Rooting for Washington: Washington wines are gaining on California

Quick Word Association Test: What do you think of when you hear “Washington state wine”? If wine doesn’t come to mind, then you’re in the unfortunate majority. Unfortunate because you’re missing out on some really tasty, budget-price wines. Washington state’s 200-plus wineries drip with value and quality, but the lack of buzz hasn’t created the love connection with consumers. Washington winemakers appear to be a humble, quiet lot, compared with the marketing machine that is California, which has a few more years of experience under its belt. Before 1980, essentially none of the current Washington wineries existed, with the exception of two. But with California prices skyrocketing in the past several years, it’s time wine lovers get to know the relatively unknown, immense growing wine area of Washington.

Chances are, you’ve tasted a few Washington wines; you just didn’t know it. They’re not boastful, but they easily could be. If you’ve tasted the popular Columbia Crest label — the state’s largest producer — you’ve experienced easy-on-the-wallet, yet well-made wines with depth and character. So much of California’s juice in the lower price range lacks flavor, finesse and personality, but the value wines from Washington really have that pizzazz I seek out in the under $15 range.

You might wonder about the climate in Washington. When people think of the Evergreen State, they visualize Seattle and its drippy conditions, but most of the state sweats in the heat, getting very little rain. In the vast eastern part of the state lie the sprawling Yakima, Columbia, and Walla Walla valleys, where the majority of the state’s wine grapes are grown. Given plenty of irrigation, grapes thrive in these conditions, even with the cold northern winters. Names like Merlot, Chardonnay, Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Cabernet Sauvignon seem perfectly happy in the sometimes harsh weather in those parts. Washington also grows an obscure red grape called Lemberger, the darling of many in-staters, so the rest of us see little of this light, fruity, Beaujolais-like wine. Hogue Cellars releases a few hundred cases, so seek it out if you’re craving something fun and interesting.

Despite the natural obstacles, the Washington wine industry continues to grow rapidly. Watch and see them kick some California ass. We’re the ones who’ll win.


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