Pacific Northwest – what I’ve learnt

Wineries don’t need to be on the vineyards they source fruit from. They don’t even need to be in the same region. Wineries in the Willamette Valley (Oregon) source fruit from Walla Walla (Washington). Wineries West of the Cascade Mountains in Washington source fruit almost exclusively from the East of the state. Red Mountain, a quarter of the size of the Walla Walla AVA, actually produces more fruit, but very little of the wine is made there. If a winemaker wants to make a particular style of wine, they will find the fruit they need. Many wineries deal with the tyranny of distance in different ways. Numerous wineries in the Western part of Washington were established close to Seattle, such as in Woodinville. The town of Walla Walla has been set-up as a wine tourism oasis. The Willamette on the other hand is naturally blessed with being less than an hour from Portland, but the Southern Oregon regions are not so lucky. The fruit for the wine may travel far, but visitors to wineries shouldn’t have to, and wine tourism hubs are as common as shopping districts in town.

Very cool labels in Walla Walla, Washington

The Pacific Northwest is generally a more exciting place to be in the wine industry than California. There are very few established traditions, no rules per se, so they are generally writing their own rule book. Winemakers take risks, viticulturalists try different things, marketing has an entirely different role to play. Wine tourism in particular is very adventurous here, setting up wine bars instead of tasting rooms, holding huge concerts and events. They are not stifled at all, but unbridled. California is reinventing itself, with numerous rebels and new-age winemakers poking their heads above a very crowded bunch. The rebel is the norm in the Pacific Northwest, both in their approaches to winemaking and wine business, but also personality. Whilst they may ruffle some feathers with their straight-talking no bullshit mentality, you can’t help but admire their determination and desire to not be something they aren’t.

Winetasting in Woodenville, Washington

The regions are very distinct from California. Whilst they are definitely cooler up North, they also enjoy more daylight hours to ripen fruit. In the semi-arid Eastern Washington regions, wide expanses of irrigated areas have no problems ripening their fruit, but they also are at risk from frosts in Spring and Autumn. It is these differences which makes all the wine so unique and interesting, otherwise they would be homogeneous and dull. Regions in the Pacific Northwest generally are more supportive and collaborative than their counterparts in the South. They all understand that competing with the California juggernaut is difficult, and work together to not only improve the quality of each others wines, but promote the regions for wine and tourism.

Just a couple of ferments in the Willamette Valley, Oregon

Tasting room hubs are everywhere, custom-crush facilities are numerous, wine events are many and varied. Local councils have even established districts with small winery and tasting room spaces for short-term contracts for start-ups. Not only does this give them the opportunity to make their wine and share resources, but also draws potential customers into a central location. California tends to compete with itself, and should consider the strides being made North of the border before it is too late. Many of the established regions in the Pacific Northwest are very young. One of the overriding themes I took away was that there is so much potential in these regions, but as yet there is still much to be learnt about the micro-climates, and the vines to gain sufficient maturity before things really kick off. There may be even more largely undiscovered regions in these states than in California, which has well and truly reached maturity. Much like California, there still aren’t enough alternative varieties being explored, particularly in Eastern Washington.

Vineyard security in the Willamette Valley, Oregon

Here are some of the areas I felt were the best for certain varieties and styles;

Chardonnay – Willamette Valley (there should be more planted)
Riesling – Columbia Valley
Pinot Noir – Chehalem, Willamette Valley
Syrah – Red Mountain
Rhone varieties – Walla Walla
Cabernet Blends – Yakima Valley

Bubbling berries in Willamette Valley, Oregon


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2 responses to “Pacific Northwest – what I’ve learnt

  1. Hi JamesEnjoying the blog so far, sounds like you are having a great time. You're right, so little US wine makes its way here, its good to read your adventures/thoughts. I lived in Duncan on Vancouver Island a long time ago. Absolutely beautiful place so if you go, i'd love to hear your thoughts on wines from the Cowichan Valley. Okanagan had no vines when I went there!CheersMatt


  2. Thanks for the comment Matt, unfortunately I'm not getting out of Vancouver whilst I'm here, needed to keep moving and didn't have enough time or money to explore in the valleys of BC. I hope all is well back in Melbourne, loving the tweets and look forward to hearing from you again soon.


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