Will this be ‘The decade of Washington wine?'

Last month I wrote about a few recent trends in the Washington wine industry. Here I discuss other recent trends and the potential implications for the coming years.

Increased Number of Grape Varieties Planted

For many years Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Riesling have dominated the Washington wine scene. In the last ten years, this has started to change. Many vineyards now have twenty or more varieties planted. This has resulted in the emergence of several varieties in the last decade, particularly Syrah and Malbec. However, a number of varieties that were previously almost unheard of in Washington are popping up each year as well, such as Juan Garcia, Tempranillo, Albarino, and Grenache to name just a few.

This will present some interesting opportunities and challenges for the industry in the coming years. In terms of opportunities, wineries will have a chance to make a name for themselves based on a particular emerging variety. Creating a brand around something unique is, at least in theory, somewhat easier than trying to compete with hundreds of wineries making Cabernet Sauvignon.

In terms of challenges, in the coming years Washington will continue to show more breadth than focus. The large number of new varieties being experimented with promises to leave the Washington wine scene somewhat fragmented for the foreseeable future. Though the exploration of different varieties will continue to create a number of issues for the industry, it is also part of the process of Washington finding and establishing its identity. And who knows? One of the grapes people are playing with could turn out to be very, very interesting here.

Increased Number of Estate Vineyards

One of the aspects that has long distinguished Washington as a wine region is the large number of wineries that do not have vineyards associated with them. Instead, many wineries purchase fruit to make their wines. This has had two significant effects. First, it has allowed numerous wineries to set up shop and live close to a large consumer base in the Seattle metropolitan area. Second, it has allowed wineries to get into the business comparatively quickly and cheaply, contributing to the recent increase in the number of wineries in the state.

However, more recently there has been a trend toward establishing estate vineyards. Even a number of long-tenured Washington wineries, such as Leonetti Cellar, DeLille Cellars, and Quilceda Creek to name just a few, have established estate vineyards recently. Additionally, many wineries that do not own vineyards have established long-term contracts for specific vineyard blocks. Both give a winery greater consistency in style from year to year.

While I believe there will always be a large number of wineries using non-estate fruit in Washington, I expect the trend toward planting estate vineyards to continue in the coming years. It gives a winery complete control over its operation and has financial implications as well.

Improved Winemaking

Ten years ago there were about one hundred and fifty wineries in Washington. Of those, a reasonably small number had extensive winemaking experience. A limited number were making highly rated, world-class wine. Since then the number of wineries has increased dramatically as has the number making exceptional wines.

To wit, in the year 2000, thirty-four Washington wines received a rating of ninety points or higher from Wine Spectator. Halfway through 2010, more than one hundred and thirty wines have received such a rating. This is due both to an increase in the number of wineries in the state and an increase in winemaking knowledge. There are more people doing it and more people doing it better.

Improved Viticulture

Since its early days, Washington has been an agricultural state. Subsequently, for many years grapes were treated simply as another crop without a great deal of focus on how to maximize the quality. Quantity was king.

While many people say ‘wine is made in the vineyard,’ in the last ten years more people are starting to take that saying to heart by focusing on viticulture. Additionally, there has been an increase in enology and viticulture programs around the state. This has resulted in an increase in knowledge, quality, and competition. Perhaps the most exciting part of this is that this is still a reasonably recent trend. The focus on viticulture promises to only get more intense in the coming years.

Increased Alcohol Levels

The rise in alcohol levels in Washington wines in the last ten years has been dramatic. If one looks at labels from the late nineties, many red wines were twelve and a half to thirteen percent alcohol. If one searches for a wine in that range today about the only place to find it is in the under ten dollar section where some vineyard or winery has bulked off their under ripe Cabernet Sauvignon.

Many things have contributed to this change. Among them are changes in viticulture and enology, as well as an evolution of consumer tastes. Certainly this trend is not specific to Washington (insert rant about/defense of so called 'Parkerization’ here).

More recently there has been somewhat of a bifurcation in the Washington wine industry. Some wineries have continued to push upwards with wines at sixteen percent alcohol (do I hear seventeen?). Some wineries have bucked the trend and started making lower alcohol wines again.

Looking back at wines from ten-plus years ago, it is clear that Washington can produce ripe Cabernet Sauvignon and other grapes at lower alcohol levels. It has just chosen not to recently. I believe over time that we will see more wines across a range of alcohol levels in the state.

While the last ten years have been dramatic in Washington, the next ten years guarantee to be even more so. There is currently a perfect confluence of factors - a significant acreage and variety of plantings, a focus on viticulture, significant experience, better knowledge, and increased critical attention and acclaim - to make tremendous strides in the industry. Add to this a critical mass of people and boundless enthusiasm, and the next ten years look to be 'The decade of Washington wine.'

Sean P. Sullivan


  1. Sagrantino (Lodmell Cellars),
    Regent (Hollywood Hill Vineyards),
    Albarino (Coyote Canyon, Shady Grove),
    Gruner Veltliner (Syncline),
    Chasselas Dore (Mount Baker Vineyards, Vashon Winery),
    Touriga Nacional and Tinta Cao (Chateau Ste. Michelle).

  2. WWM, the list goes on an on. Touriga is in a few other places I know of at this point (one of them is Les Collines) as is Albarino. Going to be fun to see!

