Verdant rows at the Savage Grace Vineyards in Underwood, Washington. Photo by Michael Hanson.
Many wine regions built their reputations on a single grape variety or cluster of varieties. But Washington wine is still young, so we’re seeking out our calling card. Yes, our cabernet sauvignon and syrah grab headlines, but the state grows more than 80 different wine grapes, with 18 different varieties and styles comprising this list—some esoteric, some standard but with a twist (who ever heard of a white cabernet franc?).
This year, I tasted over 1,600 wines and picked those that excited me most, that were lively, or novel, or exceptional vintages of mainstays. And, in an industry where top bottlings are often swiftly bought up, I steered toward bottles you can actually find, at (generally) reasonable prices—over half are $35 or under. The wines naturally fell into six categories, but all nod to one thing: Now is the time to drink Washington wine.
Washington wines aren’t known for high acidity. These bottles beg to differ.
Ago Sparkling Wine Columbia Gorge 2018 $24
Sommeliers adore the Columbia Gorge right now. The appellation’s higher elevation and cool climate yields white wines with unusually high acidity for ever-warm Eastern Washington. This gewürztraminer and pinot gris blend from Ago, a new, Columbia Gorge–dedicated project from Cor Cellars, has a pucker more akin to a Côte des Blanc Champagne than a typical Washington sparkler. corcellars.com
Callan Cellars Picpoul Boushey Vineyards Yakima Valley 2018 $25
Picpoul is a minor grape in France. In Washington, it’s no different, with plantings so scarce they don’t even register on the state’s acreage report. Wines like this Callan Cellars release, however, show that in the right areas, the variety can excel here. Picpoul translates to "lip stinger," and one taste of this wine—smarting with citrus, from zest to bright juice—shows why. Oysters, anyone? callancellars.com
Morell-Peña Blanc de Blancs Méthode Champenoise Zero Dosage Sparkling Wine Columbia Valley 2017 $45
All the fruit comes from Lawrence Vineyards on the Royal Slope, an area east of Ellensburg, soon to become its own appellation. Aromas of lemon balm and baked bread turn to citrus flavors and acidity. This inaugural release, from the hyper-talented Aryn Morell, shows not only that the Royal Slope can yield sparkling wine, but that these bubbles can be world-class. morell-pena.com
WT Vintners Grüner Veltliner Underwood Mountain Vineyard Columbia Gorge 2018 $22
When the first grüner veltliner examples began to arrive nearly 10 years back from hot and dry Eastern Washington, it seemed like folly. The grape is, after all, from cool and damp Austria. But winemaker Jeff Lindsay-Thorsen—who’s embraced grüner since 2012 and helped herald the push toward leaner, brighter, more food-friendly Washington wines—proves that thinking wrong with bottles like this. You’ll find apple, pear, and citrus on the nose; racy acidity and lush texture on the palate. wtvintners.com
Decant or Cellar
They're ready now but will get better after a few years—or a touch of air.
21 Grams Columbia Valley 2014 $125
Sometimes you can blow over $100 on a bottle and be left wondering why. Other times, the price makes perfect sense. See, for instance, this cabernet sauvignon–dominant blend. It’s outrageously sophisticated, with layering, depth, and enough acid and tannin structure for an easy 20-year aging, though it’s already near irresistible. If you’re looking to start a cellar, or for birth-year wines for your kids, start here. trwines.com
Betz Family Winery Père de Famille Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley 2016 $78
It’s long been said that Washington cabernets sit squarely between Bordeaux and Napa Valley, but various factors—critics, climate, tastes—have tugged our wines toward the latter’s ripe and rich profile recently. This wine distinguishes itself by returning to a style more restrained yet still intense. Leave it until at least 2025 or decant to fully engage its flavors and aromas: bay leaf, thyme, cherry. betzfamilywinery.com
DeLille Cellars Chaleur Blanc Columbia Valley 2018 $35
When asked why he makes this bordeaux blanc–style wine, cofounder and executive winemaker Chris Upchurch says simply, “The world doesn’t need another chardonnay.” Indeed, his blend of sauvignon blanc and semillon, largely fermented and aged in French oak, is anything but boilerplate. It smells of lemon pith, herb, tropical fruit, and toast. Electric acidity complements its full palate. Consistently a flagship white wine for the state, this vintage raises that flag higher. delillecellars.com
Figgins Estate Red Wine Walla Walla Valley 2016 $85
The Figgins family helped launch the Washington wine industry decades ago with their stunning cabernets and merlots from Leonetti Cellar. Unlike those releases, which were conjured from different sites, this cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot, and merlot blend comes from a single vineyard in Walla Walla’s Upper Mill Creek area. Aromas of dark fruit, flower, and generous spice turn to full, structured fruit flavors, beautifully expressing this area of the valley. figginswine.com
Passing Time Cabernet Sauvignon Horse Heaven Hills 2016 $80
The Horse Heaven Hills is Washington’s cabernet sauvignon holy land and gives oenophiles plenty to talk about. The winery Passing Time, owned by former NFL footballers Dan Marino and Damon Huard, is itself a conversation piece. But the wine, crafted by top tier winemaker Chris Peterson (Avennia), may just silence you, as its notes of scorched earth, bay leaf, and cherry mesmerize. passingtime.com
Upchurch Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Red Mountain 2016 $75
Carefully planted vines on a single vineyard yield this passion project from Washington wine legend Chris Upchurch (also of DeLille Cellars). In the glass the wine is dense, focused (dark cherry, earth, spice), backed by tightly wound tannins—the perfect example of why in the last decade Red Mountain started a cabernet sauvignon gold rush. upchurchvineyard.com
Up and Comers
The producers and regions that may define the next generation.
