A few years ago my wife and I took a Napa Valley “wine tour”. It was terrific: We got to see a beautiful part of the USA up close and personal and meet some very nice people. We tend to prefer smaller, family-owned “boutique”-style wineries, anyway, and the proprietors of such businesses are an interesting group. Winemakers are fun–often “entrepreneurial” but still wildly unconventional.
And of course, we got to sample some outstanding wines.
Imagine our surprise, then, when one of the vintners chided us for our ignorance of the wines in our own backyard! When he discovered that we live in the Wenatchee Valley in north-central Washington State, he said, “Some of the best wine in the world is coming out your valley right now.”
When we returned home, it didn’t take us long to take a wine tour of our home town. What we discovered was shockingly wonderful! Within 40 minutes of our residence we found more than a dozen top-notch wineries, all of which produce what are now our very favorites wines. With apologies to our friends in Napa Valley: I love Washington wine!
The eastern half of Washington State is sheltered from the drizzly northern Pacific weather fronts by the rugged Cascade mountain range. Therefore, unlike the wet and mild weather of Seattle and the Puget Sound, our half of the state has a dry, continental climate… much like northern California. It is actually somewhat warmer in the summer, and due to our more northern latitude, substantially colder in winter.
It is the winter cold that caused most horticulturalists to believe that Washington was unsuited for wine grapes. A crisis in the apple industry–the Alar scare of the late 80’s and early 90’s–precipitated a search for other cash crops. Many Washington orchardists experimented with small plots of wine grapes and discovered that the new crops did amazingly well. Much to the surprise of the naysayers, Washington grapes–and the wine they produce–are superb.
Mike Scott, co-owner of Martin-Scott Winery in East Wenatchee, WA, believes that the cold winters are actually one of the important keys to the high quality wine produced in north-central Washington. It produces a “survival of the fittest” scenario: “They come close to death every winter–they’re stressed… The plants that survive produce a better vintage.”
The rest of the wine world seems to agree: The Washington wine industry is experiencing literally explosive growth. The amount of land devoted to wine grapes has more than tripled in the last decade, and even though winemaking is still in its infancy here, this area is now the nation’s second largest wine producer.
As I mentioned at the start, my wife and I have a preference for smaller, family-owned wineries. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, smaller wineries seem to have a great consistency within a given vintage. The characteristics of the grapes used are usually very even since fewer are needed. In my opinion, the massive production runs of the major commercial wineries tends to introduce some degree of inconsistency.
The second reason we enjoy smaller wineries is that when we visit we often get to talk with the owners and even the winemakers themselves. In fact, at the Icicle Ridge Winery, you get to do wine tastings right in the kitchen of the owners’ stunningly beautiful log home! Precisely because Washington’s wine industry is so young, the wineries are still a very personal experience: There is a very old-world craftsmanship about it that I respect and admire.
I do enjoy the wines of other regions, but it has been a joy to discover that there’s no place like home. If you ever visit north-central Washington and taste our wine, I think you’ll love Washington wine, too!
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