The first winery in Washington was founded in the 1950s. Ironically it was founded in the Eastern part of Washington, which is generally too cold and wet for viticulture. It was however, less than an hour from Seattle, their primary (and only) market. Washington is the second largest producer in the United States behind California, and nearly 99% of all grapes are grown West of the Cascade Mountains in the dry, warm and irrigated parts of the state. In terms of visiting wineries the best place is Woodinville, less than an hour from Seattle. Just don’t expect any vineyards.
It seemed logical to start at the beginning in Woodinville, so the first winery I visited was Chateau Ste. Michelle. This winery is the biggest in Washington, and as you would expect the visitor centre is world-class. During the busy Summer period they offer tours every half hour, far more than the three per day we would conduct at Chandon Australia. The winery is huge, and only produces the white wines for the brand, the reds made in Eastern Washington. The wines are quite good for the price, and are a great ambassador for Washington wines. They have a couple of interesting projects they run. One is a Columbia Valley riesling made in partnership with Dr. Loosen, the other a Bordeaux variety blend made in partnership with Antinori. This partnership with European winemakers with Washington fruit confirms the potential and quality of Washington in the wine world.
A winery that has been hailed as the Chateau Lafite-Rothschild of Washington, De Lille Cellars has been gaining attention for its Bordeaux and Rhone varietal wines. One of their wines in particular regularly is included in the Top 100 wines in Washington, the Grand Ciel. The tasting room is located about half a mile from the winery, which is only open for special events. The wines made with Bordeaux varieties are labelled under the De Lille brand, whereas the Rhone variety wines are labelled under the Doyenne label. The Doyenne Syrah, confirmed for me how good the Red Mountain AVA is for Rhone varieties, and the Chaleur Estate Blanc was one of the best white Bordeaux blends I have tasted in a long time. The Grand Ciel is an exceptional wine, but is far too young to be tasting at less than five years of age.
|The author tasting the De Lille Chaleur Estate Blanc|
Sparkman Cellars has their tasting room behind De Lille in a shopping strip. It is very much a mom and pop operation as Chris and Kelly Sparkman make the wines together. They have a large range of wines, which could be cut back and focused a little bit. The wines are very good, but only a few stood out, the rose in particular. A couple in the tasting room told me a funny story. Apparently an Australian winemaker went to work for a winery in California, and they had provided him with either a 17 or 70-year-old secretary. When he arrived he noted something missing, and asked his secretary to procure a rubber for him, preferably a white one so it didn’t leave any marks. Classic cross-cultural misunderstanding, couldn’t have been scripted better.
|Sparkman Cellars Tasting Room|
Mark Ryan is considered the rebel of Woodinville. He rides a Triumph, he loves rock music, his labels are designed by a graphic artist known for album covers. Much like Charles Smith, Mark is largely self-taught and had very inauspicious and simple beginnings in 1999. He is now recognised as one the most gifted winemakers in Woodinville, sourcing fruit from Eastern Washington and the Willamette Valley for his pinot noir. I found his wines exhilarating in their elegance and texture, and wish I could have tried a few with a good meal.
|The Mark Ryan range of wines|
Another famous mom and pop outfit can be found up the hill at JM Cellars. John and Peggy Bigelow started small, and made the decision to grow slowly. Like most in Woodinville, they purchase their fruit with the exception of one vineyard, the Margaret Vineyard in Walla Walla. Distinctive well crafted wines are the key at JM Cellars. As I tasted the winery was processing fruit in the rain, poor buggers, and I had a quick look at some ferments and soaks before heading off.
|Ferments and barrels|
Click here to see more photos from my day in Woodinville.