We finally arrived in Washington at the Columbia Gorge area where the Columbia River runs along the Oregon Border. I wanted to stop and check a map that would reveal a clear look of the Cascade Mountain Range. The Cascades in Washington have a profound effect on the weather, and I wanted to determine just exactly what that effect is, because it relates directly to the development of the annual grape crop. One of the “locals” saw me stumble about with a map and mercifully showed me what I needed. The mountains run north to south and on into Oregon and Northern California. In Washington they are located to the west of the center of the state. Since our weather moves west to east, here is what happens: Air masses coming off the Pacific Ocean move in an eastern direction. The air masses drift over the ridges of the Coast Range and flow toward the Cascades. Clouds must rise to extremely high elevations to get over the Cascades and continue their eastward heading, and as they do, cooler air releases most moisture from the clouds. The result is rain or snow. The additional effect is that very little moisture reaches the east side of the towering mountains. This weather phenomenon creates an arid climate for the land east of the Cascades. Combine this with the long daylight hours of the growing season and we have prime conditions for growing grapes. The fruit will develop complex flavors, good acid levels and pleasing aromatics.
Now that we have checked our weather, let’s see what is happening in the rest of the Washington wine world. Only 10% of the grapes grown in Washington come from the western side of the Cascades. The remaining 90% comes from the eastern side, where we find 10 of the 11 AVAs named in Washington. The largest of the AVAs is the Columbia Valley. Combine all of the 11 AVA’s together and we find that Washington is second only to California in volume of wine produced.
The weather and the geography are all in place. The wine should be next, and it is. Start at the beginning with Chateau Ste. Michelle, which is often referred to as the state’s Founding Winery. The repeal of Prohibition saw the beginning of the Pommerelle Wine Company and the National Wine Company. In 1954 the two companies merged to form American wine growers. In 1967 American Wine Growers began a new line of premium wines called “Ste. Michelle Vintners” under the direction of the legendary Andre Tchelistcheff. Ste. Michelle Vintners planted its first vines at Cold Creek Vineyard in 1972. In 1976, Ste. Michelle officially changed its name to Chateau Ste. Michelle. It is now one of the most recognized labels and one of the most successful wineries. Their products do get to the Lowcountry. A visit to the winery is well worth the time you will spend. Mount Ste. Michelle has grown to a point where they now have partnerships worldwide.
Mount Ste. Michelle is probably the biggest winery in Washington. However, there are others…699 others. This enormous growth took place over a short time. From what I am able to determine, it was over a period of forty years. And it was almost too much too fast. Evidently there was enough land to accommodate all of the future hopeful vintners. Harvey Steiman of the Wine Spectator states it this way: World-Class wines flow from this unheralded frontier. In eastern Washington, tracts of farmland that once produced apples, cherries, and juice grapes a generation ago now produce outstanding, and occasionally phenomenal, wines despite the desert climate. I think that Mr. Steiman’s statement says it all. It appears that the soil in Washington State, deposited there countless thousands of years ago by severe Ice Age floods, was just what the gods of wine ordered. The soil is capable of producing no less than 32 varieties of grapes. Five of these varietals are major factors in the success of the wines from Washington. Several more are gaining importance. I will cover these in the next issue.
I have devoted a large amount of space to the background of our subject. Please be assured that it is necessary. It would have been much simpler if only I could have deleted the Cascade Mountain Range.
Next issue we will do Red vs. White wines from Washington.
The making of wine seems to be a natural draw for celebrities. We all know that famous athletes, movie stars, politicians, and even rock stars go into producing wine in collaboration with established winemakers. For two years I have been curious about whatever happened to Drew Bledsoe. After playing quarterback for Dallas, he seemed to fade into the woodwork. Imagine my surprise when I saw that he is focused on producing Cabernet Sauvignon in collaboration with one of the world’s best. His name is Gary Figgins, and he owns the winery in Washington Called “Leonetti”. Bledsoe and Figgins are producing a wine called DOUBLEBACK. The effort has been successful, as the score of Mr. Bledsoe’s first wine was a 95. Not too shabby! Score on the field AND in the winery!