Washington Wine: More Than the Sum of Its Parts?

P1050699This post starts with a roundabout tour of Taste Washington, considers the changing of the guard at The Wine Advocate, and ends with an idea for a new “Brand Washington” slogan. Hop on board — it promises to be a wild ride.


My plan for Taste Washington, as reported in last week’s post, was to experience the event through two imaginary guides, Benjamin Lewin (author of the forthcoming book Claret & Cabs: The Story of Cabernet Sauvignonand  The Wine Advocate’s new reviewer for Washington wine, David Schildknecht. I think I’ve learned something through this effort, but it wasn’t as easy as I expected.

Hypothesis Testing 

One of the points that Lewin makes is that because many of the Washington Cabernet vineyards are planted with the same or similar clones, there is less diversity in single-vineyard wines than you might imagine — blending across vineyards and even across regions is needed to compensate, he suggests.

So I set out to test this hypothesis empirically on the event floor, but found myself unable to establish a control on which to base the comparison. Poor experimental design on my part — I should have asked Dr. Lewin, a renowned scientist, for advice! Perhaps I will have better luck if I try this again next year.

I was more successful verifying Schildknecht’s observations about the freshness and originality of Washington wines at their best (by tasting some of the same wines he reviewed), but on the day that my initial post was published I received an email from The Wine Advocate announcing that Schildknecht was being assigned new reviewing duties that do not include Washington (Rhone Ranger specialist Jeb Dunnuck is taking over the job), which made this part of the experiment less interesting to me.

[Several folks hereabouts are understandably frustrated and feel a bit disrespected by The Wine Advocate’s coverage of Washington this year — reviews posted much later than promised and now another change in lead critic after only one year. The Wine Advocate is having a rocky transition to the post-Parker era, with new owners and new reviewers in a challenging and shifting publishing environment. No disrespect intended, it’s just business — that’s how I see the situation — but it is easy to see why some Washington winemakers and enthusiasts (including me) would be disappointed.]

The Art of the Blend

A different kind of blend

A different kind of blend

Touring Taste Washington with my imaginary guides was fun and provoked some interesting conversations but proved more complicated than I imagined it would be. I learned more at the seminars we attended before the big event (see details at the end of this post). Using a “divide and conquer” strategy, Contributing Editor Sue Veseth went one way and I went another. Here is Sue’s report:

Should Washington’s signature wines be blends? This was the first of several questions that came to mind at the Taste Washington seminar called “All Mixed Up — The Art of Blending.” The panel included three blending masters (Brian Carter of Brian Carter Cellars, Dave Merfeld of Northstar Winery, and Mike MacMorran of Mark Ryan Winery), plus Doug Charles of Compass Wines, and Tom Thompson from the Tulalip Resort. Washington Wine Report’s Sean Sullivan chaired the discussion.

In addition to the question of Washington’s signature wine, other questions came to mind.

What constitutes a blend? Blending can involve different varietals, of course, but also different percentages of the varietals, different vineyards, different picking times, different yeasts, different oak or no oak — you name it. In many cases, a wine labeled as a varietal may well be blended with other grapes, in accordance with local labeling requirements. Mark Ryan Winery’s Dead Horse is labeled as Cabernet Sauvignon but also includes Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot.

Is the varietal name the best way to market blends that meet requirements to be labeled with the varietal name? Are wines labeled “red blend” or “red wine” the best way to market blends? Or are named blends — such as Brian Carter’s Abracadabera — more appealing and memorable to consumers?

Are varietals introductory, “gateway” wines? One winemaker suggested that as wine drinkers become more educated, they can (should?) move from varietals to blends. Blends open more wine options for adventurous wine drinkers.

Traditional or non-traditional blends? Many Washington winemakers successfully make and sell traditional blends. Four of the wines at the seminar were traditional Bordeaux bends, one was a Southern Rhone blend. But the most interesting wine (to me) was a non-traditional blend, the 2011 Brian Carter Oriana, a blend of 51% Viognier, 35% Rousanne, and 14% Riesling. Riesling! So maybe Washington’s signature wine blends can respect the standard European blends and also include more non-traditional choices. Blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah already have a foothold.

More questions than answers.

My Solution to the Adding Up Problem

My seminar focused on the wines of the Yakima Valley AVA, Washington’s first appellation, which is celebrating its 30th birthday this year. Although the point of the program was to showcase the wines, to show their excellence and to argue that Yakima deserves a higher profile, another aspect that was revealed was its complicated diversity.

I wonder — are Yakima wines more diverse within the region than they are distinctive from other areas? Add that to Sue’s list of questions! Yes, I think they might. I think it is possible that this intra-AVA diversity makes the wines more interesting and sometimes downright exciting, even though the result might be that the Yakima AVA “brand”  isn’t as neatly defined (and commercially valuable) as some might like.

What is our take-away message from these seminars and the grand tasting? Well, it seems to me that we learned that Washington wine is more than the sum of its parts. The parts are very good — the individual AVAs, the particular vineyards and grape varieties, etc. — and it is understandable to want to showcase each of them. But maybe just maybe Washington’s true identity comes through best when creative people blend them together.

Washington Wine: more than the sum of its parts? I suppose there are worse ways to describe this region!


Here are details of the seminars that Sue and I attended. Thanks to Taste Washington and the Washington Wine Commission for media passes to these events.

