Riesling, cabernets made by state's wineries are turning heads
Washington's winemakers have been quietly developing rieslings and cabernets that are turning heads. Nearly 200 of them will pour samples of more than 800 wines for aficionados to enjoy.
Seattle Times business reporter
Washington has long been a wallflower in the wine world, overshadowed by the stature and popularity of California, which makes about 90 percent of U.S. wines.
California's wine industry came of age in spectacular fashion during the famous Judgment of Paris in 1976, when its wines swept the awards in a blind tasting by French judges.
Mostly overlooked, Washington's winemakers quietly developed rieslings and cabernets that are turning heads.
One of the most recent champions of Washington wine is Randall Grahm, a California winemaker whose whimsical brands have included Big House and Cardinal Zin.
Grahm sold those money-makers last year and plans to make Pacific Rim, the $5.7 million winery he is building in Eastern Washington, his biggest wine business. After buying riesling grapes from Washington for years, Grahm said, he decided "it made sense to bring the winemaking closer to the source of the grapes."
Grahm has a thing for riesling, which he calls "the wine of the 21st century. I love it. I absolutely adore it."
Anyone who says it's too sweet, he said, "should totally get over it."
Riesling is good for many types of wine — sweet, dry, dessert, sparkling — and happens to be the grape that first put Washington on the wine map.
At another, lesser-known blind tasting in the 1970s, a riesling from the Chateau Ste. Michelle near Seattle beat out contenders from California, Germany and Australia.
Ste. Michelle was one of a handful of Washington wineries back then. Now the state boasts more than 460, and today at least 2,000 people are expected at the 10th annual Taste Washington event in Seattle. Nearly 200 Washington wineries will pour samples of more than 800 wines at Qwest Field Event Center.
"You're on a good trajectory," said Bob Smiley, director of wine-industry programs for the University of California at Davis.
"But it's happening gradually, not precipitously like [what] happened in Paris."
Lower land prices
Washington has its share of pricey wines but is gaining a reputation for charging less than comparable wines from California.
One reason is the relatively low cost and greater availability of land in Eastern Washington, where most of the state's wine grapes are grown.
"As a major landowner and grape grower, I'd like to see the value of my assets increase, but we're not going to get wild and crazy like California," said Jim Willard, who owns Willard Family Vineyards near Prosser, Benton County. He has supplied grapes to Grahm's Bonny Doon Vineyard in Santa Cruz for the past few years.
Many Washington grape prices are higher on average than California, but land here costs far less. Francis Ford Coppola paid an eye-popping $350,000 an acre for a Napa Valley vineyard in 2002.
In Washington, the most expensive vineyards in the Walla Walla Valley or Red Mountain would probably fetch about $50,000 an acre, Willard said. Unplanted land costs substantially less.
Grahm, who is shrinking his Santa Cruz business as he builds a new winery in West Richland, Benton County, said he likes the lower cost of doing business in Washington. His new Pacific Rim winery will be capable of producing 300,000 cases of wine a year.
A ton of riesling grapes in Washington fetched an average $716 last year, compared with $1,014 for a ton of white riesling grapes from California, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.
The focus on riesling will make the state an even bigger powerhouse for that grape. Ste. Michelle Wine Estates in Woodinville already makes more riesling than any other U.S. wine company, producing about 700,000 cases of it last year.
With seven Washington wineries, Ste. Michelle also produces more than half of all the wine made in the state.
CEO Ted Baseler said he welcomes the arrival of Grahm's new winery and the accolades to other winemakers.
"Our primary focus is growing the awareness and prestige of Washington wines," he said, "not to take market share or shelf space."
Last year, Robert Parker's Wine Advocate bestowed perfect scores on two cabernet sauvignon vintages from Washington's Quilceda Creek winery. Only 15 other U.S. wines had ever scored 100 in that influential publication, and all the others hailed from California.
Quilceda Creek also ranked high on a recent list from Wine Spectator, and Ste. Michelle was in the top 10 on a Wine Enthusiast ranking.
Nevertheless, Baseler said, "we still have a ways to go."
While critics and aficionados now view Washington as one of the world's top wine regions, the word has not trickled down to the average wine consumer. In surveys around the country, consumers place Washington wine behind France, Italy, California and Australia for winemaking, Baseler said.
"When I started [at Ste. Michelle] 20 years ago, we weren't even on the list," Baseler said. "And it was a long list — maybe 40 countries."
Ste. Michelle's newest winery, Col Solare, represents another notch of recognition in the state's growing wine reputation.
A red blend that sells for $75 a bottle, Col Solare is a joint venture with Marchesi Antinori in Italy. The centuries-old winery began making the blend with Ste. Michelle in the 1990s, but the wine was produced at an existing Ste. Michelle winery. Last week, the companies debuted a separate Col Solare winery in Eastern Washington.
Investments like that from established winemakers call attention to the state, making it increasingly attractive to other potential transplants, said Smiley from U.C. Davis.
"It's tough to go to a new area and be the first or second one there," he said, "but when you're the 8th or 10th, it's different."
Seattle Times researcher David Turim contributed to this report.
Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or email@example.com
Information in this article, originally published April 15, was later corrected. A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the town where Randall Grahm is building a new winery. It is West Richland, not West Richmond.