So, the first full day of my adventures on the Washington Wine route has ended. I’m travelling with a jolly band – Richard Hemming, Treve Ring and Kate Sweet, and we have a full itinerary that should allow us to get a real feel for this region. We began in the city, and nearby Woodinville, which is where a lot of wineries are located. But all (or 99%) the vineyards are three hours’ drive east over the Cascade Mountains, in the Columbia Valley. The climate there is much more conducive to wine growing, but the people are over on this side, hence the location of many of the wineries.
We had dinner on Wednesday night at RN74 with Steve Griessel, owner of Betz. These are dense, impressive, modern wines. I was particularly taken by the Pere de Famille Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, which is from a cooler vintage. There’s no shortage of richness and warmth in Washington wines, because the growing season – while a little compressed – is typically quite warm.
Thursday was Woodinville time. We began at the large Gallo-owned Columbia Winery (above), which is one of the oldest and largest of the Washington State wineries. As you’d expect, clean, modern wines at very reasonable prices, and a really nice visitor center.
Next up: lunch with the larger-than-life Chris Upchurch at DeLille. Chris rocks up wearing a Seattle Sounders football (soccer) shirt, and is full of chat. ‘I have a brevity problem,’ he reveals, showing admirable self-awareness. His wines are critically lauded in the US, and I was really impressed with the dense but focused Four Flags Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 from the Red Mountain AVA.
Then we visited two brilliant boutique producers in the Woodenville Warehouse district: neighbours with small facilities making very interesting wines. First, Jeff Lindsay-Thorsen of WT Vintners. ‘We work with extraordinary growers and extraordinary sites,’ says Jeff, ‘and I want to champion these places, usually through the lens of Syrah.
Jeff makes a very good Gruner Veltliner, but it’s his Syrahs that are just so expressive, elegant and beautiful. By day he’s wine director at RN74, but the way he’s going with the small winery he’s built up, I reckon he’ll be one of the Washington State stars of the future.
Then it was off to see neighbour Michael Savage. An ex-music industry guy with a love for analog recording and play back, he’s humble and a bit geeky, and clearly a very talented winemaker. His Savage Grace wines are lovely, and include a Gruner Veltliner, a nuanced Chardonnay, expressive Loire-style Sauvignon and a beautifully vivid, drinkable Cabernet Franc.
Then it was off to the state’s big player, Chateau Ste Michelle. We had a tasting of select group of wines from their portfolio with winemaker Bob Bertheau. I found the wines very well made and polished, but perhaps a little too sweet and ripe for my tastes. But I accept I am not their target market. I did like the Eroica Riesling 2013, though, which is really detailed and fine, and much better than it used to be a decade ago.
Finally, dinner at Wild Ginger – an excellent Asian small plates joint in the city – with the quirky Chris Camarda of Andrew Will. These wines are just so good: Bordeaux-style blends with sensible alcohol levels and lovely focused fruit. Chris told us how he thought lots of the state’s reds had lost their way with high alcohol and ripeness. He’s a big fan of Cabernet Franc in Washington State. I was particularly impressed by the wines he’s making from his own Two Blondes vineyard in Yakima. Interestingly Chris is another huge music fan, and a big collector of vinyl. It was a good end to the first day.