Hard Row to Hoe Burning Desire Estate Cabernet Franc Glacier Gravels Vineyard Lake Chelan 2016 $55
Lake Chelan’s first modern day grape vines weren’t planted until the late 1990s, so the area remains a frontier—with different soils than the rest of Columbia Valley and the deep lake’s moderating effect. Coming from an organic vineyard planted in 2009 on the north shore, this cabernet franc presents porcini mushroom, peat, cherry, and crushed rock. In a single stroke, the wine gestures to the area’s potential and delivers on it. hardrow.com
Latta Wines Syrah Dana Dibble Freewater Rocks Vineyard Walla Walla Valley 2015 $45
Winemaker Andrew Latta spent over a decade crafting lauded syrahs for Charles Smith at K Vintners. When he launched his own project, Latta Wines, in 2011, we saw top quality reds (grenache, mourvèdre), but syrah remained missing. The wait was worth it. In this Rocks District wine, you get aromas and flavors of olive, firepit, plum, and charcuterie, with a finish that sails on for a good (very good) 30 seconds. lattawines.com
Prospice Syrah Les Collines Vineyard Walla Walla Valley 2017 $45
About four new wineries pop up in Washington every month. But less frequently does one open with something new to say. This inaugural release from Prospice speaks—eloquently, convincingly—straight from one of the state’s top syrah sites with aromas of orange peel, violet, and smoked meat, which lead to layered, achingly pure fruit and savory flavors. prospice.wine
Kerloo Cellars Grenache Blanc Blue Mountain Vineyard Walla Walla Valley 2018 $20
In Walla Walla Valley over 95 percent of the planted grapes are red—the most of any Washington appellation—but increasingly winemakers are exploring the possibilities of whites from the region. Here winemaker Ryan Crane uses a site nestled into the foothills of the Blue Mountains to create a wine—with wet stone, mango, herb, and a long finish—that bodes well for Walla Walla whites. kerloocellars.com
Co Dinn Cellars Chardonnay Roskamp Vineyard Snipes Mountain 2016 $45
After 17 years as Hogue Cellars’ winemaker, Co Dinn started his own, eponymous winery. Dinn sources chardonnay from an appellation seldom seen on labels (most Snipes Mountain fruit goes into larger Columbia Valley blends). In this wine, he pulls back the curtain and shows how special those grapes can be, yielding stone fruit and pineapple flavors with a creamy feel. codinncellars.com
They’re good every year. This year, they’re really good.
Dowsett Family Gewürztraminer Celilo Vineyard Columbia Gorge 2016 $24
Gewürztraminer tends toward the cheap and cheerful. But winemaker Chris Dowsett has been working with this variety since 1983 and turns it into high art. Coming from a vineyard planted in the early 1980s, this wine arrives with all the complexity you’d expect from old vines. Aromas of lychee, white flower, and white grapefruit lead to a dry, zinging palate. The spice-filled finish seems eternal. dowsettwines.com
Januik Winery Chardonnay Cold Creek Vineyard Columbia Valley 2017 $30
Cold Creek Vineyard contains some of Chateau Ste. Michelle’s most prized vines. Mike Januik first started working with the fruit back in 1990 as winemaker at the Chateau. When he started his own winery in 1999, he continued. Januik always shows a deft touch with chardonnay. Here he works with the 2017 vintage, the best white grape harvest Washington’s seen in well over a decade. The result is unsurprisingly compelling. noveltyhilljanuik.com
Woodward Canyon Chardonnay Washington 2018 $44
Winery cofounder Rick Small made his first chardonnay as a home winemaker back in 1976. More than 40 years later, Woodward Canyon still carries the banner for this variety in the state, and Small interprets the much loved—and sometimes maligned—grape with elegance. As evidence, taste this vintage with its balanced fruit flavors and aromas of cinnamon, cream, and spice. woodwardcanyon.com
Cadence Coda Red Wine Red Mountain 2016 $28
Winemaker Ben Smith has built his reputation on structured, age-worthy wines from Red Mountain. He creates this red blend, Coda, with barrels originally intended for his top tier single vineyard program, but the results didn’t quite fit with what he was looking to accomplish in those bottlings. Full of herb and cherry and earth, it makes an exceptional, kindly priced gateway to his impressive portfolio. cadencewinery.com
Chateau Ste. Michelle and Dr. Loosen Eroica Riesling Columbia Valley 2017 $20
Beethoven named his third symphony Eroica, meaning "heroic." The same could be said of the 1999 partnering of German legend Ernst Loosen with local hero Chateau Ste. Michelle. Their aim to create top-quality Washington riesling from grapes grown in a desert has resulted in a stunning legacy, never more so than in this wine, full of wet slate, lime, and white peach, which remain in harmony through the long finish. ste-michelle.com
Sacrifice neither your taste nor your savings account.
