Washington State Wines - A Journey Along the Columbia River

The state of Washington consists of many diverse microclimates--from the rainforest of the Olympic Peninsula to the eastern portion of the state averaging around eight inches of rain.  The craggy Cascade Range separates the western and damper portion of the state from the eastern and drier side.  All of these microclimates provide the 900 wineries unique areas to grow more than 40 different varietals of wine, making Washington State the second-largest premium grape-growing region in the nation.


Recently, I was fortunate enough to participate in the Washington State Wine Trade & Media Tasting held at the stunning Coasterra Restaurant on Harbor Island in San Diego. With views of San Diego bay and sailboats elegantly gliding by, this was the perfect place to stand on the patio munching on appetizers and sipping lush Washington wines. An abundant antipasti tray and superbly crafted vegetable bowl wet our appetites and was followed by crab cakes, sliders, shrimp cocktails, and mini pizza slices.


All of this delicious food was the foundation for an afternoon of tasting critically acclaimed wines from 60 wineries of Washington State. Big red wines are my personal favorite, so when I was planning which wineries I should sample, I looked for those regions known red varietals. As I tell you about the wines I sampled, let me send you on an imaginary tour of these great wineries—a trip I plan to take in the future.


One of the most spectacular parts of wine tasting in Washington is experiencing the variety of terrains in this state.  With its mountains, lakes, rivers, and deserts, the setting is a visual candy shop of variety. This same variety provides 13 viticultural areas to be explored. The soil of glacial sediment from the Ice Age and basalt cast down by volcanic explosions influence the taste of the wine. On the eastern side of the Cascades, the sunny, hot days followed by cool nights lets the grapes ripen while retaining the right amount of acidity.


As one who has spent a lot of time traveling the state of Washington, my favorite starting point is the Columbia River Gorge, a winding river surrounded by tall evergreens atop sharply rising mountains and gushing waterfalls. Starting your journey around White Salmon and Underwood Mountain, an area around 1,100 feet high, you can experience the cooler varietals like Gewurztraminer, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Gris. As you head east towards Lyle, sip on Primitivo, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Viognier, and Mourvedre.


Enjoy the rustic beauty of Syncline Winery, located on a working farmstead, with a relaxed picnic area of tables, Adirondack chairs, and hammocks. I urge you to try the Mourvedre and Grenache, both earning high point from Wine Enthusiast.


Heading still further east along the river, you experience grassy, rocky terrain and bluffs, where the grapes catch lots of sunshine and very little rainfall—a great place for Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Zinfandel. This area is the location of Maryhill Art Museum and Maryhill Winery, home to outdoor concerts in the summer overlooking the gorge.


Meander from this area to the Yakima Valley, the state’s first growing region with more than 100 wineries. Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon reign supreme here, but more than 40 varieties flourish in this region.


The family of Gilbert Cellars has been growing fruit in this area since 1897 and now creates some spectacular wines showcased at Hackett Ranch. While I am a big red fan, their unoaked Chardonnay with lemon notes was one of the best I have ever tasted, and would be perfect with a Washington State Dungenous crab. Another wine I liked was the Left Bank Red Bordeaux Blend. This bold and structured wine is a great dinner wine and calls for a nice steak. Their Tempranillo Port was a perfect dessert wine--not cloyingly sweet—and begged for just one lovely truffle aside the glass.


Côte Bonneville Winery’s winemaker, Kerry Shiels, told me that the vineyard, DuBrul Vineyard was named after Napoleon DeBrul, a tobacco baron, in honor of her great, great grandfather. DuBrul Vineyard produces some of the most respected grapes, having received the designation twice of Washington State Vineyard of the Year. Côte Bonneville’s tasting room is located in the former historic Grandview Train Depot in downtown Sunnyside. One of my favorites, Carriage House Red Bordeaux Blend, received 94 points from the Wine Enthusiast.


As you travel, head to Red Mountain, named after the red cheat grass that fills the slopes in spring, and Horse Heaven Hills near Benton City (and near the Columbia River) is the smallest AVA in Washington and also the warmest region. This AVA is known for 93 percent of all wines being big, structured red varietals with lots of minerality. Best known are the powerful Merlots, Syrahs, and Cabernet Sauvignons.


Hightower Cellars, located outside Benton City, works by the theory, “get the best grapes and don’t screw them up.” High on my list of delectable wines is their Reserve Red Bordeaux Blend, consisting of Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Verdot. This wine packs a punch of full-bodied flavor with notes of pepper and violets.


From the Red Mountain area, head east to the Walla Walla Valley. This high-desert valley has the largest number of wineries in the state. Known for its Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Malbec, this area will truly delight those red wine taste buds. The Walla Walla Valley is unique in that it borders Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.


Cougar Crest Estate Winery, located in Walla Walla, has another outstanding winemaker and owner, Debbie Hansen. The Estate Viognier I tasted had a great mouthfeel with flavors of apricot and was very crisp. It has been awarded 90 points by Wine Spectator. Unfortunately, I ran out of tasting time, but their Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon have won high awards of excellence and worthy of sampling. This winery has earned the label of having some of the top 100 wines in the world.


Tamarack Cellars located in Walla Walla Valley, voted Winery of the Year in 2009 by Wine and Spirits, showcases some exceptional wines at a reasonable price. Try their 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon rated 92 Points Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast or their 2014 Merlot, with a 91-point rating by Wine Enthusiast.


The contemporary Tertulia Cellars, also located in Walla Walla, gets its name from the Spanish word “tertulia” which means a social gathering of friends. Winemaker Ryan Raber introduced me to one of my favorites, the 2013 Carménere, a unique and powerful wine often used for blending. I loved the peppery, smoky, and chocolate taste. I also enjoyed the Great Schism Red Rhône Blend, with flavors of raspberries, currants, and vanilla—a light blend true to the Rhone region.


Woodward Canyon Winery, in Walla Walla Valley, featured an amazing Merlot with more aromatics than found in the Napa Valley. Lush and concentrated with notes of black cherry and herbs, this wine will hold up for a decade. Big and bold with notes of blackberry and herbs, the Artist Series Cabernet Sauvignon has earned 92 points from Wine Enthusiast. Woodward Canyon Winery is located in a restored 1870’s farmhouse.


Another trip will take me to Woodinville, Washington, with more than 100 tasting rooms. There are some magnificent wineries showcasing grapes from Red Mountain, Yakima Valley, and Columbia Valley located in Woodinville, outside Redmond, Washington. These wineries are worthy of a trip on their own. I enjoyed Januik Winery’s Stone Cairn Cabernet Sauvignon with flavors of cherry, currants, and chocolate. Lauren Ashton Cellars Proprietor’s Cuvée Red Bordeaux Blend was given 95 points by Robert Parker and is luscious. Mark Ryan Winery’s Long Haul Red Bordeaux Blend shows earthiness with tastes of currants, plums, and spice.


Washington State has so much to offer a visitor, and the wineries should certainly be a feature for any wine enthusiast.

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