New Releases from Washington: A Bonanza for Consumers


My annual coverage of the best new releases from Washington focuses mostly on the 2016, 2017 and 2018 vintages (mostly white wines from the latter, as very few serious reds have yet been bottled, much less released), three growing seasons that provided the conditions for making outstanding wines. Each vintage has its partisans but most of the state’s producers agree that all three benefited significantly from favorable harvest conditions. What with the ongoing trend toward planting vines in cooler microclimates, better work in the vineyards to protect the fruit from raisining, earlier harvesting for better acid retention and bumper crops in 2016 and 2018, the market is awash with splendid examples. Pressures on pricing are only making Washington’s wines more exciting to wine lovers.

While I could devote many paragraphs to explaining the differences between the 2016 and 2017 growing seasons for red varieties—and I will do that below—the bottom line is that both vintages yielded terrific wines. And numerous winemakers and winery owners I’ve tasted and talked with in recent months have described 2018 as a near-perfect vintage, even if some have noted that this growing season presented challenges for some white varieties. All three years provided late-season cool-downs that were conducive for making the kind of fresh, delineated wines that are virtually impossible in seriously hot years, the most recent of which was 2015, the hottest on record for the state’s main wine-producing areas.

Yes, 2016, 2017 and 2018 were all warm by long-term standards, but, with very few exceptions, it wasn’t the kind of heat that overwhelmed intelligent growers and winemakers. On the contrary:  I was very pleasantly surprised by how few seriously cooked red wines I found during my tastings in recent months.

Christophe Baron's very steep Hors Categorie vineyard, on fractured basalt soil in the foothills of the Blue Mountains

2016: A Long, Relaxed Harvest

I described the 2016 growing season in some depth last year, but it was only over the past several months that I tasted a majority of the vintage’s elite bottlings in finished form. So a brief update would appear to be appropriate. The season started very warm and very early, leading growers and winemakers to fear that the vintage would be an even hotter one than 2015. Some growers reported budbreak in March, which is extremely unusual. April was freakishly warm and May continued warmer than average. The flowering in most cases took place even earlier than it had the previous year. The mild winter and very warm early spring and summer set the stage for a large crop, and the fruitfulness of the buds was also augmented by the very good weather conditions during the flowering in 2015. Many growers intentionally left more fruit—and more canopy—on their vines in an attempt to slow down the ripening process so that they could avoid another August harvest.

But then temperatures cooled down after the first week of June and remained more or less normal through the rest of the summer, except for a couple of hot spells in late June and late July. Much of July witnessed more cloud cover than usual for eastern Washington—hence minimal vine stress and risk of sunburn—and nights were pleasantly cool. Growers who had dreaded another freakishly early start to the harvest similarly felt less stressed. But the berries and grape clusters were large in 2016, and as temperatures cooled down in mid-summer, the most conscientious growers began making passes through their vines to limit their eventual crop levels.

Many growers anticipated a fast and furious start to the harvest, but although it began early, moderate temperatures through September and early October allowed growers to take their time picking. In fact, a number of producers told me that the near-ideal September weather was critical to ripening the year’s full load of grapes, especially following the cooler conditions in July and August. Numerous growers described 2016 as their longest harvest on record; some said they picked from mid-August through mid-November, when the first important frost occurred. While a few growers—mostly, I suspect, those whose vines still carried too much crop—admitted that they had trouble ripening some of their fruit, most could let their red grapes hang until they showed little or no unwanted pyrazine character. The slow ripening of the fruit contributed to the generally sound balance of the grapes—a near-ideal combination of ripe fruit character, lively acidity and plenty of ripe tannins for structural support—as well as to the density and frequently seamless texture of the resulting wines. One potential fly in the ointment in 2016, at least in Walla Walla, was some unusually early autumn rainfall, which began on October 6 and continued, on and off, through the month. Some of the later-ripening grapes, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, were still on the vines, and had to be picked carefully around the rainy spells. Rain also posed a challenge in central Yakima and on the Royal Slope, the latter a later-ripening area owing to its generally higher elevation.

Thanks to the balance of the wines and their ripeness, relatively few 2016s are overly austere in the early going. The Cabernets have plenty of tannins but they are normally fine and round, and the wines would appear to be quite ageworthy. The 2016s are often opulent and elegant at the same time, and more than one winemaker noted that the larger-than-normal cluster and berry size made it easy to extract harmonious wines. Although producers consider 2016 a warm year, it was a relief after the record heat of 2015.

