50 years ago people thought noble grape vines may not grow there….too far north. Winter’s damn cold and is the achilles heel. Vines given dual trunk systems in large part due to cold winters.

Greg: On job for 4 days. Bought Washington wines, got in trouble.Noticed consistently in vineyard quality across multiple wineries. More precise in terms of viticulture. Farming and spacing are ongoing questions for the next 10-20 years. Vineyards at higher altitudes are coming as well. 1500 feet are the sweet spot. Likely over 2k in elevation in the coming years.

Geoff & Chateau St Michelle: First and largest in WA state. First mover advantage. What are some of the best wines that you can find everywhere in the United States? What about a Costco in Iowa. $20 at release, now at $35 Riesling with some bottle age is quite, quite good. Scale + being there first gives them a huge advantage.Dr Loosen comes from Germany to look for lots to blend to give some age-ability. Classic German structure. Want long hang time for the grapes.

Greg: We don’t make Riesling because St Michelle does it so damn well, for about $10

Greg & Picpoul: Vineyard land very different in Washington. Zoning gives them 40 or 80 acres, no small parcels like in Napa. Can go to growers and ask for a smaller parcel to be created. Grower had Picpoul, so Greg made 100 cases, with the plan of having it pulled out after. Bad looking vines, grapes look like table grapes, terrible canopy. How acid driven Picpoul and Walla x2 can both be. Largely from Tablas Creek cuttings.

Matt & Sparkman: Winery is in Woodinville. 30 miles outside of Seattle. 50 tasting rooms in a block or two. Disconnect between wineries and vineyards in WA. Yakima Valley was the first AVA in the state, ’83. 50 miles east of Seattle you go from 80 inches of rain a year, to less than 8. (my note, San Diego gets 6 inches or so….if you’ve never lived in a desert, that means it simply doesn’t rain….like ever). Roussane, Grenache Blanc and Marssane, little bit of bitterness for balance. Dick Bouchy is one of the more revenered viticulturists in WA, yet really the guy is a farmer. He’d rather have cherry trees on some parts of the vineyard, simply because they sometimes they fetch a higher price than do the wine grapes.

Greg: Rot is not really an issue in WA. Only time he saw it, Mourvedre back in ’11. But, that was largely because it wasn’t picked until November 15th or so.

Geoff: Roussane in WA can get ripe, retain acidity and not rot….not something thats possible in California.

Greg: Roussane doesn’t ripen evenly, there can be 8-10 Brix differences from one side of a bunch, to another.

Matt: Also excited to taste Gewurztraminer and Chardonnay in terms of white wines from Washington State. Neither is one that a Somm would ordinarily like to talk about. Semillon could be fun in the future as well.

Greg: Pedestal is a Longshadows project. John Duvall standing in Starbucks in Walla Walla, is still one of the strangest experience of his life. Still can’t believe Duvall and Michele Rolland come to make wine there with such a young indsutry (ADD INFO on Longshadows). 2009 was a ripe vintage of Washington. There was a freeze though and WA has 2 types of freezes. One causes them to cut the vine down. Another version happens and cuts harvest. Oct 10-12 happened in 09 and 10. Wind machines happen to help until 28 degrees. It hits 27 degrees and then the brown vines start to show up.

Geoff: Merlot is at its best from warmer sites, where it develops fully and combines with oak. Pomerol is much like that in Bordeaux. Not all wines can be high acid, no oak etc. This is an enjoyable style.

Matt: In many ways Merlot is the signature grape and first important grape (defining grape perhaps) in WA.

Greg: Leonetti and a few others are the only ones these days looking to make the best Merlot possible, instead of growing it as a blender for Cabernet Sauvignon.

Matt & Memaloose: Cuts through the Cascades. 25 miles takes you from an arid version on the Oregon side and then you end up in a rainforest style climate in only a few miles. Lyle is on the WA side, an old mining town. 1 diner and mostly everyone is over 80 (laughing). 5 year old girl saying, you should have the soup, my mom made it and it’s good. Brian McCormick shares a building with an attorney’s office. You see the river and is rainier than most others that we’ve talked about. Classic balanced approach to Syrah. Retail at $22….it’s a steal.

Greg: If Memaloose is here, go and get the Cabernet Franc. It’s incredibly good. Columbia Gorge is a fun place.

Greg & Reynvaan Syrah: Syrah does well on the east side of Walla Walla between 1,000 and 1800 feet of elevation. Also in an area called “the rocks”. River came over the mountain only about a mile wide. Very rocky terrain, almost no soil. Higher PH, no acid (both evident here & I remember Chuck Reninger talking about this region as his new favorite spot to grow Syrah).

As an aside. HOLY CRAP. THIS IS EXTRAORDINARY. Really, this shouldn’t be quite this good.

From Reynvaan’s estate vineyard. Seattle family convinced Caycus to consult and help teach them how to make wine. In large part this, is how we do Syrah now in Washington. 25% whole cluster here.

Geoff: Not all new world wines, need old world comparisons. High levels of peppery character. Syrah is proned to reduction. Like Cabernet, it’s beneficial to the smell.

Matt & Andrew Will Champoux VIneyard: 12,000 acres in Horse Heaven Hills. One of the fastest growing regions anyhere in the state. But, onyl a dozen wineries located there. Planted in the early 1970’s, with some Cabernet dating to the original plantings still. Andrew Will, wants vineyard expressions, instead of variteals. 62% Cabernet Franc. 22% Merlot. Ripeness and sweetness, but enough structure to age well.

Geoff: Horse Heaven makes Cabernet(the entire family) style wines, with less tannic structures. More elegant.

