Economically Speaking, this block of vines in Kiona Vineyard should have been ripped out years ago. Two former General Electric engineers planted the country’s first commercial lemberger in 1976 beneath endless blue skies on Red Mountain, pursuing the audacious notion that Washington could make wine. Excellent wine, even.
The state fulfilled that prophecy once it embraced cabernet, a grape that vineyards like Kiona could sell for two, maybe three times the money. Plenty of those original vines got ripped out before Kiona’s owners decided to preserve those acres for posterity—and for their estate lemberger.
Then Matt Austin came calling. The winemaker, who owns Grosgrain Vineyards with his wife, Kelly, loved the history and the grape’s underdog nature. Kiona already makes a lovely estate version. “I wanted to do something different and kind of fun,” says Austin. “I’d never had even a rosé made from that, let alone a sparkling wine.”
The bottle born of this plan has a crown cap, like a beer, and opens with a similar satisfying crack. The wine inside is bubbling and crystalline, the color of a peach in shade. Its acidity spreads across taste buds like a time-lapse video of a flower blooming. Grosgrain released this lemberger pet-nat (short for petillant naturel) as part of its debut in 2018—a crisp and fizzy inflection point for the state’s wine community.
Vinously inclined drinkers consider Washington a land of cabernet sauvignon and syrah—and for many years, these commanding reds were the reason they considered us at all. But a critical mass of wineries across the state is expanding the definition of what a wine from Washington looks like. Newcomers like Grosgrain and Devium, from longtime Sleight of Hand winemaker Keith Johnson, join relative elders like Syncline, W.T. Vintners, and Savage Grace in swinging the industry in a new direction.
Sean P. Sullivan, Seattle Met's go-to wine guru, says the latter, founded by Michael Savage, has influenced other winemakers to a degree that recalls the movie Inception: “He planted this idea in people’s minds of how things can be done differently.” The results achieve quality levels that push this movement beyond a trend.
The approaches vary—you probably won’t find another lemberger pet-nat in the state, much less the world—but the results tend to complement food rather than demand your palate’s full attention (or bludgeon it with an oak stave). They’re higher in acid and lower in alcohol than Washington’s red vintages of the past 20 years. Winemakers who embrace this ethos can go into great detail about picking grapes earlier than the norm, intervening only minimally during the winemaking process, or seeking out the state’s (relatively) cooler grape-growing sites. The upshot for lay drinkers: Wines that more fully reflect their surroundings and won’t get you hammered if you have a few glasses.
“None of us are doing anything that’s new,” allows Jeff Lindsay-Thorsen, whose W.T. Vintners in Woodinville has embraced these styles for nearly a decade. These practices borrow from old-world predecessors. Natural wine may be a trend so hot the backlash is already gathering steam, but the pet-nat style of that Grosgrain lemberger is so old it predates Champagne. More recently, before big wines came in vogue in the early 2000s, Washington winemakers like Cadence and Andrew Will made their names championing many of these same values. Then came the rich, ripe reds. And the awards and impressive scores.
When visitors at W.T. Vintners’ tasting room in Woodinville’s warehouse district sample the single-vineyard syrahs, the staff usually has to explain his methods, says Lindsay-Thorsen. “The wines don’t taste like all of our neighbors’.” He doesn’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. “Every conversation that’s had about these wineries, good or bad, brings attention to the fact that this alternate version of Washington wine exists.”
In May of 2016, Paul Zitarelli of Full Pull Wines tapped out a daily email dispatch with the subject line, “Bang the Drum.” This particular percussive act was to urge his readers to explore the “fresh, energetic,” and food-friendly bottles from Memaloose in the Columbia Gorge (now known as Idiot’s Grace). It’s “this amazing Northwest gem nobody knows about,” Zitarelli exhorted his customer base. “It can’t be easy (for sales I mean) defying commonly held beliefs about what the style of Washington wine has to be.”
When he founded his wine-by-email retail operation in 2009, Zitarelli sold only Washington bottles. Which meant his inbox prose largely extolled cabernet, syrah, and Bordeaux blends. “People were super jazzed about Red Mountain,” he recalls, a region “able to produce these massive, opulent wines.” Still, he tried to sneak Washington white or sparkling wines into his offerings whenever possible, “even if they didn’t do so great in the early days.”