Pepper Bridge vineyard, with the Blue Mountains in the background

2017: A Different Path to a Similar Endpoint

In terms of total degree days, 2017 was only slightly cooler than 2016 but the two growing seasons were quite different in shape. Whereas early warmth had triggered an extremely precocious budbreak in 2016, 2017 began with a cool, wet spring and a later budbreak—a good two weeks later than the previous year, according to most growers. Potential crop yields and grape size also began smaller than in 2016. (There had also been some winter frost damage in The Rocks District south of Walla Walla, so some of these vineyards carried sharply lower crop levels in 2017.) Temperatures warmed up nicely in late spring for the flowering and there were good water levels in the soil. July and the first half of August were then quite warm—significantly warmer than the previous year—and the grapes began to catch up.

But late-summer ripening conditions were substantially vexed by haze from extensive wildfires burning in British Columbia beginning in July and on the Oregon side of the Columbia Gorge through the month of September, which slowed down the ripening process and once again resulted in more hang time for the grapes. According to Josh McDaniels, who makes the Bledsoe Family Winery and Doubleback wines, “during the first two weeks of September, we would have these 100-degree forecasts for the day but with large amounts of smoke coming in from Canada and shading the valley, we really only got to 80 or 85.” Most growers, it should be noted, insisted that the smoke was high enough in the sky not to taint the grapes. The haze pushed back harvesting dates for many growers, and the weather cooled further in mid-September, so there was essentially no rush to pick. The result, as a general rule, was that the grapes in 2017 retained good levels of natural acidity with moderate sugar levels, and the long hang time brought softer tannins without the fruit getting overripe. In many cases, the cooler temperatures enabled the grapes to retain the delicate high-pitched aromatics that are often burned off by hot harvest-time weather, as had frequently been the case in 2016.

Eventually, most growers started picking anywhere from 10 days to three weeks later in 2017 than they did in 2016. Grape sugars were generally lower across the board in 2017, but phenolics were ripe. A few growers noted that even though they started picking considerably later in 2017, both harvests ended at more less the same time—but that was mostly due to the late cool-down in 2016 that made that harvest a particularly leisurely affair.

As to 2017 vs. 2016 for the state’s most important varieties, most winemakers like both vintages for red Bordeaux grapes, which account for nearly three-quarters of total Washington tonnage from red grapes (with Syrah accounting for most of the rest). Billo Naravane, co-owner and winemaker at Rasa Vineyards, noted that “perfect weather in September of 2017 allowed for plenty of hang time without dehydration or sugar accumulation—just nice phenolic development and ripening.” He added: “I think there is more subtle nuance in the 2017 wines; the wines are less showy but more elegant than the 2016s, which are bigger and more structured wines with more tannins.” But some other winemakers described 2016 as better-balanced and 2017 as more tannic. For example, Marty Clubb, co-owner and managing winemaker of L’Ecole No. 41, noted that “hot mid-summer conditions in 2017 ensured bigger tannins,” but because the very cool weather in late September pushed the majority of his harvest into October, “the 2017s combine the fruit intensity of a later harvest with the higher tannins levels.” Louis Skinner, winemaker for Betz Family Winery, described 2017 as an unusually concentrated year, for Cabernet and Syrah in particular. Based on his own wines and his tastings in other cellars in Woodinville, he called 2017 “a powerhouse, and the richest since 2014.”

Grenache vines in Sur Echalas vineyard (Horsepower) in The Rocks

And Then Came 2018

More than one winemaker I tasted with this summer described 2018 as an ideal growing season, although an in-depth look suggests that there were some challenges for certain white varieties. Following a normal March with one very cold spell, April brought mostly average temperatures along with some showery periods. Overall, budbreak was a bit later than average but, following an unusually warm May, the flowering took place roughly on schedule, and the fruit set was mostly larger than average.

June was warm, with some very hot days at the end of the month, and then it was very hot in July, with only a few moderate days between two extended heat spikes over the last three weeks of the month. There was another sharp heat spike in early August and temperatures continued very warm until a cool-down began on the 24th. Temperatures briefly warmed up again in early September but the summer heat essentially ended after the 7th, and Washington’s wine-growing regions enjoyed near-perfect conditions through the rest of September and the month of October. Once again, the harvest slowed down and the grapes benefited from more hang time. “The real game changer was September and October,” said Josh McDaniels. “We had maybe the most perfect fall I’ve seen in Walla Walla.” Most growers agree that conditions made for excellent color development, sound acidity and rich, ripe tannins, although some pointed out that it was necessary to thin the fruit to get optimal ripeness.

