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Washington’s acclaimed wine begins in carefully tended vineyards

ELTOPIA — Beneath sunlit leaves on a late morning in early autumn, grapes – plump, deep blue, veiled in a feather-light layer of fine dust – hang heavy.

Harvest has already begun. But another week – even another day or two – on these 20-year-old vines could make all the difference.

“The trick is not to get too over-anxious,” said Greg Lipsker, standing between the rows of cabernet franc vines. The co-owner of Barrister Winery in Spokane has traveled to this vineyard growing atop a bluff overlooking the Columbia River northwest of Pasco, to help determine when to cut grapes from these gnarled vines.

Barrister is known for making consistently exceptional wines, particularly reds. And that’s the hallmark of Washington state’s wine industry: It’s heralded for habitually producing high-quality wines.

Wines from this state are not only consistently outstanding, they are also more affordable than comparable wines from other top wine regions, including California, Oregon, Italy and France. Data published by Wine Spectator over the last eight years – and analyzed by the Washington Wine Commission – shows Washington state has the highest average percentage of wines rated 90 points or above compared with those other four leading wine regions, and offers them at the lowest average cost per bottle.

That’s a statistic touted by Craig Leuthold, who owns Maryhill Winery with his wife, Vicki. “The best part of it is they’re less expensive,” he said. “Not only are they higher in quality but they’re affordable.”

The Washington State Wine Commission found 46 percent of Washington wines rated by Wine Spectator from 2009 to 2016 scored 90 points or higher, compared with 45 percent for Oregon, 42 percent for France, 34 percent for Italy and 32 percent for California.

For the same time frame, those highly rated wines cost an average of $96 per bottle from France, $74 per bottle from California, $69 per bottle from Italy and $50 per bottle from Oregon.

The average price per highly rated bottle in Washington: $44.

What makes Washington wines so superb?

“In a nutshell, it’s quality and diversity and value,” said Craig Leuthold, who – along with Lipsker – serves on the board of the Washington Wine Institute, which advocates for Washington wineries.

“You can make bad wine out of good grapes,” Leuthold said. “But there’s no way you’re going to make great wine out of a bad grape.”

Greg Lipsker, of Barrister Winery, bites into a cabernet franc grape as he tests for sugar levels, Monday, Oct. 2, 2017, in the Bacchus Vineyard near the Tri-Cities. D (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Greg Lipsker, of Barrister Winery, bites into a cabernet franc grape as he tests for sugar levels, Monday, Oct. 2, 2017, in the Bacchus Vineyard near the Tri-Cities. D (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Second in the country, and still growing

Washington ranks No. 2 in the country for wine production and number of wineries. Only California makes and has more. It’s home to more than 4,200 wineries, and it accounts for about 85 percent of all wine made in America.

Still, “I would argue we are competing with them,” said Steve Warner, president of the Washington State Wine Commission. “We are certainly out-growing them.”

The Washington wine industry is growing at a rate of about 8 percent per year, compared with 2 or 3 percent outside of this state, Warner said. “Over the last five years, we grew about 40 percent,” he said. “You see that across the numbers – in the number of wineries, in acreage, in tonnage.”

And much of its growth has occurred in the past 15 years, the past five in particular.

Last year’s harvest was a record haul, with 270,000 tons of wine grapes – up more than 80,000 tons from five years ago. Ten years before that, in 2002, harvest was 115,000 tons. In 1985, it was 17,000 tons. By comparison, California vineyards last year yielded 4 million tons.

Most of the wine grapes in this state – approximately two out of every three – are used by the powerhouse Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, which dominates Washington’s winescape, accounting – Warner said – for about 65 percent of the market.

In all, this state produces approximately 17.5 million cases at more than 900 wineries, up from 800 in 2013 and 700 in 2010. Most – some 87 percent – are like Barrister, producing fewer than 10,000 cases per year. But more than half – some 64 percent – are even smaller, making fewer than 1,000 cases.

In 2001, when Barrister started making wine, there were 170 wineries in Washington. Twenty years before that, in 1981, there were 19.

“We’re doing really darn good,” Warner said. “It’s really exciting because we’re a relatively youthful wine region.”

Greg Lipsker, of Barrister Winery, tests a cabernet franc grape for sugar levels with a portable brix refractometer, Monday, Oct. 2, 2017, in the Bacchus Vineyard near the Tri-Cities. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Greg Lipsker, of Barrister Winery, tests a cabernet franc grape for sugar levels with a portable brix refractometer, Monday, Oct. 2, 2017, in the Bacchus Vineyard near the Tri-Cities. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Tracing grapes back to their roots

Commercial-scale plantings didn’t begin until the 1960s. But Washington’s wine industry traces its roots to 1825, when members of the Hudson’s Bay Co. planted vines at Fort Vancouver. As immigrants from Italy, France and Germany settled the territory, they added their own plantings.

