Riesling is a natural fit for the wave of winemakers who revere old vines, cool sites, good farming, and low-alcohol, high-acid wines. West Coast producers are onto this. Riding the rising tide of Riesling quality around the world, there’s renewed attention to the grape across California, Oregon, and Washington—particularly among micro-producers.
As a new generation of wine consumers and somms embraces Riesling’s exceptional affinity for dry, off-dry, skin-contact, low-intervention, and sparkling expressions, as well as the West Coast’s extraordinary range of heritage and marginal vineyards, the Riesling renaissance is here.
But the renewed interest is playing out differently, and with distinct challenges, in each state. In California, tons crushed in 2020 were triple the volume of two decades ago. Riesling acreage is holding steady in Oregon, but the state is bursting with edgy projects and small producers celebrating the grape. In Washington, by contrast, a single producer, Chateau Ste. Michelle, churns out some 1.2 million cases of largely value-driven Riesling for markets in all 50 states each year. (“Let’s not forget how people actually drink,” wine historian and writer Kelli White reminds us.)
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What’s behind the West Coast’s love for a notoriously neglected grape? The short answer is fearless, boundary-pushing advocates.
In 2019, Angel Davis, the owner of Fig and Thistle and Millay, and Andrew Nelson, the co-owner of Habibi wine bar, all in San Francisco, who is also a partner with Ryan Stirm in Companion Wines near Santa Cruz, pulled together a festival of Riesling-fueled dinners, tastings, and classes centered around 30 notable West Coast Riesling producers and projects. Inspired by New York’s Rieslingfeier, Davis, Nelson, and Santa Barbara Riesling phenom Graham Tatomer used the events to showcase the diversity of West Coast Riesling far beyond the dry-sweet spectrum. While COVID has prevented the event from returning so far, the event’s success shows West Coast Riesling has, if not arrived, at least advanced to greater appreciation.
Riesling’s Deep Roots on the Coast
What’s happening here today has its roots in the 1960s and ’70s. At the time, growers were convinced Riesling would thrive in cold-climate pockets of all three states. “They saw places like Oregon’s Willamette Valley as the next Alsace,” says Barnaby Tuttle, of Portland’s Teutonic Wines, and planted accordingly. But in the ’80s and ’90s, Riesling fell out of favor among consumers, and the cooler areas of California and Oregon began to look more like Burgundy.
Things played out differently in Washington. Propelled by a strong commitment to Riesling from Chateau Ste. Michelle—the largest Riesling producer in the U.S.—the grape is the state’s third-most produced variety today. (In California and Oregon, Riesling’s share is far smaller.) Chateau Ste. Michelle’s dominance has had a huge impact on the image and reality of Washington Riesling. Chris Tanghe, MS, a long-time Seattle resident and the interim director of GuildSomm, thinks that in an effort to distinguish themselves from the Riesling giant, smaller producers have shied from the grape. “A lot of Washington pioneers are looking to do other things, even though Riesling is what put Washington on the wine map,” he says.
David Rosenthal, who heads up white winemaking at Chateau Ste. Michelle, sees “a huge transition” in Washington Riesling. “When Riesling was first planted here, Washington was thought of as this ultra-cold climate place,” he says. “So Riesling was planted in the warmer parts of the state.” Now the focus has shifted to cooler areas, especially the Ancient Lakes, Yakima Valley, and Columbia Gorge AVAs.
Improvements in viticulture have made another crucial difference. “In the 1990s, we were growing Riesling like it was Cabernet or Merlot: exposed fruit, smaller canopies, all the things that accelerated ripening,” notes Rosenthal. “Over the years we’ve learned we need more shading to slow things down, get more hang-time on the vines, and more elegance and structure [in the wines].”
A Playground for Riesling in Oregon
In a sense, this same fine-tuning is playing out up and down the coast. But in California and Oregon, it’s small growers and winemakers who are exploring marginal or forgotten sites.
In Oregon, they are zeroing in on a scattering of smaller vineyards, predominantly in the Willamette Valley, where the same cool but sheltered climate and moderate elevations that make this prime Pinot Noir territory also give rise to intensely aromatic and terroir-expressive Rieslings.
The late Jimi Brooks, the founder of Brooks Wine, was a Willamette Valley Riesling pioneer, setting the stage for what is playing out there today. According to Brooks’ sister, Janie Heuck, who has run the estate since Brooks’ death in 2004, he started the winery in 1998 intent on helping to restore the valley’s reputation for Riesling.