K Vintners MCK Motor City Kitty Syrah Oldfield-Boushey Vineyard Yakima Valley 2016 $37
Grower Dick Boushey has achieved cult status among local syrah lovers. Oldfield Vineyard—a newer site he farms adjacent to his namesake vineyards—will likely carry that cache. In this syrah, Charles Smith uses Oldfield fruit and shows his knack for value, delivering a wine with aromas of black pepper, orange peel, olive, and smoked meat. The last two, along with rich fruit, carry through in flavor. winesofsubstance.com
Saviah Cellars Syrah Walla Walla Valley 2016 $32
Walla Walla syrahs are world-class, but that quality often costs you over $50. Saviah Cellars owner and winemaker Richard Funk, though, makes wines that consistently overdeliver. Just taste this smooth, sophisticated vintage, alive with olive, raspberry, herb. Here you get a primer on this appellation’s premier variety that’s high-end without being high-price. saviahcellars.com
Pamplin Family Winery JRG Red Wine Columbia Valley 2015 $30
Though based in Sherwood, Oregon, Pamplin makes wine exclusively from Washington fruit. This border-straddling approach garners significantly less local recognition than many in-state labels. That’s a shame, since the wine, named after the first initials of the founder’s grandchildren and built around cabernet sauvignon, shows refined restraint—this producer’s hallmark. pamplinfamilywinery.com
J. Bookwalter Wines Readers Merlot Columbia Valley 2016 $28
In this state, if a wine’s grapes come from old vines, you usually pay for it. Here’s an exception, made from older plantings (1992, 2000) at a pair of renowned vineyards (Conner Lee Vineyard, Dionysus). The wine presents more like a Bordeaux-style blend—a nose full of dark raspberry, plum, and fresh herb, while oak bolsters a plush palate—than your prototypical stateside merlot. bookwalterwines.com
Waters Winery Tremolo Washington 2014 $34
While helped by Yakima Valley grenache, Rocks District syrah makes up three-quarters of this wine, and that region’s renowned profile is what carries through: firepit, tangerine peel, gravel, herb, peat, and olive brine. Call it syrah, put Walla Walla Valley on the label, say it comes from the Rocks District, and this wine would cost over $50. Instead, Waters labeled it a Washington red wine, so you can get it for a seemingly larcenous $34. trwines.com
The bottles that reimagine the rules in Washington.
Savage Grace Blanc Franc White Wine Red Willow Vineyard Yakima Valley 2018 $22
A white cabernet franc from one of Washington’s most esteemed vineyards? Absolutely. Winemaker Michael Savage gives this wine just a kiss of skin contact (normally reserved for reds), creating its light, convention-flouting color. The result hits you with spicy herb and citrus and matches a white wine’s mouthwatering acidity with a red’s structured body. savagegracewines.com
Concentric Wine Project Gamay Noir Columbia Valley 2018 $22
Gamay’s heartland is the Beaujolais region of France, and Washington plantings remain nascent. This side project from the folks at Fielding Hills, though—created with beaujolais nouveau techniques and released young—is auspicious. It shows the best that this variety has to offer: a young, limber, fruit-filled red, that recalls cigar boxes, strawberries, and herbs. fieldinghills.com
Grosgrain Vineyards Pét-Nat Old Vine Lemberger Kiona Vineyards Red Mountain 2018 $26
Lemberger hasn’t kept pace with marquee grapes like cabernet or syrah, but this inaugural release from Walla Walla–based Grosgrain—made from the country’s first lemberger plantings that date back to 1976—gives the wine a sparkling refresh (see "The Old-School Sparkling Wine Pet-Nat Is Back"). Think strawberries, raspberries, acid, and bubbles. Think legions of lemberger converts, or at least a charmed and devout following. grosgrainvineyards.com
Cairdeas Winery Nellie Mae White Wine Columbia Valley 2018 $24
Cairdeas—pronounced car-diss—is a Gaelic word meaning "friendship" and "goodwill." The Chelan-based winery is sure to generate plenty of both with its blend of viognier and roussanne, which presents apricot and flower aromas and a body like nectar. Owner and winemaker Charlie Lybecker, who’s been at it for only a decade, has made that relatively short time impactful with Rhône-inspired wines like this. cairdeaswinery.com
Gramercy Cellars Viognier Columbia Valley 2018 $22
Master sommelier Greg Harrington first made his mark with fresh, focused, Rhône varieties, before turning his light touch to cabernet sauvignon. Gramercy’s white wines, like a club-only picpoul, push boundaries. The same goes for this viognier. In less sure hands the variety can run so overripe it tastes candied, but Harrington and co-winemaker Brandon Moss veer toward stone fruits and citrus. In doing so, they create something stunning. gramercycellars.com