Wine grape acreage – as well as a few dozen wineries – expanded throughout the early and middle part of the 20th century. In 1937, Dr. Walter Clore, known as “the father of Washington wine,” was appointed assistant horticulturist at Washington State University’s Prosser extension, initiating enology and viticulture research and launching trials of hybrid grape varieties.

Commercial scale picked up in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s – and has been skyrocketing since. About 40 percent of the state’s wine grapes have been planted in the last decade – from 31,000 acres in 2007 to about 50,000 acres today. In 1997, only some 17,000 acres were planted, up from 11,100 in 1993, or 10 years after the first American Viticultural Area, its officially designated appellation, was established.

“We saw what was happening, and we wanted to be part of it,” Craig Leuthold said.

The Leutholds founded Maryhill in 1999, debuting their first vintage and opening their Goldendale tasting room in 2001. Since then, he said, the winery has seen nearly sixfold growth, “which is really incredible if you think about it.” The initial goal, he said, was to produce up to 20,000 cases. “We passed that in our fourth year.”

Today, Maryhill offers 60 varieties and produces some 80,000 cases annually. It also has two locations. Maryhill officially opened a second tasting room Nov. 18. Located in Kendall Yards, it stretches nearly 5,000 square feet and offers views of the Spokane River and downtown skyline.

Across the river, Barrister has enjoyed similar advances. “The growth has been phenomenal,” said Lipsker, who owns Barrister with business partners Michael White and Tyler Walters.

White and Lipsker started the winery in a 1,500-square-foot daylight basement and made just 134 cases of cabernet franc their first vintage, released in 2003, before moving the winery into a larger location. This year, Lipsker expects to produce 5,500 cases, or some 66,000 bottles, at Barrister’s 26,000-square-foot event center and winery, located in a former automotive warehouse on the west end of downtown Spokane.

“We still consider ourselves a newer winery,” he said. “But we’re older than 80 percent of the wineries in the state.”

Greg Lipsker, of Barrister Winery, tests his cabernet sauvignon grapes for sugar levels with a portable brix refractometer, Monday, Oct. 2, 2017, in the Bacchus Vineyard north of the Tri-Cities. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Greg Lipsker, of Barrister Winery, tests his cabernet sauvignon grapes for sugar levels with a portable brix refractometer, Monday, Oct. 2, 2017, in the Bacchus Vineyard north of the Tri-Cities. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Finding the balance

Lipsker has already brought in 110 tons of grapes this year.

It’s all been about timing.

“This is such a crucial decision,” said Lipsker, who contracts with 10 vineyards.

It’s so crucial, in fact, that he put 1,500 miles on his car in September and another 2,000 by the end of October, making twice- and thrice-weekly trips from Spokane to Walla Walla and the Tri-Cities and beyond to check on the progress of his grapes.

Wines produced from the grapes he harvests this year won’t be released for at least two years. “Could be up to four years,” he said.

Lipsker pulls a gadget from his jeans pocket and places a single grape on top of the prism, then closes the plate. The refractometer reads 23, which Lipsker said “is a little higher than last time” – but not quite high enough. Lipsker knows – to the tenth of a percent – just where he wants that number to be. It’s somewhere, he said, between 25 and 26 brix. The higher the brix, or sugar content, the higher the alcohol content in the wine.

“We’re trying for wine that’s fully developed and well-balanced and that doesn’t have too much alcohol,” Lipsker said, noting these grapes should be ready in another nine to 10 days. “The challenge now is to be patient.”

He has several blocks of wine grapes to check. As he ambles through Bacchus Vineyard to his next stop, a row of old-growth cabernet sauvignon, he pauses to point out a cluster of smooth granite rocks. He reckons they’re a result of the catastrophic floods that swept through this region at the end of the last ice age.

Petit Verdot grapes for Barrister Winery at Dionysuys Vineyards grow on the vines, Monday, Oct. 2, 2017, near the Tri-Cities. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Petit Verdot grapes for Barrister Winery at Dionysuys Vineyards grow on the vines, Monday, Oct. 2, 2017, near the Tri-Cities. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Ripe growth conditions

The Missoula Floods occurred repeatedly some 10,000 to 20,000 years ago, unleashing torrents of racing water that carved the scablands and many coulees of Eastern Washington. The floods left deep deposits of gravel, sand and silt throughout the Columbia Basin, creating rich agricultural land – and quite possibly the perfect terroir.