Today, the biodynamic winery owns five acres of ungrafted Riesling planted in 1974 and buys fruit from more than 20 different Riesling vineyards, mostly older-vine, responsibly farmed sites, showcasing many of these sites in single-vineyard bottlings that helped establish Oregon’s Riesling reputation.
The Gorge, which straddles Oregon and Washington, is an up-and-coming area for Riesling. Its Alpine feel is well-suited to Riesling’s need for long, cool growing seasons, intense sunlight, and air flow to keep off botrytis and rot. “I’m obsessed,” says Jess Pierce, who makes a few hundred cases of Riesling each year under her Pierce label from fruit grown there. “The Gorge has that river-meets-mountain feel you get in Europe. But the wines feel wilder.”
New Demand for Old Vines
In California, Riesling producers tend to flock to larger, more established vineyards, seeking out the singular concentrations of flavor that old vines impart, the long-ripening complexity that comes from cold, maritime-influenced sites, or the aromatic development high-altitude Riesling gains from sharp diurnal shifts. These sites furnish grapes that suit a growing consumer thirst for single-vineyard explorations and kaleidoscopic winemaking styles.
In Santa Barbara, Los Alamos’ Kick-on Ranch is a prime example of the increasing demand for Riesling among the state’s small producers. Ten miles off the Pacific, cooling fogs and clockwork ocean breezes modulate even the most erratic heat spikes, leading producers like Tatomer, Stirm, and J. Brix to source Kick-on’s fruit. “Even though 95-point Pinot is grown there, there’s something about the Riesling that has created this craze,” says Tatomer, who has worked with Kick-on fruit for more than a decade and now has six acres of Riesling available to him there. “The owner has been grafting Pinot to Riesling and now there’s a list of winemakers waiting to get it.”
There’s a similar fervor around the state’s old Riesling sites, like the Wirz vineyard in Cienega Valley, which has 40 acres of own-rooted Riesling, planted in 1964. (Wirz is the second-oldest U.S. Riesling vineyard still in production after Stony Hill). Wide-spaced old bush vines yield just a ton per acre and winemakers like Stirm and Mike Callahan of Maidenstoen, among many others, prize what the site’s higher pH soils and up to 50-degree diurnal swings give to the fruit.
A tiny block of old, head-trained Riesling vines at Rossi Ranch in Rutherford proved valuable in the brutal heat of the 2017 vintage. “Head-training is not ideal for control,” says Calder Wine Company’s Rory Williams, whose family owns the site, “but it works very well to protect the grapes on their path to full ripeness.” Riesling was planted on the property in 1978 and kept in the ground despite the temptation to replant to more profitable varieties. “In California, when it comes to Riesling, various ornery iconoclasts have kept these iconic pieces of history alive,” says Williams, who started bottling his own dry Riesling in 2011.
California does not have the lock on old vines, though. Evergreen vineyard, in central Washington’s Ancient Lakes AVA, is a sweeping, 1,200-acre site on caliche (sedimentary calcareous) soils, offering Riesling-friendly pHs and long hang times. Planted in 1971, much of the Riesling has gone to big producers like Chateau Ste. Michelle and Charles Smith, but a few small winemakers like Efeste are now working with fruit from this site as well.
Changing Styles Amidst a Changing Climate
“We’re seeing a trend toward dry, high-acid styles, the stuff that inspired everybody in the first place,” says Davis. “Beyond that, a lot of pét-nats and skin-contact because Riesling does really well with those styles—and really, really small releases.”
Emily Towe and her husband Jody Brix Towe of J. Brix in San Diego County make Rieslings that tick all these boxes. Emily Towe recalls that in 2013, a bumper crop from Kick-on Ranch gave them the chance to “play around” and “broaden people’s horizons.” The result was a pét-nat that has become a staple in their lineup. They were also intrigued by skin-fermented Riesling and have bumped up production there, too. Riesling now accounts for about 500 of the 3,000 total cases they make each vintage.
Kelli White suspects that while the increase in California’s Riesling production “has a lot to do with demand from young winemakers wanting to work with grapes like that” it may also, especially in the Central Valley, be driven by demand for off-dry jug or boxed wine destined for supermarket shelves. “America still drinks sweet,” she reminds us.
