August is Washington Wine Month, which is quite apropos as over 300 wine bloggers will be heading to Walla Walla in 8 weeks for the Wine Bloggers Conference! Disclaimer: I know NOTHING about it as I don’t have much tasting experience with Washington wine. Also, it was not a big topic in my WSET studies. Let's face it, the Brits (who run the WSET program) are not too interested in the nuances of a Washington Merlot. With that being said, it’s exciting to visit a wine country and have no preconceived notions. Let’s learn some of the basics of Washington wine on our journey together.
The early history of Washington wine country goes back to Italian immigrants bringing Cinsault plantings to Walla Walla. And in the 50s and 60s both Chateau Ste. Michelle and Colombia Winery were founded, who now both dominate the Washington wine scene. Today the region is known for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Riesling, and Chardonnay.
The Cascade Range defines (and divides!) the state. To the west of the mountains is a maritime climate (mild and wet) with less than 1% of Washington plantings and to the east of the range is a drier continental climate, where most of the grapes reside. Summers are hot and dry with wide diurnal swings and winters are cold and harsh. Most wineries use irrigation from the major rivers (Walla Walla, Yakima, Snake, and Columbia Rivers), though a few (who receive enough rainfall) are experimenting with dry farming.
There are over 50,000 acres planted to v. vinifera in Washington. Washington also comes in as the 2nd largest wine producer, after California. There are 14 AVAs within the state and with the exception of Puget Sound and Columbia Gorge, all other AVAs in Washington are sub-appellations of the Columbia Valley. The other AVAs are: Red Mountain, Yakima, and Walla Walla Valleys, Wahluke Slope, Rattlesnake Hills, Horse Heaven Hills, Snipes Mountain, Lake Chelan, Naches Heights and Ancient Lakes.
My Wine Bloggers Conference journey will take me to a couple of different locations in the wine country. I am participating in a pre-conference excursion in the Red Mountain AVA, the smallest (and warmest) appellation in Washington, with just over 2,200 acres under vine. This is a red grape dominant area because of the warm desert climate, and with only 5” of rainfall annually, most vineyards are irrigated.
The main conference is taking place in Walla Walla, another sub-appellation of the Columbia Valley. Much larger than Red Mountain, Walla Walla is over 322,000 acres in size, but only 2,900 acres are under vine. Walla Walla also has the largest concentration of wineries in Washington. Part of the AVA is in Oregon, therefore it’s known as a “cross border” AVA.
One unique fact about Washington is that one wine producer dominates the state. Chateau Ste. Michelle, and its holdings, account for upwards of 50% of the wine produced annually in Washington state. It will be interesting to dig into some of the regions a bit and learn if this behemoth in the industry helps or hurts the region as a whole? Also, I will be curious to see if Chateau Ste. Michelle or any of their wineries have a presence at the conference.
Either way, I am JAZZED to visit Washington and enjoy a new wine region. My Wine Bloggers Conference experience started that way back in 2015 when (on a whim) I flew to the Finger Lakes in NY and learned about a whole new area. Discovering new wine regions…..this is what it’s all about!