WHAT MAKES WASHINGTON WINE UNIQUE
In the world of wine, Washington is considered a new wine region with an enormous capacity to prove itself more than worthy of world-class recognition. There’s a handful of reasons that contribute to making this region so special and capable of producing amazing wines. The innovative and collaborative grape growers, winemakers, geologists, as well as the climate, soils, and grapes all come together to make the Washington wine community unique.
So, let’s break it down. Looking at a map of Washington you’ll see two completely different stories. To the west you have the Pacific Ocean. The first break against the cold windy influence of the ocean is the Olympic Mountain Range. As you continue west you reach the Puget Sound, where grapes are grown but mostly hybrid varietals, that can withstand large amounts of rain and humidity. Keep in mind, this is where the population is.
Next as you begin to travel east you’ll encounter the Cascade Mountain Range and this changes everything! You now have your second barrier in place which creates “the rain shadow effect,” keeping the wind and rain to the west (35-38 inches per year) and creating a dry (almost desert-like) continental climate in the east (6-8 inches per year). Here is where Washington state’s (vitis vinifera) premium wine grapes are grown.
The Missoula Floods were a series of glacial damn breaks that roared through eastern Washington with enormous power clearing out everything in its path. The importance of this lies when the water itself retreated, depositing river rock and alluvial soils that are vital to the success of premium grape vines. What makes this soil important is that it delivers soils low in nutrients. This sounds odd, but a vine mirrors itself to a weed and given all the nutrients it needs it will just sprawl and grow, losing focus on the importance of concentrating its energy on the grapes themselves. But planted in nutrient poor soil, the vines will delve deeper, establish a strong root system, find water and access the limited amount of nutrients required to make it thrive.
In combination with the geological and climatic factors that make Washington wine so special were the forward-thinkers and doers of the Washington wine industry, beginning with our early founders. It was this group of 10 friends who recognized the potential to grow grapes in eastern Washington. They were the first to plant Syrah, Cabernet Franc, and Pinot Gris. After harvest they would load the grapes onto trucks, head west, and begin the winemaking process, starting with fermentation and leading to full production and aging.
This is an extremely unusual practice for both old world (Europe) and new world (everyone but Europe) wine industries. Even to this day, there’s nowhere else in the world that does this or is quite like Washington.
This forward-thinking movement started what has become our working warehouse wine district - winemakers working in close quarters sharing not only their forklifts, but their special knowledge with each other. These things seem simple to the outside world, such as which yeast strands do well with certain grape varietals, or where to access extra grapes, or who knows of a good cooper, but are typically tightly kept secrets in most wine communities.
There are wine estates and tasting rooms located in eastern WA, but because of the larger population in the west even established wine production estates have tasting rooms for the public in western Washington.
This open and generous sharing of knowledge has propelled the Washington wine industry forward even with its stunted start time due to Prohibition. Prohibition was taken seriously in Washington. It was implemented early and ended late, leaving Washington a bit behind the rest of the new world wine communities such as California. But with collaboration, the Washington wine community caught itself up quickly and is now valued for high quality wine at incredible price points.
As a way to help the wine advocate gain a better understanding of the 14 grape growing regions in Washington, the American Viticulture Area (AVA) system was established. An AVA is a designated wine grape-growing region in the United States distinguishable by geographic features, with boundaries defined by the TTB. The AVA system gives a “sense of place,” to the consumer. With a stated AVA on a bottle of wine that represents more than 80% of the grapes being sourced from that region, the consumer can start to taste the flavor profile that distinguishes that viticulture area.
The Washington wine community from grape to glass is amazing. Open-minded, innovative, and excited for what the future holds. Grab a glass and enjoy the journey!
- Shelly Fitzgerald, Wine Education Specialist, CS, CSW, AWE, WSET Level 3