Given the comparative sizes of the Washington and Oregon wine regions, it is surprising that Washington wines are so hard to get hold of in the UK. Washington is the US’s second largest wine region, home to 1,000 winemakers producing 18 million cases of wine a year, and yet we seem to know more about Oregon and find their wines easier to get hold of – when they are a fraction of the size. David Kermode travels to Washington and talks to the leading winemakers there to try and uncover why such good wines are failing to make an inroad in the UK. One thing that importers here in the UK are recommending, is that Washington should take a leaf out of California’s book and look to invest in building a global brand; that and address the prices, which is also an issue.
An opportunity that might help mitigate a compromise on price is organic and biodynamic winemaking, writes Kermode.
A wine trip to Washington State requires an open mind.
Like most writers, I like to do a little background research before I head somewhere. In the case of Washington, it was revelatory. It’s difficult to know where to begin, as this is a region that is yet to properly punch at its weight, let alone above it.
For starters, there’s the scale of it: America’s second biggest producer after California, with almost 24,000 hectares under vine; almost a thousand wineries producing up to 18 million cases annually; 14 AVAs (American Viticultural Areas), boasting 70 different grape varieties from Aligote to Zinfandel; all contributing more than $6 billion to the local economy.
The rate of growth in the industry is also striking. Whilst vines have been ripped up in the ‘Old World’, plantings here have more than trebled in 20 years, to the extent that a new winery apparently opens in the state every 15 days.
Then there’s the size of the big guns. The state’s largest winery, Chateau Ste Michelle, produces around 7.5 million cases per year – for context, that’s more than twice the output of Oregon – and is the world’s single biggest producer of Riesling.
And there’s the unusual terroir. Washington styles itself as ‘The New Epicenter’ for wine, conjuring up something of seismic significance. In this case, that seems appropriate, as the state’s distinctive soils don’t really belong there. It is all the fault of a cataclysmic event some 15-thousand years ago: the Massoula Flood.
At the end of the last Ice Age, a natural dam ruptured at the top of the Pacific Northwest, causing some of the biggest floods ever to have occurred on earth. The surge of water more than 100 metres high also brought rocks and soil from further north, which then settled, over thousands of years, into layers of gravel, sand and silt, topped by windblown loess.
This apocalyptical horror actually proved serendipitous for the modern day wine industry because Washington State’s climate has something of a split personality, with the eastern areas where the vines grow getting just a fifth of the annual rainfall experienced in the Puget Sound, around Seattle. Inland, it’s a dry, continental climate, but the soils retain just the right amount of water to support viticulture, a boon in a region that has more sunshine than California’s brightest spot.
Unusually, the huge Columbia Valley AVA also incorporates almost all the others in the state, as sub-appellations. The biggest of those, Yakima Valley, is also the oldest, established in 1983. Like a Russian doll, it too has sub-appellations: Red Mountain, Snipes Mountain, and the scary-sounding Rattlesnake Hills. Some of Washington’s most coveted wines come from the Horse Heaven Hills AVA on the Oregon border, home to the warm, windy, south-facing Champoux Vineyard, planted in 1972. Then there’s historic Walla Walla, boasting the highest concentration of wineries in Washington, some of them established before Prohibition.
So what defines Washington State?
To an extent, it’s what you want it to be. Still in its infancy as a wine region, the state has a ratio of 60/40, red to white. Rosé, or blush – if you must – scarcely features. The big five grapes are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay and Riesling. There are those who consider Cabernet is King, believing it can rival Napa a few hundred miles south. For what it’s worth, I would put my money on Syrah, perhaps Grenache or even Mourvèdre. Washington State sits at broadly the same latitude as the Northern Rhône, a fact that is reflected in some of the best wines from the region.
In America’s domestic market, Washington’s wines are well known, and much loved, with drinkers close to home, in the booming city of Seattle – home to Microsoft, Starbucks and Amazon – fuelling the demand. It is the same story across the States, where sales are growing, and also in Canada, but the UK is a different story.
“Oh yes, Washington State. I really like those wines. Where can I find them?” said a good friend shortly after my visit. A pertinent question, as it is trickier than I had thought.
Despite the celebrated diversity of the UK market, I have struggled to find retail availability for a Washington wine to feature on my monthly BBC radio show, and I cannot recall ever seeing more than one or two on UK wine lists. For British drinkers, California rules, but surely it is odd that it’s easier to find a wine from tiny Oregon (just 1% of the USA’s wine production) than from its bigger northern neighbour? Washington State offers untapped potential, albeit at a price.
“The wines aren’t cheap, so we are asking the consumer to put their faith in a 25 quid wine from a region that they don’t know,” says James Hocking, who has been successfully importing North American wines for two decades. “I have always found Washington’s wines to be reliably good, but market take-up to be relatively poor.”
So what’s the answer? “There’s not an easy solution,” he tells me, “Sadly, a lot of it comes down to price. You need to target an affluent consumer who buys from California, to tempt them to go a step further.”
Hocking believes it could test the resolve of Washington’s producers. “Some of our Californian clients could sell all of their wines at the cellar door, probably twice over, but they have been determined to build a global brand, so they sat down with us and looked at their prices.”
An opportunity that might help mitigate a compromise on price is organic and biodynamic winemaking. With its sunshine, warmth and dry winds, Washington State offers rich potential.
Badger Mountain Winery was the first in the state to be certified organic, in 1990. Its founder Bill Powers was subsequently inducted into the Washington Wine Hall of Fame, rewarded for his prescience. Mickey Dunne, who now runs the winery, believes organic offers opportunities for the state: “it’s hot and it’s dry, so for farming organically, we’re in as good a spot as there is.”
A step further, some of the finest wines we tasted on our trip came from Hedges Family Estate in the small, scenic Red Mountain AVA. Established by a local, Tom Hedges, and his Champenoise wife Anne-Marie, it converted to biodynamic more than a decade ago, followed by certification in 2011. Daughter Sarah Hedges Goedhart is now winemaker, her brother Christophe Hedges is general manager: “Biodynamic was a simple decision,” he says, “we didn’t want our children to grow up in a world of skull and cross bones and ‘do not enter’ signs”.
For David Kermode’s Top 10 Washington wines that need to be on your radar click here