It’s the nation’s second-biggest wine producer and Washington State is full of surprises, starting with an impressive 900+ wineries. Winemakers here grow most of their grapes in the dry, high-desert eastern sector, but you’ll find the most tasting rooms in the west, nearer to Seattle. The state is best known for reds and for Riesling, but more than 40 grape varieties grow in its 14 wine regions, ranging from the Yakima Valley (boasting more than one-third of the state’s vineyard acreage) to Puget Sound, where obscure white wines like Madeleine Angevine, a Loire Valley grape, and Siegerrebe, a German grape, grow in the evergreen San Juan Islands northwest of Seattle.
The much-awarded Chateau Ste. Michelle, Washington’s oldest and largest winery, sits in solitary splendor on 87 acres in Woodinville, half an hour from Seattle. Most of its wines are familiar to Ohio shoppers: Columbia Crest, Col Solage (a partnership with Italy’s Marchesi Antinori for premium-priced reds), Eroica Riesling (a partnership with Germany’s Ernst Loosen), Artist Series Meritage (Bordeaux-style red blends whose labels depict works by glass artist Dale Chihuly, among others) and 14 Hands. A tasting and tour of its French-style main mansion is free, but tastings of $10-20 are also available.
My first peacock sighting at a winery was here; he was strutting his magnificence by the Manor House, a private tasting room adorned with Chihuly glass. The Chateau, celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2017, is also famed for its summer concert series where high-profile entertainers like Stevie Wonder, Elvis Costello and James Taylor have performed.
Woodinville’s 100+ tasting rooms are clustered in four main districts, especially the Hollywood (25 tasting rooms within a few feet of each other) and Warehouse Districts (75 tasting rooms). At Brian Carter Cellars, the state’s first winery to specialize in European-style blends, I tasted Tuttorosso, a Super Tuscan-style blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah with ripe blackberry flavors, and Oriana, a Rhône-style blend of Viognier, Roussanne and Riesling. Vinifera grapes thrive here – the main draw for Oregon-born owner/winemaker Carter. He came to Washington after graduating from the noted University of California-Davis wine school because, he says, “I didn’t want to be limited to just Pinot Noir.”
My next Woodinville tasting was at Lauren Ashton Cellars, whose specialty is five whites: Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Roussanne, Riesling and Sémillon. “Whites are much more challenging, and it differentiates me from others,” says owner/winemaker Kit Singh. “We wanted the bottles to be a story of us.” He points to his labels with pride; they depict Estonia, his wife’s native country. The winery is named for their daughter and son.
In the Yakima Valley, a 150-mile drive from Seattle, I found Washington’s sole sparkling-wines-only producer, Treveri Cellars. Its owner and winemaker, Juergen Grieb, a native of Germany, makes eight types of bubbly méthode traditionelle, including Blanc de Blancs, Blanc de Noirs and rosé, and sparklers made with Riesling, Mueller-Thurgau and Gewürtztraminer grapes.
Tasting room ambience doesn’t get much better than Treveri’s, with striking views of snow-capped Mt. Adams and the surrounding countryside. If you’re looking for a more festive drink, you can order sparkling wine cocktails like Sorbet Glacée (Gewürtztraminer plus a sorbet flavor such as raspberry, with a berry topping) and Caramel Apple, featuring Riesling and local apples.
“We do a ton of education bringing people into the sparkling wine fold, giving out a tasting tip card to everyone. Many people get sold through our cocktails,” says Julie Grieb, general manager and cocktail creator. Her husband was thrilled I knew Treveri was the ancient name for Trier, his birthplace in the Moselle River valley: the first European city I ever saw (and my first Roman ruins) decades ago. Those ruins are the reason his bottle labels show a Roman gold coin and Emperor Augustus. “My passion is sparkling wine. It’s really finicky. When I started making wine, I dreamed of making only sparkling wine one day,” he says, proudly adding his wines were served at State Department events for Hillary Clinton, John Kerry and Rex Tillerson.
Down the road is Owen Roe and its tasting room in a red barn-like metal building. Known for Pinot Noir at its sister winery in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, Owen Roe here makes both reds and whites. “What makes this area great are the extreme temperatures, hot in the daytime but cool nights, so we have great ripening and enough cold for sugar and acidity,” says David O’Reilly, co-owner and winemaker.
“All my labels need to tell a story,” O’Reilly says, and that story centers on his Irish heritage. His Yakima Red, a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, depicts Drumlane Abbey, a 10th-century monastery in County Cavan near the O’Reilly castle where patriot Owen Roe O’Neill was killed in 1649. Sinister Hand, his Southern Rhône-style red blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvédre, depicts the Red Hand of Ulster, the centuries-old symbol of the two families and Ulster province (and for decades, the logo of Northern Ireland tourism). The story behind his Corvidae value-priced whites, like the Ravenna Riesling? Simply a playful reference to the Latin name for the birds (ravens, crows and magpies) that infest Washington vineyards.
To taste hundreds of the state’s wines in one fell swoop, consider attending Taste Washington, a four-day wine fest held in Seattle each year in March, complete with winemaker dinners and farm tours.
Photo courtesy Treveri Cellars.