The State of Washington 2014

Finding out what makes Washington's wine industry tick.


Tomorrow I’ll begin a two part look at wines that I recently tasted while traveling throughout the state of Washington, but I thought it would be a good idea to preface those notes today with a brief look at some of the wheres and whys of Washington State’s wines.

Washington State remains a bit of mystery to most people, pumping out attractive wines but without the cache or the backstory that many other regions have managed to take advantage of. Coming as they do from vineyards located almost exclusively in the eastern half of the state, relatively far from the population centers of Seattle and Spokane, it’s no surprise they few folks make the effort to get out there and visit but if you do there’s a lot to glean from a boots on the ground visit.

When most of us think of Washington state we think of the cool, damp clime that envelopes the coastal region that famously includes Seattle. What many don’t realize is that the coast is but a thin sliver separated from the rest of the states by the Cascade mountains. The reason that the coast is so damp is due to  the effect this mountain range has on the Humboldt current that carries moisture down from the northern Pacific. This air is forced up the slopes of the hills where it cools and forms the rains and mist that the region is famous for.

Conversely the air that manages to surmount the mountains ends up being dry, and much of inland Washington is in fact a high plains desert. To put things in perspective average rainfall throughout the Columbia Valley tends to be on the order of less than 10 inches per year, half of what Napa valley typically expects. The dry air also translates into plenty of cloudless days and at this high latitude that can mean almost 16 hours of sunlight a day. All that sunlight brings with it warmth, and temperatures above 90 are not unusual in the region, albeit for a smaller window than one might expect further to the south.

In truth the season here is bit compressed when compared with its southern neighbors. The vines wake up later in the growing season, but catch up as summer wears on due to the heat and sunlight. As the season’s change once again, autumn asserts its grip on Washington more forcefully and earlier than points south with the onset of cool nights that are responsible for the rather bright acids that Washington state’s wines are capable of. With no rain threat on the horizon, vintners are able to allow their fruit to hang until it’s just where they want it to be. The cool nights are complemented by sunny and fairly warm days so sugars accumulate slowly in these wines, balanced by the aforementioned acid.  

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  • At long last!!! As a Seattle native, I've been waiting for this in-depth look at Washington wines. Our wine is kind of like our pro football...we are a heck of a lot better than the rest of the country and the east coast centric media think we are! Thanks for giving us a chance to shine.

    Mar 03, 2014 at 3:45 PM

  • Snooth User: winekrep
    143676 27

    Excited to read more, Greg. I think this region is fabulous. There are some pricey...and sometimes excellent wines. There also is the fun possibility (at least for me) that winemakers will take a chance with other varietals...let them ride in their own skins...and by allowing that, create something wonderful. .

    Mar 03, 2014 at 7:49 PM

  • I am thrilled you are going to cover the Washington wine industry in depth. As a professional viticulturist, I see Washington state as a young industry full of tremendous potential due to the daylength they experience, the diversity of terroir found there and the climatic extremes they work with. They are not yet in full stride but they are really showing their potential.

    I do want to quibble with you about phylloxera. Certainly they do not survive in sandy soils. But in fine, silty soils, they can devastate own-rooted vinifera vines. These are two very different soil types and for phylloxera, two very different worlds. But I agree, the ability to grow own-rooted vinifera (European varieties) grapes will be fortuitous for some. The vines benefit from this opportunity. But sandy soils exacerbate a problem they already struggle with, water availability. It will be an interesting dynamic for their industry. But they have so many positives going for them, I'm sure this will be a small issue. I can't wait to hear your comments.

    Mar 03, 2014 at 8:37 PM

  • Snooth User: dyye
    314202 79

    If you are in Washington you should be attending "Taste Washington" at Century Link Field
    Event Center March 29 & 30. Information is at

    Mar 03, 2014 at 10:31 PM

  • Snooth User: terroirist
    1474993 1

    The Humboldt current flows northward along the west coast of South America, not offshore Washington - that would be the California or Alaska current. There's no limestone bedrock within the Columbia Basin - it's virtually all basalt mantled by ice-age flood sediments, alluvium, and loess (wind deposited silt). There's a bit of granite near Lake Chelan, but no limestone in any viticultural area. Maybe you were thinking of the calcium carbonate deposits in some of the arid soil profiles (Caliche)?

    Mar 05, 2014 at 12:25 AM

  • NO NO NO. The wine in WA is horrible. The weather is terrible. The food is bad. The scenery is ugly. Stay away.

    Mar 05, 2014 at 2:31 PM

  • I vehemently disagree with the previous comment. I am from AZ and have been traveling to WA for over 10 years enjoying fine wines, food and scenery. The critics are enamored with the wine obviously by the NINE "Best in Class" at the S.F. Wine Competition last month, including a Malbec. So I recommend trying more Washington wines, you might be surprised.

    Mar 05, 2014 at 4:38 PM

  • SHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH you're gonna ruin it.

    Mar 05, 2014 at 4:48 PM

  • Snooth User: dmcker
    Hand of Snooth
    125836 4,989

    SFB is right to be concerned about too much positive press forcing pricing northwards... ;-)

    Glad you finally made it up to Walla Wall, GDP!

    Mar 10, 2014 at 7:26 PM

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