The French term refers to the set of environmental characteristics that affect a particular crop – from soil and sunlight to water, climate and farming practices. And when it comes to wines from Washington, Craig Leuthold said, “I think the quality is all about the climate. It’s the soil and the climate.”

The Columbia Basin is home to 99 percent of the state’s vinifera acreage. These vineyards are made of well-drained, relatively low-nutrient ice-age deposits. And this type of soil allows grape vines to struggle, spread out and grow deep roots. Those deep, ramified root structures – along with well-drained soil – help account for this state’s consistently good wine grapes.

Grape vines, Craig Leuthold said, “don’t like to get their feet wet.”

Most vineyards in the Columbia Basin lie below the high-water mark of those ancient floods and feature excellent drainage. Wind-blown sand and silt, or loess, covers layers of gravel and slack-water sediments as well as basalt bedrock. That basalt and those granite deposits lend a particular mix of minerals to the soil.

But, as Craig Leuthold noted, soil is only one factor in terroir. The Columbia Basin lies between the 46th and 47th parallels, or approximately the same latitude as the famed Old-World wine region of Burgundy. This northern location allows its vineyards up to 16 hours of daylight during growing season, or two more hours than wine grape growing regions receive in California.

The Columbia Basin also lies in the rain shadow of the Cascade Range and sees sun 300 days a year. The growing season is dry and warm, with an average daily temperature of 78 degrees. It receives little annual rainfall – about 8 inches – but experiences consistent freezing temperatures in winter, which helps combat fungus and pests.

“I can’t think of anywhere in the world that’s more perfect than here in Eastern Washington for growing grapes,” Vicki Leuthold said. “You can just about grow anything in the right place in Washington.”

Volunteer Chris Berg tosses away a bunch tempranillo grapes during  a crush Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2017, at Barrister Winery in Spokane, Wash. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Volunteer Chris Berg tosses away a bunch tempranillo grapes during a crush Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2017, at Barrister Winery in Spokane, Wash. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Technology in the mix

Since the first Washington AVA was formed in 1983, technology has improved, and research has expanded. And growers continue to experiment with different varieties.

“When we first started growing grapes in Washington, farmers used the shotgun approach,” said Craig Leuthold, who contracts with more than 20 growers in eight of Washington’s 14 appellations, or growing regions. “Now, we’re using the scientific approach to grape growing. Farmers are more sophisticated in their growing methods.”

And consumers, he said, are becoming more adventurous. “It’s very exciting. People are no longer afraid to try different varietals.”

Grenache, Craig Leuthold said, is up and coming. So are Spanish and Italian varietals, such as albarino, tempranillo, sangiovese, dolcetta and barbera.

“We’ve gone from predominantly growing Riesling and chardonnay and sauvignon blanc to predominantly growing reds,” Warner said. “We’ve seen a dramatic shift.”

Bordeaux-style red blends have become more popular. “We have also seen a lot of interest in our syrah. Cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah, those three are growing the most year to year,” Warner said.

Nearly 70 varietals are produced in Washington today. Most – some 58 percent – are reds. One of them is Barrister’s petit verdot, the 2017 Red Wine of the Year, named at the nation’s largest independent and scientifically organized wine competition, the Indy International. The grapes came from the sister vineyard to Bacchus, or Dionysus, first planted in 1973.

In Wine Spectator’s recently released Top 100 list, a syrah from Walla Walla was named the No. 2 wine in the world for 2017. Syrah Walla Walla Valley Powerline Estate 2014 comes from winemaker Charles Smith and retails for $45. It’s one of four Washington wines to make the list, along with Smith’s Sixto Chardonnay 2014 at No. 13, the Frederick Walla Walla Valley 2014 red blend at No. 39, and Gorman Zachary’s Ladder Red Mountain 2014 at No. 68.

“We produce premium wine,” Warner said. “We don’t produce subpremium wine.”

Despite its accolades, repeatedly high ratings and growth, Washington’s wine industry – worth $2.067 billion to the state’s economy, according to the Washington State Wine Commission – still only accounts for about 1 percent of the worldwide wine industry. Warner expects that to change shortly. “Absolutely it will,” he said.

Outside the United States, Warner said, wines from Washington are seeing success in the Canadian market as well as in South Korea, China, Japan, the United Kingdom and Scandinavia. But there’s still plenty of room for growth for Washington in the world of wine – globally, nationally, regionally and locally, he said

In fact, in this state, Washington wines make up only about half of the market share, a fact Warner finds particularly “annoying.”

He encourages Washington wine enthusiasts to support local wineries.

“There’s no reason not to,” Warner said. “We’re making world-class wine at a fraction of the cost. I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t have 90 to 95 percent of the market.

“You should be buying Washington wine,” he said. “And you should be proud of it.”