Greg: Horse Heaven is my favorite place for Cabernet in WA. Acid driven. Green, provonce herb thing. Balance between red and black fruit. Have to be committed to make wine out there. Not an economic thing to put on a label, no freeway. Barely a road. Might see the least, but a major driver of Washington wines industry.

No one is quite sure if there are wild horses running around any longer.

Geoff & Owen Roe: 1973 block. Far west of the Yakima Valley. The Valley runs 100 miles east to west. You can’t make generalizations about the Valley because of its size. This is the far west side. Some of the oldest vines in WA. 2015 was the last vintage for the ’73 block because of leafroll. 2013 was a pretty ripe vintage. 14% alcohol is fair though. Aromatics are quite good, with modest alcohol levels.

Greg: Sauer family wants you to pick early with their fruit. 19-20 brix and they’re calling saying it’s ready.

Matt: First time I saw the vineyard, thought it looked “like shit” but once we got up the hillside and saw where he was actually growing the grapes (the base are Concord grapes) they looked grapes. Look up Missoula floods and the damn etc (it’s responsible for the sentiment on top of the volcanic stuff below). Looking out over Yakima you can see where the valley would be flooded every 50 years or so.

Greg: They think a 700 foot wave came when the Missoula flood happened. “That’s a bad day if you’re fishing”.

Question on estate fruit or purchased. Greg: almost everyone is acres contracts. Very few estate spots, exactly what I heard in Walla x2.

Greg & Leonetti: Chris and his family fell into the business. They had a bunch of acreage. Planted Cabernet starting in ’74 or ’75.

Chris: Luckiest guy int he wine industry. My dad home wine made starting in the 60’s. Dad was entirely self taught. Grandparents made wine at home, never sold it. Dad planted because that’s where he happened to live. Growing up, I thought everyone’s dad made wine. Leonetti was almost all purchased fruit. Had some of our own, but not much. Now 100% estate grown. Since 2000. Surveyors got lazy when they made the state line. Makes sense to us, other than the tax rates. 2012 was perfectly average and therefore a great vintage. Not too cold. Not too hot. 2008 was like this. 09 was hot and then frosted. 10 was cold. 11 was so cold we picked grapes in November. Love Andrew Will wines. He’s kind of my wine hero because they are so finesse driven. Walla Walla has become a Cabernet spot. Clay based soils though.

*An after note, Chris makes Figgins of Walla Walla Valley now.  During the walk around tasting, I asked him why he didn’t slap a Leonetti label on the thing and call it a day. Given the quality, he would have sold the thing out to Leonetti’s mailing list (which carries, by all accounts about a 3-4 year wait these days) in 5 minutes.  Chris said he wanted something more of his own-this is a victory and shows exactly what’s possible in Walla Walla….a region that I absolutely loved.

Mill Creek is northeast of Walla Walla. 40-45 degrees diurnal shifts because at the base of the mountains.

Greg: Mill Creek is a lot like Howell Mountain.

Geoff & Betz Family: If you were to invite 5 people to dinner to talk about WA wines. Bob should be there. Winery based in Woodinville. Technical know how behind the wines. Mostly Red Mountain fruit. 65% new oak. Bordeaux style Cabernet. Red Mountain is a lot like driving through the desert and then suddently there is a 2.5 mile long hill. A single hill. Clear from a distance that Red Mountain is its own appelation. Warm and windy. Thick skins and tannic, structured, long lived wines. A benchmark style of Washington Cabernet.

Matt: Should be called brown mountain. Degree day data. 300-400 celsius between Red Mountain and the Yakima Valley. Most Napa like of WA appelations. Estate’s and one winery is next to the others. Can go from one to the next.

Geoff: The area has decided on its future. It’s planted out. It’s Cabernet. This is what they’ve hung their hat on. No one’s pulling out Cabernet to plant Picpoul.

Greg: Red Mountain Syrah picked at the beginning of Sept. 30 miles north in the Rattlesnake Hills, picking doesn’t happen until the end of October.

Quilceda Creek: Closest thing to a cult wine in Washington.

Greg: Never had this wine at a tasting. Either on their mailing list, or you don’t get it. First vintage was in ’78. Remmeber vintages from the late 80’s. Red Mountain is one of the only places where you have to do tannin management. Ripe and full bodied.

Matt: Red Mountain should be called Parker place because the guy loves it so much.

Question: State of sales of Syrah in Washington?
Greg: We don’t have an issue selling Syrah. Maybe WA Syrah has an identity and people understand it? We sell worldwide and about 8k cases. I wouldn’t do a 20k case winery only on Syrah.

Goeff: If a producer is committed to Syrah, we can do it as a Somm. There’s maybe a dozen names that are easy to sell. If you aren’t one of those dozen names, it’s more complicated.

Question: Varietals Mourvedre and Caberet Franc soon?
Greg: Mourvedre sells out first at the winery. Rot kills Mourvedre because of the tight cluster. We don’t have rot in WA. Cabernet Franc in “the rocks” above Walla Wall is incredible.

Question from Wilfred Wong: How does a CA industry do to help sell more WA wines?
Goeff: Don’t focus on varietals. Focus on being ambassadors to regions that we have passions for.

Matt: In California, even in an entrenched region like SF, advocating for a WA producer isn’t different than advocating for your favorite French producer. Fortunes of Oregon and WA side by side. Oregon is focused west and is entirly focused on Pinot Noir. Washington is located east and doesn’t have a signature grape. Timelines for the states are similiar. Focus is entireyl different. Oregon is tied to the marketability of 1-2 varieties. Washington has a more diverse and better base.

Ok, if you made it this far…good for you and find a way to attend the next Washington State wines tasting in San Francisco.  It was really a great, great event that I hope they continue into the future. Given the number of industry folks I saw milling about, I think it’s pretty clear that there is a pent up demand for Washington wines in the market.

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