But some winemakers mentioned possible challenges to white wines in 2018. The rainy periods in April, in conjunction with coolish daytime high temperatures and minimal wind had kept humidity levels higher than normal and more vegetation on the ground for longer. This resulted in mildew pressures in some spots, which could be a problem in some higher-yielding vineyards with large canopies. (Even for the best farmers, conditions necessitated more frequent vineyard treatments.) In general, acid retention was not as good in the 2018 white grapes as in the 2017s, partly due to the heat spikes in July and August of 2018. Some Sauvignon Blanc grapes needed to be sorted in the vineyards and winery for botrytis. Viognier struggled to ripen in some spots owing to the large canopies. According to Aryn Morell, winemaker for Gard Vintners, Morell-Peña and several other wineries, higher acidity levels in 2017 in grapes like Roussanne, Riesling and Chardonnay “will have those wines showing better, and longer.” Chris Dowsett, who works extensively with fruit from the cooler Columbia Gorge, noted that he sees a bit more fullness in the 2018 whites. “The 2017s held a little more malic acid and the 2018s have a touch more body,” he told me. Veteran winemaker Mike Januik finds the 2017s to be more aromatic than the 2018s. “In fact,” he summarized, “I think that 2017 was a banner year for whites.” This latter sentiment is shared by many of his colleagues.

As Trey Busch, co-owner and winemaker at Sleight of Hand Cellars, summarized: “Two thousand eighteen offered the best September and October weather that I can remember since I started making wine in 2000. We had perfect ripening weather to finish off the harvest. We were never rushed to pick anything and we were never pressed for space. We saw healthy sugar accumulation and mature tannins during the entire ripening process. The wines are generous but elegant, which fits our style. It was a healthy-size crop across the board with fuller clusters. Still, the wines have density along with great acidity. They are perfectly balanced for my palate.”

Fermentation tanks at DeLille Cellars in Woodinville, formerly the Redhook brewery

A Bonanza for Consumers but Complicated for Producers and, Especially, Growers

Clearly, there has never been more outstanding Washington wine on the market than there is today. And with so much wine in the pipeline, prices have been stable, even at the top end. In the upper price range of the market—say $60 and higher—most producers maintain that their sales have slowed only a touch, if at all. Although it is taking them a bit longer to sell out their top wines, that’s mostly due to the steadily growing amount of competition in this segment, as well as to changing consumer behavior (for example, Millennials appear willing to try anything once but are far less likely to be brand loyal than Baby Boomers or to buy specific items in quantity like Gen X-ers have been known to do). Overall shipments of Washington wine have been flat over the past year, with the total spread among an ever-greater number of wineries. In fact, the steadily growing number of Washington winery licenses exceeded 1,000 in 2019—up from just 74 in 2000!

But if sales have been flat overall, virtually every producer I visited or tasted with this summer reported that they have recently increased their percentage of direct-to-consumer (DTC) sales, whether at their cellar doors or tasting rooms, or through their mailing lists and wine clubs. All other things being equal, this raises their profit margins—or, at the least, takes pressure off them. And, of course, a higher percentage of DTC sales ensures that Washington’s top bottles will continue to be tricky to find on retail shops outside of Washington.

If wineries find themselves in a highly competitive environment, vineyard owners are already feeling the pinch of the current glut of good fruit. Growers who own and farm Washington’s finest vineyards—particularly those most in demand by premium wineries—continue to maintain high prices for their fruit. But even those growers are hard-pressed to raise their prices to keep pace with constantly rising costs for labor and equipment. And even the best growers are aware of the fact that there are new vineyards in potentially superb sites who will eventually become their direct competitors. As Billo Naravane put it, “there are numerous vineyards that are almost top tier that are offering fruit at significantly lower prices, and many wineries are opting to go with the almost-as-good but cheaper fruit.” (I should note that one exception to flat pricing for fruit has been the increasing demand for some lesser-planted varieties, such as Cabernet Franc, Grenache and Roussanne, where wine quality has markedly improved in recent years and the wines are catching on with consumers.)

