Washington State has a young wine industry characterized by an immensely successful first run. In 40 years, the state’s wine has gone from backwater to world class. The markers of a successful wine region are all present: high scores from professional tasters, marquee oaked reds from established producers, foreign expertise and investment, and a growing tourism industry. There are almost 900 wineries in Washington, up from only 250 in the mid-1990s. Although these growth milestones represent arrival on the global wine scene, they don’t complete the picture. Red Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon and Walla Walla Valley Syrah are some noteworthy reds that have put Washington on the map. But there’s some lesser-known wines that are making a splash in an industry dominated by conventional winemaking.
There’s a growing movement among certain producers now to take risks and move the Washington wine industry in a new direction. This involves experimenting with new grape varieties, vineyard practices, and winemaking techniques—and it requires a lot of imagination and courage. Here are some of the intrepid producers who are moving Washington wine forward.
Vineyards That Don’t Fit the Mold
Dave Rudnick’s revelatory moment came in an unlikely place. While he was making wine at Cape Mentelle in Western Australia, he took a trip over to the Yarra Valley in Victoria in 2008. As he casually tasted through the lineup at Yarra Yering Vineyards, he stumbled on a wine called Dry Red Wine No. 3. “It really stuck with me,” Rudnick says. “It’s a blend of Touriga Nacional, Sousão, Tinta Roriz, and Bastardo. The aromatics, flavors, and composition were so stunning.”
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Fast forward several years later, to 2011: A friend took Rudnick to taste at a Washington winery that was making a dry red from Portuguese varieties. Rudnick thought that Portuguese grapes might be just the thing for his own label, Somme des Parties in Walla Walla. Just one call to the manager of Red Heaven Vineyard in Kennewick yielded enough fruit for Rudnick to make his first cuvée of Touriga Franca and Tinta Cão, called The Love that Remains. It’s an unusual blend for Washington State, but these Portuguese varieties retain surprising balance in a desert climate.
Grüner Veltliner is another outlier grape for Washington State. Many consumers haven’t even heard of it, but it’s becoming something of a pet project for growers, especially in the Columbia Gorge AVA, which spans the border between Washington and Oregon. Syncline Winery in Lyle, Washington, began growing it in 2008, and others—like Michael Savage, the owner and winemaker of Savage Grace Wines, and Jeff Lindsay-Thorsen, the winemaker for W.T. Vintners, both based in Woodinville—have been cultivating it as well. “Grüner Veltliner, specifically from the cool western Columbia Gorge, has a very clear varietal character, reflects its site, and has a distinct freshness,” says Lindsay-Thorsen, who has been producing wine in Washington since 2007. In a state known first for its Riesling and, occasionally, some riper styles of Chardonnay, cool-climate Grüner Veltliner is helping change the perception of what white Washington wine can be.
Vineyard experimentation can be about technique as much as it is about new grapes. Most Washington vineyards are trellised and planted in rows, which makes it easy to irrigate, farm, and pick grapes during harvest. But if you look at planting methods in other hot, dry climates, like central Spain or Southern France, you’ll see lots of bush vines. That’s why Greg Harrington, MS, the founder and winemaker of Gramercy Cellars in Walla Walla, persuaded the manager of Olsen Vineyards in the Yakima Valley to plant head-trained, spur-pruned bush-vine Grenache. These cuttings, which originally came from Tablas Creek Vineyard in California, are already producing their first crop, which is on the crush pad for the 2018 harvest.
Techniques from the Ancients
Master Sommelier Nate Ready seems like a wizard of sorts. Maybe it’s his full beard and his inquisitive gaze, or his quiet, contemplative manner. After stints at The French Laundry in Yountville, California, and Frasca Food & Wine in Boulder, Colorado, Ready spent a few years making wine in the Willamette Valley. He started Hiyu Wine Farm and Smockshop Band in 2012 with the goal of emulating the casual, relational environment of wine taverns in Austria and Friuli. The experience at the wine taverns is less about tasting the wines on their own than it is about contextualizing them with food. Says Ready, “I was in love with this world of meals and the table. I realized I could bring what I cared about together. I could do hospitality … but I could also do farming.” Hiyu Wine Farm is based in the Columbia Gorge, which spans both Washington and Oregon. Ready uses grapes from both sides of the border to tell the story of the Gorge and its unique terroir. For example, the Smockshop Band “Spring Ephemeral” is Nate’s whole-cluster Grenache. It’s sourced from a sandy-soil vineyard in southern Washington where the “Gorge transitions to desert.”
Ready’s winemaking would be considered “natural” by most definitions. He practices organic viticulture and native fermentation, with occasional sulfur additions at bottling. In other words, these wines aren’t what you’d call supermarket-ready. To pour one of Hiyu Wine Farm’s orange-tinted, skin-fermented whites for an average consumer would seem like a reach: These wines are aromatic, tannic, tart, dark in color, and totally otherworldly. “At first, I was afraid that what we were doing would be too weird or too ‘out there,’” says Ready. “But people have been super excited about it. Oftentimes, the people in our industry make assumptions about what their customer is going to like that aren’t true.”
Ready isn’t alone in breaking the orange wine barrier in Washington. Morgan Lee, the winemaker for Two Vintners in Woodinville, started making his OG, or Orange Gewürztraminer, in 2010, after a friend suggested the idea. Lee sought out some Gewürztraminer fruit from the north slope of Olsen Vineyards and made sure the dark-skinned berries would get full sunning and color development. He has continued to experiment with this cuvée, and his current version gets macerated for eight weeks in Spanish clay pots, or tinaja. “This wine is designed to make people think,” says Lee, “not to make them comfortable.” Savage Grace Wines also makes a skin-fermented Gewürztraminer from fruit from the Columbia Gorge’s Oak Ridge Vineyard.
Applying a New Philosophy to Old Grapes
Michael Savage’s favorite winemaker is Jean Foillard, one of the natural-wine pioneers of Beaujolais. Every wine that Savage has set out to produce has subtle echoes of Foillard’s ethos: minimal manipulation and as natural as possible. For Savage, winemaking is about purity and straightforward techniques. “I can’t sell a wine that I’ve manipulated,” he says. “I just want to make an honest wine. I want the wine to tell the story of what happened that year.”
Côt is a French synonym for Malbec, a variety commonly used in France’s Loire Valley. In the Loire, it’s rarely made in the same style as the Malbecs from Cahors in France or Mendoza in Argentina, which fit more into the Bordeaux tradition, drawing on new oak and heavy extraction. These powerful styles of oaked Malbec are grown and produced in Washington State as well, but Savage’s Côt is made in the Loire tradition, using native yeast and whole-cluster fermentation. “It’s a nonlinear pathway,” says Savage. “But I’m finding what I like in Foillard’s wines through that Côt vineyard here in Washington State. It echoes back to Cru Beaujolais. I think it’s a launch-off point for something new in Washington.”
This sentiment is not entirely new. With hundreds of wineries vying for a piece of the Washington wine market, the outliers do well to differentiate themselves. “I think some of the boundaries are being pushed,” says Savage. “The idea of lower alcohol is being considered as an option, [as is] less ‘winemaking’ but more thinking about the picking decisions, and picking earlier. The goal is wines that go with food.” Among these forward-thinking winemakers, there’s no thread more common than the desire to make delicious, standout wines that are meant for the table.
Jackson Rohrbaugh, MS, is a Seattle native who has a bachelor’s degree in creative writing from the University of Washington. He is the founder of Crunchy Red Fruit, a subscription wine box focused on organic, sustainable wines from small producers. Follow him on Instagram.