Riesling is also winning fans for a very different reason: climate change. Despite the popular perception of Riesling as the ultimate cool-climate grape, it can produce stunning results even in the erratically dry and searing conditions that now mark West Coast growing seasons. The grape modulates its ripening in response to heat or water stress, another reason it’s a surprisingly good fit for the West Coast and its weather extremes.
“In August 2020, we had the longest heatwave I’ve ever experienced in Santa Barbara,” says Tatomer. “But we had a really low sugar year. If the temperatures are that high, the vine totally shuts down. We ended up with very low-alcohol, high-acid wines in 2020.”
Wildfires and smoke present altogether different challenges. In 2017, Teutonic’s Tuttle began to embrace smoke as part of Oregon’s terroir. Playing on the German tradition of rauchbier, he made a Riesling rauchwein. “We’re even building a flavor wheel for smoke,” he says. “Brisket? Popcorn? Caramel?”
But it’s not always possible to be so playful. 2020 was a catastrophic year for fire and smoke taint in the Willamette Valley. “We experimented with the fruit we had, testing what might balance out smoke—residual sugar? Reverse osmosis?” says Heuck. “But because we’re biodynamic, we don’t even know how to do a lot of these protocols to remove taint.” As a result, flagship Oregon producer Brooks made no Riesling at all in 2020.
Selling It, Softly
Winemakers from Tatomer and Stirm to Teutonic and Brooks have staked their identities in whole or in large part on Riesling, be they classic styles or super natty zero/zero bottlings. These wines, in turn, drive attention and acclaim to the region’s emerging range of sites, vine material, and talent.
But easing quality Riesling into the mainstream requires a range of creative responses. Many consumers still have a knee-jerk reaction to the R word. This has pushed some winemakers away from using it in their labeling. Companion’s rosé, for example, is 97 percent Riesling, “but the word Riesling doesn’t appear anywhere on the wine, and it outsells our Riesling four to one,” says Nelson. “To me, the message is: ‘You bought rosé, but you like it because it’s Riesling.”
Alternative packaging helps, too. Companion’s canned Rieslings and Riesling-based rosés have enjoyed strong sales across the country. Jess Pierce, who distributes her Riesling only in Oregon, is taking an even more innovative tact. As she prepared to launch her Riesling (also without naming the grape on the front label) in 2019, she looked for ways to plug into a low-waste packaging and distribution system. She jumped on a trend from Oregon’s beer industry: refillable 500-milliliter bottles. The format proved pandemic perfect—well-portioned, portable, accessible. She sees growing interest in refillables from other producers in California and Washington, too. “Having this be a whole kind of West Coast thing would be great,” says Pierce.
Misperceptions about Riesling and the price domestic Riesling can command relative to varieties with more established market demand pose additional challenges. Lulu Handley, of Handley Cellars in Anderson Valley, explains that the estate was founded in part on her mother, the late Milla Handley’s, belief in the promise of aromatic whites at the cool end of the valley. Riesling was an important part of this.
But Handley has had to put its Riesling program on pause. The inexorable rise of Pinot Noir in the valley has left just 25 acres of Riesling, and the estate hasn’t been able to find a vineyard partner that meets its organic farming requirements. McClellan also notes the difficulty of competing with imported Rieslings on price, something other West Coast producers point to as well.
Mike Callanan, whose Maidenstoen project explores several of California’s most acclaimed Riesling vineyards, knows how precariously they co-exist with more reliable cash-crop grapes. “There’s no shame about pulling out some of these old vines,” he says. “With the old vines, it’s wide spacing and low yields, and it gets pretty hard to justify.” Though a few of the Riesling sites he sourced fruit from have since been grafted over to other grapes, his solution has been to work with families with deep connections to their sites that “aren’t going anywhere.”
This summer, a change in ownership of Chateau Ste. Michelle’s parent company prompted some industry observers to wonder whether this might provide a burst of energy to the small-producer movement in Washington, further catalyzing West Coast Riesling. The revival is under way. Whether it remains an insider tip or breaks out to wider success depends on the open-mindedness of industry players and avid consumers.
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Valerie Kathawala is a New York-based journalist specializing in the wines of Austria, Germany, South Tyrol, and Switzerland. She is also the co-founder and co-editor of TRINK Magazine. She holds a WSET 3 certification.