His drumbeat is no longer a solo. This summer, Zitarelli offered up a small lot of Grosgrain wine that included the lemberger pet-nat. Full Pull’s lots usually sell out fast, but the response was even more frenzied than usual, “like the top 10th percentile of cray cray.” The growth in Washington’s wineries is similarly cray; the state now has more than a thousand of them. “A lot of the new energy is with folks making that style,” says Zitarelli. “I can’t remember the last time that somebody launched whose pitch was, we want to make big-ass cabs and syrahs.”
After Renee Erickson closed her original restaurant, Boat Street Cafe, the restaurateur took a road trip to learn about Washington wine. In 2015 she crossed the Cascades and pointed her old Audi southeast toward Prosser, with Chinook Wines as her home base. Erickson poured its wines at Boat Street, but in more than two decades building wine lists for her restaurants, wine from France or Italy (or even Greece or Spain) earned more space than bottles from her home state.
“I’ve always felt guilty about it, honestly,” she says. “In every other aspect of the restaurant, we try to support as local as we can.” Washington’s big, age-worthy styles didn’t speak to her menus. Their prices (and their need to be cellared for years) felt more suited to a steak house than a small hideaway where leeks or lentils were as likely to be the star of the plate as a slab of meat. Speaking very broadly, says Erickson, “the wines felt more focused on awards and less focused on what food it would be drunk with.”
Of course, there were exceptions. Erica Orr’s “gorgeous” chenin blanc, from Orr Wines, helped pique Erickson’s interest in Washington’s whites. Her desire to meet more female winemakers led her to Kelly Hightower—and to her rosé. A food-friendly, aged malbec from àMaurice Cellars made it on her list. Syncline is another longtime favorite. “They make sparkling wine, for god’s sake.”
Washington’s recent crop of winemakers does even more to bridge the state’s weird irony: Our food culture celebrates ingredients that come from the land around us, but the wines from that same land often stand alone. Erickson thrills over the new cadre of winemakers; Westward pours Devium rosé, and the Whale Wins snapped up as much of Grosgrain’s albariño and blush (its term for rosé) as it could get. “We have more Washington wines on our list now than ever,” says Erickson. “In all our restaurants.” Like her signature local oysters, bottles from smaller producers disappear fast. But one of the biggest names in this wine movement is available in the grocery store.
Conversations about lighter, food-friendly wine in Washington—whether it’s among drinkers or other winemakers—quickly turn to Michael Savage. Before he got into wine, Savage was a musician, playing guitar and piano in a recording studio. (These two professions seem to attract a certain kind of mind; Grosgrain’s Matt Austin used to play guitar in a punk band.) If Washington’s signature reds are a gloriously engineered wall of sound, Savage’s are intentionally acoustic. “Usually the first tape is the one, even for flaws and everything,” he says. “So I valued not getting in the way of things.”
When he founded Savage Grace (his wife is the titular Grace), he looked to Washington’s edges. Our state’s big-wine energy comes, in large part, from cultivating primarily under the blazing sun in Eastern Washington. That heat ripens grapes. Riper grapes mean more sugar to ferment into alcohol, at times overriding a harvest’s individual hallmarks with higher booze and the reliable appeal of rich fruit flavors. Now, winemakers like Savage seek fruit from mountain slopes and other places once considered too cold for grapevines. Slow-ripening zones that once presented a hassle for grapegrowers offer opportunity.
In 2018, the winery moved from the cramped stalls of Woodinville to Underwood Mountain in the Columbia Gorge, where Savage and neighbors like Syncline and Cor Cellars have recast the area from easy Portland day trip to the center of Washington’s understated revolution. The vineyards that speak so expressively through Savage’s wine stretch down the slopes below his tasting room.
Most fans associate Savage with cabernet franc, but one Sunday afternoon, the friendly woman running his Woodinville satellite tasting room pours a taste of a gewürztraminer orange wine, cloudy with spice notes you wouldn’t expect from a wine the color of melon.
“It’s definitely not Washington state,” she says cheerfully. Except now, increasingly, it is.