And of course, over the next few years, owners of some of these “almost-as-good” vineyards will adjust their business models to grow premium fruit at lower yields, for the simple reason that the glut of grapes today is worst for those who crop at higher yields for high-volume producers who are far less likely to be able to pass their rising costs along to consumers.

Several winemakers and winery owners I tasted with this year mentioned the effect on the grape market of the massive Ste. Michelle Wine Estates group, whose numerous wineries and labels still account for almost 60% of total Washington wine shipments. Until recently, SMWE was encouraging growers to plant aggressively, mostly to ensure grape supplies for their less-expensive labels, and some speculators in fact have planted at large scale to reduce their per-acre costs. But in 2018 and again this year, the Ste. Michelle group cut back significantly on their grape purchases, which has exacerbated the glut of fruit from high-volume vineyards. And when Ste. Michelle sneezes, vineyards can be blown away. Some growers have had no choice but to sell their fruit at a sharp discount to the bulk market, which is now flooded with wine. An article in the November issue of Good Fruit Grower magazine even suggested that some vineyard owners in Washington have grubbed up their vines and are planting their land over to other tree fruits as their grape contracts expire and are not renewed owing to the acute excess of grapes.

The frigid barrel cellar at Reynvaan Family Vineyards

A Proliferation of Second Labels

Not surprisingly in light of the glut of good fruit, recent vintages have witnessed the proliferation of second labels, many of them from the state’s premium producers, and some of these wines can offer terrific value to consumers seeking good wines for everyday drinking. (I should note that I am referring here mostly to wines that retail for $15 to $20 a bottle, not to under-$12 bottlings made mostly from bulk wine by very large wineries.) In some instances, the wineries clearly identify these wines as second labels, intentionally capitalizing on the power of their established brand names, but in others they have created entirely separate new brands. While many second labels have been launched to capitalize on falling prices for decent grapes, some of the best of them are made from vines controlled by the wineries, often using at least some declassified fruit from their more expensive bottlings, either because sales of their high-end wines have slowed or because they need to generate more cash flow—or both. And in some cases, high-end wineries require good supplies of value-priced wines to stock their monthly or quarterly wine-club offerings, as they don’t have enough of their top items to go around.

The happy result for consumers is that there is now outstanding value to be found in Washington wine at virtually every price point. Although I am obviously aware of the high prices charged by a handful of established superstar wineries, I generally taste without referring to retail prices. And I was pleasantly surprised this year by how many 90-point ratings I gave to wines that are downright easy on the wallet. All of this is very good news for consumers. The amount of seriously good wine in the $20 to $40 price range is staggering; finding comparably interesting bottles in this price range in California—much less from Napa and Sonoma Valleys—is far more difficult.

The 2019 Harvest Has Introduced a New Variable

The recently ended growing season of 2019 will no doubt complicate matters for growers, wineries and the overall Washington wine industry, but the tricky harvest conditions may at least partly reduce the wine glut. The season began with a very cold winter featuring numerous snow storms and virtually unbroken snow cover from late January well into March, which prevented growers from getting into their vineyards. May and June brought more average temperatures, but then July and August were on the cool side by recent standards, with just a few 100-degree days reported. September started warm before returning to cooler than average, and then temperatures plunged at the end of the month. October was then average to cool, with a significant and very early frost event on the 9th causing problems in many low-lying sites. There were rainy spells during the month and a more widespread and severe frost during the last few days of October and beginning of November.

Many of the top vineyards had dropped crop in early and mid-summer, as they began to worry that they wouldn’t get enough warmth to ripen their fruit, and, from reports I’ve received so far, most of the best wineries had a majority of their best fruit in before the frosts hit. But vineyards carrying full crop loads were not quite ripe on October 9 and the loss of foliage required them to pick in a rush. This posed a stiff logistical challenge in terms of limited harvesting manpower and winery tank space. By most reports, a good bit of fruit was eventually left on the vines (as much as 25% to 30% in some vineyards), and the lower production in 2019 may have the beneficial effect of at least slightly reducing the wine glut. Winemakers who I’ve spoken to in recent weeks are generally pleased with the phenolic ripeness and potential alcohol levels of this year’s grapes and optimistic about the potential quality of their 2019 wines, with some noting that natural acidity levels were the highest in several years.

All of the wines in this article were tasted in Washington in late June, July and August and in subsequent tastings (and retastings) in New York in September through early November.

Christophe Baron's Hors Categorie Vineyard Photo by Greg Lehman

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