Arrow-right Camera

Color Scheme

Subscribe now

The hidden gems of Washington wines: Years of vineyard excellence, and some happy accidents, make these affordable store-bought wines worth tasting

By Jim Kershner Spokesman-Review senior correspondent

I have been writing biographies of Washington’s wine pioneers for the past three years, with one unforeseen benefit: I’ve been getting the inside story on which wines are the hidden gems.

Toward the end of every interview, I asked each winemaker three questions: Which wine made your reputation? What’s your favorite wine? What’s your bestselling wine?

I paid a lot of attention to those answers, because like most other casual wine consumers, I had been baffled by the sheer number of wineries and labels to choose from in the supermarket wine aisle. Many of their recommendations have now become regulars in my refrigerator and pantry. Most of them are relatively inexpensive and easy to find.

I gathered this information about wines and winemakers while working on the Washington Wine Pioneers project, an effort to document the state’s wine history, as part of my job as a historian with, the Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History.

Here are some of my favorite finds.

Barnard Griffin Rosé of Sangiovese: Rob Griffin of Barnard Griffin has been making fine Washington wine since 1977, but it wasn’t until about 2000 that he had what he called “either a happy accident, or a stroke of pure genius.”

A grape-growing friend showed up on his doorstep with a surplus of sangiovese grapes, normally used for Italian-style reds. “What are we going to do with these grapes?” said his friend.

“My first response was, ‘We?’ ” said Griffin.

There was really no demand for those kinds of reds. Then Griffin had his brainstorm.

“Hmm, this might be perfect for a dry rosé,” he mused.

So he tried it, and the result was nothing less than spectacular. It was drier and far more aromatic than most rosés. He knew he had stumbled on something special.

Unfortunately, rosés were not yet popular in the American marketplace. Griffin forged ahead anyway, making it in small amounts, and customers soon latched on to it. When rosés suddenly became trendy, Barnard Griffin’s Rosé of Sangiovese was poised to lead the way in Washington. It wasn’t long before the Rosé of Sangiovese was Barnard Griffin’s runaway hit, tied with chardonnay as the winery’s top seller. It still holds the top spot today, for good reason.

I was not previously a rosé fan, having been turned off by so many watery and insipid ones. But after I bought a bottle, it has been our mainstay in the summer – and every other season. It costs around $10 to $12 – about the same as those watery insipid ones – and can be found at most grocery stores.

Thurston Wolfe PGV: PGV stands for Pinot Gris-Viognier, two white wine grapes that typically do not go together. At least, not until Wade Wolfe of Thurston Wolfe had his own happy accident.

Wolfe has been a viticulturist and winemaker in Washington since 1978, working for Chateau Ste. Michell, Hogue Cellars and Hyatt. It was only after he started his own Thurston Wolfe winery that he hit the jackpot in 1998 with this unusual blend. He was growing both pinot gris and viognier at his Prosser vineyard, but he felt that the pinot gris was a bit bland and lacking.

“I had this epiphany that I thought viognier might be very helpful in giving more flavor and aroma to the pinot gris, because viognier is very aromatic, very fruity, and very full-bodied as a white wine,” said Wolfe.

Was he ever right about that. It was immediately “wildly successful in the tasting room,” to the point where he had to ramp up production to meet demand. Then, a few years later, Anthony’s Home Port restaurant chain discovered that it paired perfectly with seafood, especially shellfish. The chain bought lots of it, and that’s where many people first encountered it. Before long, PGV was the winery’s undisputed star, accounting for about half of Thurston Wolfe’s total output.

After trying a bottle, it has become our family’s white wine mainstay. It’s a little more expensive than some of those bland pinot gris offerings, but well worth it. We often find it on sale in supermarkets for around $18 or $19, and Total Wine has it for $13.

J. Bookwalter’s NoteBook Red Blends (or practically any of their reds): Before I interviewed Jerry Bookwalter, an early Washington vineyard manager-turned-winemaker, I did not know anything about the J. Bookwalter winery. It was just one of dozens – hundreds, really – of Washington wineries churning out fine reds.

Jerry Bookwalter died not long after our interview, but I had come to admire his old-time mantra that “no wine is worth more than $20.” When his son, John Bookwalter, took over the winery, he ventured into the ultra-high-end market with wines that sometimes went for $150.

Yet John Bookwalter did not really abandon his father’s credo. The winery also produces the NoteBook red blends, which are ridiculously cheap – they’re $6.97 at Total Wine – and are an absolute steal. Jerry would heartily approve.

The winery’s medium-priced wines are also a phenomenal bargain. Their lines of Readers red wines are a little more expensive – I found one for $14 at Total Wine – but, remarkably, one of them made it onto Wine Spectator’s list of the Top 50 wines in the world in 2022, which prompted the magazine to comment, “Talk about bang for the buck.”

I have not had the cash to try any of their higher-end offerings, with names such as Protagonist, Antagonist and Conflict (their wines all have literary-themed names), so I can only daydream about how good those must be.

Chenin Blanc from Kiona Vineyards and L’Ecole No. 41: Washington had an early reputation for fine chenin blanc, but then the chardonnay craze took over and chenin blanc fell out of favor. Thank goodness that Kiona Vineyards on Red Mountain and L’Ecole No. 41 near Walla Walla have continued the chenin blanc legacy.

John Williams of Kiona Vineyards first planted chenin blanc in 1976, and it proved particularly well-suited to his famous Red Mountain vineyard. Kiona Vineyards still has a devoted fan base for its Old Vine Chenin Blanc, with grapes from that original 1976 planting.

Kiona also makes an insanely sweet and delicious Chenin Blanc Ice Wine, using frost-kissed grapes from their own plot. It, too, has a cult following.

I have no idea if you can change something in the online version, or even if it’s worth it, but I told them I would ask.

L’Ecole No. 41 also had an early reputation for making excellent chenin blanc (as well as fine semillon). When Marty Clubb took over as winemaker in 1989, he soon became better known for exceptional merlot and Cabernet sauvignon – but he never abandoned the chenin blanc tradition. L’Ecole now produces two chenin blancs, both from old vines dating back three or four decades.

Because it is a niche varietal, these chenin blancs can be hard to find on supermarket shelves. I can usually find it at places like Total Wine or Huckleberry’s. If there is an advantage to chenin blanc’s low demand, it’s the price. These whites are inexpensive compared to fine chardonnays, going for about $16 or $17 at Total Wine.

Either of these Chenin Blancs can also be picked up at the wineries’ tasting rooms. As it happens, Kiona and L’Ecole have two of the most picturesque tasting rooms in Washington. Put them on your list for your next wine tour and be sure to try the chenin blanc. You may never go back to chardonnay.

To read biographies of these and other Washington winemakers and wine growers, go to and search under the topic “wine.” This story has been updated to include a new name of a Kiona Winery wine.