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Washington Wines: Just East of Greatness

Written by Jennifer Jordan
Filed Under: Wine Regions

When people think of the wines of the northwest, chances are they ignore Washington and think mainly of Oregon. With its penchant for Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, and Pinot Noir, Oregon has seemingly left Washington state Pinot Poor. Yet, Oregon is not the only state in this upper region capable of making wine, Pinots or otherwise. Washington, over the past decade and a half, has developed into a major wine player and now has more than the ability to serve as Oregon's tag team partner. Move over timber, the northwest has a new baby.

Washington Wine is perhaps the tastiest alliteration in vocabulary today (sorry, pickled peppers, you were a close second). Full of flavor, concentration, and body, Washington Wines are giving everyone a reason to wash down their steak with a bottle of Merlot. Yet, it wasn't always like this.

The first grapes in Washington were planted in the late 1800's. Quite literally late bloomers, they didn't fully develop into greatness until the early 1990's when people began to realize three important things: Washington possessed the same latitude as famous European wine regions, Washington had - on average - two more hours of sunlight a day than California, and Washington contained areas shielded by the Cascade Mountains. This shield left eastern Washington under a geographical umbrella, providing vineyards with nearly ideal climate.

For these reasons, winemakers began to make wine in the eastern portion of the state. In fact, the decision was made to plant eight out of nine viticultural areas in eastern Washington (and four out of five dentists agreed). The sole western wine region is Puget Sound. Laying west of the Cascade Mountains, it spends its day producing grapes that excel in cold climate - such as Madeline Sylvaner, Muller-Thurgua, and Siegerrebe - and its nights singing Celine Dion's "All by Myself."

The eastern viticultural areas include Columbia Valley, Yakima Valley, Red Mountain, Walla Walla, Horse Heaven Hills, Wahluke, Rattlesnake Hills, and Columbia Gorge. These areas are famous most notably for two grapes: Merlot and Cabernet. Labeled as among the best red wines in the world, to some people no Merlots and Cabernets can compare to the ones made in eastern Washington.

On the white side of things, eastern Washington is best known for Chardonnays, Rieslings, and Sauvignon Blancs. However, Chenin Blanc, Fruit Wines, Semillon, and Sparkling Wines are also gaining in popularity.

The conditions of eastern Washington may seem like a winemakers dream, but it is not without its faults. While viticulturists reap the benefits of a regular growing season and grapes that attain perfect ripening, they must also deal with fits of weather. Mother Nature occasionally wrecks havoc on this area with winter freezes, leaving wine growers to label her a "drama queen" and also destroying portions of vineyards. Sometimes, it takes several years to bring a vineyard back to full production.

Taking leads from its southern competition, Washington is in the middle of creating a tourism industry that parallels Napa Valley. However, Washington has found itself tangled in a vine of obstacles. These include the remoteness of many of the vineyards - as many of them are located in the proverbial "middle of nowhere" - and lack of lodging (people may find themselves all wined up with nowhere to go). The lack of transportation hubs is also a factor. Nonetheless, the Washington Wine Tourism Task Force was created in 2000. And so, Operation: Wine and Dine, continues.

If a Napa Valley-like industry is eventually created, it would likely benefit Washington on astounding levels, adding a new element to the economy, creating knowledge of the wine industry, and giving Seattle - the Washington city where tourists tend to flock - some much needed space….needle.

As of right now, Washington will just have to be happy with where it stands, showing the world that Washington mountains aren't the only thing capable of erupting. Already second in varietal wine production in the US, this blossoming industry has over 31,000 acres dedicated to vineyards, and 120,000 grapes harvested each year. Washington also ships its product to over 40 nations, giving us Americans the assurance that at least one of our Washingtons is on good terms with the rest of the world.