Great Wines Out Yonder In Washington State

By Barbara Ensrud

Great Wines Out Yonder In Washington State


One of the gratifying aspects of several decades of wine writing is tracking the wines of a particular region and watching it grow up. When I first visited Washington State in 1980 and 1982, I was excited by the potential — at that time, however, mostly unrealized. Back then, Washington was best known for white wines — Riesling, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, the better ones from early-on pioneer wineries that grew steadily bigger (and better) over the years: Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Winery, Hogue Cellars. The reds were uneven, a bit thin, sometimes vegetal in character and tartly acidic.

But there were exceptions, the reds from a few adventurous winemakers: Alex Golitzin of Quilceda Creek near Seattle; a couple of others in a fairly obscure eastern region of the state, Walla Walla, better known for onions than wine; and Rick Small of Woodward Canyon and Gary Figgins at Leonetti.

These guys had vision; they knew Washington could produce reds of the quality and stature of Napa Valley or fine Bordeaux. You got hints of it in their well-structured, intensely concentrated Cabernets and Merlots. They got better with each vintage, too, though not a lot bigger. Today, their wines are so sought after they are strictly allocated, available to avid fans only if they are on the winery’s mailing list, and on a few of the country’s top wine lists.

More importantly, however, these men inspired a whole generation of young winemakers whose wines have made Washington one of the hot spots on the planet for exceptional reds — not only Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, but some of the most sensuous Syrah to be found anywhere.

There are current visionaries, too. On a recent trip to Seattle, I had a chance to visit with one of them, Allen Shoup, who for many years was head honcho at Chateau Ste. Michelle, Washington’s largest winery, now producing over a million cases of wine a year. Shoup retired in 2000. Restless and creative soul that he is, he was to start a new company, Long Shadows Vintners. “My thought,” he said over lunch, “was that if we could get some of the world’s top winemakers to make wines here, with fruit from some of our best vineyards, it would draw attention to just how great this region is.”

It wasn’t difficult at all to persuade a few lustrous names to get involved. The result is a handful of spectacular wines, a few of them available in the Triangle at shops such as Taylor’s, The Wine Merchant, A Southern Season, Herons at the Umstead and Tar Heel Traders:

Sequel, a Syrah from John Duval, winemaker for Penfolds Grange, Australia’s most notable red. Made of 100 percent Syrah, lush and incredibly deep, very long finish.

Saggi, SuperTuscan in style, blended from Sangiovese, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, this impressive red made by Ambrogio and Giovanni Folonari, the family that produced Ruffino’s superb Riserva Ducale Gold Chiantis.

Pedestal Merlot, made by Pomerol master winemaker Michel Rolland, a beautiful Merlot of rich texture, soft tannins and great length.

Feather, a Cabernet Sauvignon made by Randy Dunn of Napa Valley. Very impressive; I found it more elegantly structured and seductive than Dunn’s Napa Cabs.

Poet’s Leap Riesling, mosel-like crispness that elegantly balances light sweetness.

Look also for these wines on Triangle wine lists, such as The Mint, The Angus Barn, the Umstead Hotel in Cary.

My trip coincided with Taste Washington, which included a huge array of Washington wines. Though I’ve visited Washington several times over the years, this event was a revelation. The explosive growth in the last decade or so is nothing short of phenomenal. Over 200 wineries were represented, pouring nearly a thousand different wines — and I was quite blown away by some of them. The state now has its coterie of cult wineries and winemakers, typically small producers whose wines are snapped up quickly.

Betz Family Wines. Bob Betz is having a ball making the kind of wines he dreamed of drinking during his years working at Chateau Ste. Michelle. His 2006 La Serenne is one of the lushest, most beguiling Syrahs I’ve tasted, plus knockout Bordeaux-style reds such as Père de Famille and Clos de Betz.

Brian Carter. Creator of Apex and Bridgman labels, Carter now handcrafts a scintillating white, Oriana, and alluring reds such as Byzance and Tuttorosso, a Sangio-Cab blend.

Cayuse Vineyards. Dynamic Frenchman Christophe Baron created his Syrah vineyards on water-worn river rocks to produce intense, concentrated Syrahs and red blends; often two-bottle limit per customer.

DeLille Cellars. Founded in 1992 by a quartet of hip gents whose suave and stylish wines, including Doyenne and Chaleur Estate labels, disappear quickly on release. Especially impressive: D2, a Bordeaux blend, Chaleur Blanc, a zesty white, Grand Ciel Cabernet.

Leonetti. Second generation Chris Figgins carries on dad Gary’s tradition with stunning Merlot and other reds — a little more flamboyant, but not necessarily superior.

Quilceda Creek. Stalwart Cabernets that age for years, gaining in stature and value.

Waters Winery. Another amazing Syrah — stand back, you Aussies!

You’ll have to Google these names if you want to find and try them, but it’s worth it. All are ageworthy and steadily increase in value as collectors discover them.

Happily, however, a number of excellent Washington wines have found their way into the Triangle — seek them out and you’re in for some exciting tasting.



Bridgman Chardonnay, $10, great value, not over-oaked.

Chateau Ste. Michelle 2006 Pinot Gris, $14. Lovely floral notes, and drier than most Gris, making it highly versatile with food, especially oriental dishes. Ste. Michelle ’07 Dry Riesling, $12, thank goodness they are making this wine again! Dry and brisk, great with food.

Apex II Sauvignon Blanc, $12-14. Refreshing zing with lime and lemon flavors.

Poet’s Leap Riesling, $24, a touch of sweetness accents floral notes; excellent balance, acidity.

Tsillan Pinot Grigio, $18, zestier than Pinot Gris, crisp and appealing; can handle barbecue.


Dry Rosés

Syncline 2007 Rosé, $14, lively and fruity; good summer quaff.

Barnard Griffin Rosé of Sangiovese, $14. Sangio makes a dry, minerally rosé, great with food.



Bridgman Syrah 2005, $14, earthy, peppery, very drinkable Syrah.

Columbia Crest Reserve Merlot 2005, $27-29, consistently fine, well-structured Merlot.

Three Rivers 2005 Merlot, $19, not easy to find, but a very appealing flavorsome Merlot.

Tamarack Firehouse Red 2005, $23, a snappy red blend of Cabernet, Syrah, Merlot, Cab Franc.

Chateau Ste. Michelle Cabernet Sauvignon Cold Creek Vyd, $39, excellent Cab from a top vineyard; CSM Indian Wells Cabernet, $18, also quite good, more drinkable now.

Helix Merlot 2005, $24, second label of reputable Reininger winery delivers plenty of flavor.

Chester Kidder 2005, $28, a Cabernet-based blend, well-structured for grilled steak or lamb.

Andrew Will, $60, whatever reds you can find under this label, grab ’em; all are impressive!