It might be the ultimate First World problem.
“At some point,” said David (Merf) Merfeld, “we won’t have to keep saying that Washington wines over-deliver on price.”
Alas, the Northstar winemaker’s work is not done. He, his Evergreen State mates and yours truly will have to keep on spreading the word that at every price point, Washington’s red, white and pink wines provide surpassing value.
That’s because many consumers, at least in these parts, have yet to explore the amazing bargains that can be had from Washington, according to local merchants. Especially once the prices get north of $15 or so.
That’s most unfortunate, because the cabernets, merlots and syrahs in particular provide infinitely more value than most of their similarly priced peers from California or, well, anywhere. The $40 reds frequently taste like $100 wines from elsewhere. (Which is why, contrary to conventional wisdom, a $40 wine can be a steal.)
Take the Northstar Merlot, made by Iowa native Merfeld, or sundry Dusted Valley reds, made by Wisconsin natives Chad Johnson and Corey Braunel. Or take the Figgins Walla Walla red, which might be my favorite under-$100 Bordeaux blend in the world with its explosive, endlessly complex flavors and amazingly elegant finish.
No wonder Chris Figgins, who had been (and still is) making the stately Leonetti merlots and cabernets, acted impulsively when he saw that the property that would become the Figgins vineyard was available: “I pulled the ‘For Sale’ sign out of the ground and put it in the back of my truck.”
Part of the reason Washington’s wines haven’t garnered more cachet is that it’s a nascent industry, not much older than Minnesota’s. Until the 1970s, the grape that the state was mostly known for was Concord (think Welch’s grape jelly). But pioneers such as David Lake brought grander aspirations to what had been mostly wheat fields and fruit orchards.
“He had a European mentality, and wanted to emulate the great French wines,” said Mike Sauer, whose Red Willow Vineyard was a testing/proving ground for Lake’s dreams. “And instead of just going, ‘We’ll grow cab or merlot,’ he wanted to find any grapes that showed a sense of place.”
And so the two of them collaborated not only on cabernet and merlot, but also on syrah and nebbiolo. Some of their endeavors worked magnificently, others not so much. “I think we’re emulating some of the best places in the world with cab and syrah,” Sauer said, “but I don’t think we’re gonna put [nebbiolo nexus] Piedmont out of business.”
Many regions of Washington — almost all east of the Cascade Mountains, which cut off the abundant rains of Seattle and environs — had ideal soils for grapevines. And a wide range of them: “There’s a huge diversity of soils and exposures and elevations,” Merfeld said. “You can create all kinds of different wines, like a Bordeaux-style [cab or merlot] with lots of acidity, or go with a bigger Napa style.”
Even more optimal was the latitude, with more daylight to ripen the grapes than points south, and the climate: hot and dry during the day, cooling off considerably at night to preserve the acids in the grapes.
These conditions helped another 1970s pioneer, Chateau Ste. Michelle, find enough suitable sites to increase its vineyard holdings exponentially over the years and eventually become a benevolent owner of wineries small (Northstar), medium-sized (Dusted Valley) and large (Columbia Crest).
More recently, former rock ’n’ roll manager Charles Smith gobbled up real estate for wines inexpensive (Velvet Devil Merlot and Kung Fu Girl Riesling, antidotes for those who misguidedly thumb their noses at those varietals) and higher end (such as Royal City syrah, one of the few Washington wines to fetch over $100).
Along the way, wineries such as Gramercy Cellars, L’Ecole No. 41, Spring Valley, Alexandra Nicole and Dunham started strong and got better, and Ste. Michelle collaborated with riesling titan Dr. Ernst Loosen to make the stunning Eroica and the Antinoris to spawn the sublime red blend Col Solare.
Another fantastic team effort comes from Long Shadows, which recruits some of the world’s finest vintners to craft everything from a screaming bargain $20 riesling (Poet’s Leap) to a delightfully sturdy $60 cab-syrah blend, Chester-Kidder.
For those who don’t want to dole out bigger bucks, labels such as Maryhill, Milbrandt, Hogue, Mercer and the aforementioned Columbia Crest and Chateau Ste. Michelle almost invariably “punch above their weight class,” as the saying goes.
And the grapes run the gamut, with some swell albariño, sémillon, sangiovese and malbec joining the old standbys in recent years.
What they all share is that whole “over-delivering on price” thing — even if not enough people know about it.
Bill Ward writes atdecant-this.com. Follow him on Twitter: @billward4.