  3. Nice! Any winery that takes a chance with an obscure varietal will get my support (and cash).
    Wine is made in the vineyard. It's all about the "foundation". Even a bad house built on a strong foundation will stand. A mansion built on wobbly foundation will implode.
    Is a big, ripe jellybomb that bad? Low-alcohol lovers should move to dessert wines...

  4. dull gold is still gold.
    a shiny turd is still a turd.

  5. Hi Sean, Being a former Washingtonian, I like to stay up on the wine scene by reading your stuff and Paul G's. So today I have to respond to your "post". As a trained scientist I gotta ask where's your data?
    The idea that because there are mo'betta scores now than then....has nothing to to with better winemaking. I spent my first days in the wine industry dragging hoses at the old Waterbrook winery. I now make wine in another state. I recently went on a Walla Walla wine junket with some other WM friends and we were pretty shocked by the very poor quality of wines we tasted. It would taste as though Walla Walla winemaking is now too spread out. I can verify that in Walla area, there are waaaay too many rookies with little to no winemaking knowledge nor training. And while I do realize that some newbies have hit on some nice scores, the best wines we tasted were from the "old guard". Pepperbridge, L'ecole, Woodward Canyon, Seven Hills and the best of the best was the array of wines from Long Shadows project.
    So while WA is getting more scores, is the winemaking getting better? No. Not at all. And I'll add that some of the "old guys" are worried about the loss of quality overall in Walla Walla. Go slow and avoid self praise.

  6. Anon, thanks for the comment. I'm a trained scientist as well, so I'll admit that - beyond a dramatic increase in the number of highly rated wines and an equally large increase in the number of wines that these scores are coming from - I don't have empirical data to support the notion of improved winemaking. However, it would also be pretty difficult to accumulate such data.

    I agree both that there is a lot of not very good wine out there in Washington and a lot of people with little knowledge or experience making wine. Some are making great wine. Some are not. However, I do believe that the number of people out there with higher levels of knowledge has increased compared to ten years ago. Has the number of people without a lot of knowledge increased as well? No doubt and by much greater numbers.

    Interesting concern about a potential loss of quality or dilution of it in Walla Walla. Thanks again for the thoughts.

  7. How refreshing.
    There's also a need to mention that tasting rooms in Walla Walla are closing up. Whether it's the economy or the quality, reality is setting in and no loud-mouthed blogger or book writer can reverse this trend.
    Nothing against Walla Walla, but there are 10 other AVAs out there making great wines and I want to know more about them.
    I already get it...anyone and their dog can write about Walla Walla wines and rename it 'Washington wines and wineries'. The really skilled writers give near-equal coverage to all Washington AVAs.

  8. Hi Sean, I just want to clear up some identity issues. There seems to be more than a few "anonymouses" or is it anonymi? So just to be clear I posted the comment about WW wine quality being a mile wide and an inch deep. I did not post the "loud mouth blogger" reply. Although I did get a good loud laugh outta that one. Sorry Sean.
    And that responder makes more of my point for me. I didn't get to mention all the other great wines from other areas of WA. There are many other old guard guys in Woodinville and Vashon and Tri-shitties.
    Winemakers like Camada, Golitzen, Betz et al...they are the one's getting the super high scores. I had a 2003 Sorrela the other day.. OMG!
    I think the most important contribution to the WA wine industry is better viticulture. I have spoken to some of the WM's from the Long Shadows projects and they all say the same thing. The good vineyards are few and far between in WA. But that is changing quickly. So Ill keep reading your magazine (I will not call it a blog).. and I will keep buying WA (and OR) wines!!
    Damon Alan Harvey

  9. Hi Damon, always happy to have a good laugh at my expense! I've been thinking a good bit about your comment actually. While I have noticed a lot of inexperienced folks jumping into the mix - in addition to more experienced folks - I hadn't thought much about a potential negative effect on brand, believing that the cream will rise to the top and those who are not making good, appropriately priced wine won't be around long. I believe this is especially true given the economy.

    However, a string of great vintages have also made it a bit easier to make good wine the last few years without a whole lot of know how. Last year, and it looks like this year, will reward folks who know what they're doing.

    I do believe however that there is a critical mass of good, experienced winemakers in the state to have a significant impact in the next ten years. Programs like the one at WWCC, South Seattle CC, and WSU are just beginning to have an impact. This is in addition to a number of folks coming from the more traditional UCD route and experienced folks coming in to the state to get a piece of the action. However, I am also a firm believer that every bottle of bad Washington wine hurts every bottle of good Washington wine so it will be interesting to see how it plays out.

    I agree that the effects of improved viticulture are going to be enormous. Also, there is still so much site exploration in Washington as well. Whenever anyone asks me where the best place is to plant a vineyard, I always cop out and say we don't know yet. However, there is a good deal of truth to it.

    Thanks again for the comments. You keep reading em and I'll keep writing em.

  10. Nobody knows what "bad" Washington wine is until someone specifically points it out, backed by as many facts as decipherable.
    The best place to plant a vineyard in Washington is on the soil under your feet. Because, you never know. And, not even the great Dr. Alan Busacca can absolutely predict where a site will do well with a certain grape. That part is still an art, not a science.


Your comment will be published after it has been moderated.