New Releases from Washington State

In the state of Washington, a new winery was established every 13 days in 1999. So it's hardly surprising that my winery visits and group tastings in Washington in July turned up several emerging stars. Among the highlights of my tastings were syrahs of growing complexity and class from the likes of Cayuse Vineyards, Columbia Winery, Kestrel Vintners and McCrea Cellars, and a bevy of standout cabernets, merlots and Bordeaux blends from Andrew Will, Cadence Winery, Leonetti Cellar, Matthews Cellars and Quilceda Creek Vintners. The best reds of Washington State offer accurate varietal character and clearly defined fruit flavors; they are unlikely to be abrasively tannic or excessively austere upon release but generally possess sound structure for aging. Increasingly, quality-obsessed smaller wineries are encouraging their grape suppliers to reduce yields and to harvest more thoroughly ripe fruit; some are supervising, or even purchasing, the vineyards themselves.

At the same time, however, there is just as much mediocre wine from Washington State as ever before. A number of established wineries, some of them of important size, are simply going through the motions, churning out insipid bottles that are as incapable of giving pleasure as the industrially produced fruit found on the shelves of supermarket chains. I tasted far too many sour, dilute or hot white wines. The reds can be even less palatable: too many wineries use heavy extraction or new oak in an attempt to impart flavor to their wines, but with weak underlying material from overcropped vines, the result is more often dried-out swill with little middle-palate sweetness and harshly tannic, short finishes.

My extensive tastings afforded me an in-depth look at Washington State's '98 and '99 vintages, years that were both capable of producing outstanding wine. The earlier year featured a hot growing season and an early, very warm harvest. Some '98 reds verge on overripe, lacking sufficient acid spine to keep them lively. These wines may be best suited for near- to medium-term drinking. But the best examples from 1998 show an almost crystallized berry character and considerable opulence. These top '98s are among the richest wines produced to date in the state, and most will offer the advantage of early accessibility. More than one winemaker told me that the '98 vintage favored cabernet over merlot, as this variety tolerated the heat better.

The summer of '99 brought strikingly different conditions: there was little sustained hot weather in June and July in the high desert of the Columbia and Yakima river valleys, and by early August many growers were wondering whether the summer would ever arrive. But warmer weather came in mid-August and lasted well into October, allowing the fruit to ripen slowly and well. Well-timed rains prevented the vines from becoming stressed. Longer hang time in '99, and the absence of any protracted heat spells, allowed the fruit to ripen its flavors thoroughly while generally retaining sound levels of acidity. The less extreme harvest conditions in '99 were conducive to making aromatically fresh white wines. Interestingly, a couple of the state's most talented winemakers, Chris Camarda of Andrew Will, and Doug McCrea, told me that they thought their '99 reds, as well as their '97s, would be better candidates for extended aging than their superripe '98s, which might be best enjoyed for their youthful fruit.