Walla Walla, Washington, feels like a very remote place. Not least because it takes hours to get there from any major city—even from "nearby" Portland or Seattle, it's still four hours by car. And once there, well, it's a vast, sparse, windblown valley with mountains shimmering in the distance.
Even close to home, at your local wine store, Washington wines feel remote, vague. I think it's a lack of identity. Washington has never developed a clear message. Oregon has Pinot Noir to hang its hat on. California has the very established winegrowing regions of Napa and Sonoma—instant branding.
Washington has played the field, bouncing from one varietal to another. Twenty years ago it was Merlot. But producers there seemed to think that Merlot wasn't noteworthy enough, so they backed off it. Then Washington Syrah hit and was the talk of wine circles until Syrah fell off a cliff a couple of years ago. Today, Washington makes great Cabernet Sauvignon, but the wine will always play second fiddle in most people's minds to Napa's Cabs. So how should Washington sell itself today?
On style. A couple of recent trips out to Washington have me convinced that the state is capable of producing wines like no one else can—medium-bodied with well-defined fruit flavors, amazing focus, a sense of minerality and terroir, and all this with an elegance and grace.
Washington can do this because of its location. Its northerly latitude gives it a shorter growing season than California (it starts to cool off sharply in October, whereas California can often harvest into even early November). But during the key part of the season the days are much longer than California's, giving the grapes a huge dose of light and warmth when they want it most. And the soil—silty, sandy, gravelly—drains well and is not very rich.
On my recent visits to Washington, I found loads of truly exciting wines. In just a short time, Gramercy Cellars—Syrah, Cab, and Grenache—has earned a spot among the nation's best producers. Winemaker Greg Harrington has applied his great palate (he's a master sommelier) and keen intellect to making truly complex, delicious Syrahs with old-world flavor but Washington structure and focus.
I continue to adore the amazing wines of Seven Hills Winery. The Cabs and Merlots of owner and winemaker Casey McClellan are some of the most beautiful in the U.S.—they have concentration and fortitude, but also a supreme grace and drinkability. They're a bargain for the quality they deliver.
Working in not too different a style is Rick Small of Woodward Canyon, one of Walla Walla's early wineries. Small's Artist Series and Old Vines Cabernets have been Washington classics for decades, but are still highly relevant today in their ability to gather complexity with age and their wonderful integration of fruit, acid, and tannin. Jean-François Pellet's wines at Pepper Bridge show a little more upfront power, but they also have a remarkable definition of flavors and an irresistible gulpability.
Other, younger wineries to watch include Waters, where winemaker Jamie Brown makes graceful, restrained wines that still manage to deliver pure, ripe fruit and other complexities. Buty, another Walla Walla property, makes some of Washington's most fascinating wines. Owner Caleb Foster's Peter Canlis Syrah (available only at Seattle's Canlis restaurant, as well as at the winery) is one of the state's greatest Syrahs, and his white blend of Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscadelle may be the state's greatest white.
There's a lot to think about. But don't try to associate Washington with a single grape. Think of it as the source of a truly compelling and delicious style of wine. Then it won't seem so remote.