All Mixed Up – The Art of Blending

Blends are one of the hottest categories on the market. What’s all the buzz about? Why are consumers embracing this category so enthusiastically? Why and how do winemakers blend their wines? What grapes play well together, and which one aren’t allowed in the sand box together? At this seminar you will learn from some of Washington’s masters as they pull back the curtain on the blending room and reveal the secrets behind the art of blending.

Sean Sullivan, Washington Wine Report (wawinereport.com) 

Brian Carter, Brian Carter Cellars (briancartercellars.com)
Tom Thompson, Tulalip Resort (tulalipresprt.com)
Dave Merfeld, Northstar Winery (northstarwinery.com) 
Mike MacMorran, Mark Ryan Winery (markryanwinery.com) 
Doug Charles, Compass Wines (compasswines.com)

Brian Carter Cellars Oriana 2011
Cadence Bel Canto 2009
Northstar Columbia Valley Merlot 2009
Mark Ryan Winery Dead Horse 2010
Seven Hills Ciel du Cheval 2010
Rotie Cellars Southern Rhone Blend 2010

Yakima Valley 30th Anniversary

The Yakima Valley is Washington’s first American Viticultural Area, approved 30 years ago in 1983. It’s also steeped in the early history of the Washington wine industry. Some of the state’s first European wine grapes were planted in Sunnyside by William B. Bridgman in 1917. The legendary Dr. Walter Clore came to the Yakima Valley soon after Prohibition was repealed and began planting grapes in the ’50s and ’60s to show Washington’s viability as a world-class wine region. Today, some of Washington’s greatest vineyards — Ciel du Cheval, Klipsun, Boushey, Red Willow and DuBrul among them — are in the Yakima Valley. In this seminar, we will explore the Yakima Valley’s fascinating history and diverse viticulture

Andy Perdue, Great Northwest Wine (greatnorthwestwine.com)

Bob Betz MW, Betz Family Winery (betzfamilywinery.com) 
W. Blake Gray, The Gray Report (blog.wblakegray.com)
Todd Newhouse, Upland Vineyards (uplandwinery.com) 
Thomas Price MS, The Metropolitan Grill (themetropolitangrill.com)

Domaine Ste Michelle Brut Rose
Smasne Cellars Ancient Rocks 2010
Betz Family Winery La Serenne 2010
Owen Roe Red Willow Vineyard 2010
DeLille Cellars Harrison Hill 2009
Soos Creek Ciel du Cheval 2010

2 responses

  1. Great timing, Mike. We’re about to start tasting alot of Washington State wines, and your article give us a new perspective.

  2. Mike

    Clipping from The Age newsparer in Melbourne Australia


    Michael Hince

    Glass of red could mean more than a hangover
    Date April 10, 2013 – 4:00PM

    Will Oremus
    In 50 years, wines from Bordeaux and Tuscany will be insipid. Instead, we’ll all be drinking Montana merlots and Chinese clarets.

    That, at any rate, is the implication of a paper published online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which estimates that anywhere from 19 to 73 per cent of the land suitable for wine-growing in today’s major wine regions will be lost to climate change by 2050. (The wide variance reflects the great uncertainty in climate prediction models.) As vineyards in Spain, Italy, and southern France wither, colder regions that are inhospitable today will be poised to take their place as the new grands crus.

    C’est la vie, right? Climate change giveth, and climate change taketh away.

    There’s just one catch, according to the study. Many of those new wine regions coincide with important habitat for species such as the gray wolf, the pronghorn, the grizzly bear, and in China’s case, the panda.

    The most promising new region of all, according to lead author Lee Hannah of the non-profit organisation Conservation International, may be the area north of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. That would put it directly in the path of a conservation initiative designed to connect Yellowstone to the Yukon. It’s that very type of wildlife corridor that scientists say may be needed to allow animals such as grizzly bears to respond to climate change themselves. “Vineyards would be a major impediment to this connectivity,” Hannah writes in a blog post about the study. “They provide poor habitat for wildlife, and would probably have to be fenced to avoid bears snacking on the grapes.”
    We’ve long known that wine grapes are particularly sensitive to climatic shifts. But the idea of vintners and pandas duking it out in a death match in the highlands of China is obviously not an appealing one for any of the parties concerned. Can it be avoided?

    One encouraging sign is that vintners are already finding ways to adapt to climate change on the land they own today. As climate change intensifies, they can continue to adapt by uprooting old vines and replacing them with varietals more suited to warm weather, among other adaptations. At the same time, some are already buying new land on higher ground as “climate insurance”. And China is now the world’s fastest growing wine region.

    The real key to the sustainable evolution of the wine industry, writes Hannah, will be shifting winemakers’ environmental focus. Today a growing number are raising their grapes organically and biodynamically, which is well and good. But this approach leaves out the larger environmental problems of land use and impact on wildlife. If you’re destroying habitat to build your “sustainable” vineyard and enclosing it with fences, that isn’t really sustainable at all.

    To remedy this, Hannah suggests that “consumers make it known that wildlife-friendly wine production is important to them”. Wine producers could respond by following the lead of partnerships such as the Biodiversity and Wine Initiative in the Cape region of South Africa, which plans new vineyards in concert with conservation groups to protect the most sensitive habitats.

    Who’s up for a panda-friendly pinot?


    Will Oremus is the lead blogger for Future Tense, reporting on emerging technologies, tech policy and digital culture.

    Read more: http://www.theage.com.au/comment/glass-of-red-could-mean-more-than-a-hangover-20130410-2hl67.html#ixzz2Q2PQOPDF

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