Why You Should Care About Washington Wine

As you may know, from time to time, I like to feature new voices who have great insights on the vast world of wine and vines. Today's post by Matthew Delaney of the The Wine'dUp Blog is one of those voices.
In discussing this piece with Matt, I gave him a suggestion on a direction I would love to see this article go. The goal being to shine a big bright light on Washington State Wines and more specifically Merlot.

Merlot has been kicked around quite a bit in the last few years, not being given the respect it deserves. Perhaps part of the problem, is because of many big flabby messes coming out of my home state, California. I'm saying this in general, there are of course exceptions, feel free to note them in the comment section below, where I post everything except obvious spam. That said, I think from the many Washington State Merlots that I've tasted in the past few years and very recently on Red Mountain, that they have Merlot dialed in like no one else. So with no further ado, here's Matt's take on the direction of Merlot in Washington State.

As a transplant from California, home to many of the finest wine regions in the world, I lacked high expectations for Washington wines. I'd lived and breathed California wines for as long as I can remember, growing up on the Central Coast, nestled between Santa Barbara and Paso Robles, then settling on the footsteps of Napa and Sonoma wine countries in San Francisco. While living there, I held the somewhat well-known position of Beverage Controller for the largest hotel in the city- effectively making me the largest buyer of wine in Northern California. I then moonlighted as a concierge for several of the top hotels in the city, teaching what I had learned about California wines to visitors from all over the world. The point I am making is simply this: If I can be won over by a Washington wine, anyone can- including you.

To say that Washington's wine industry is budding is a vast understatement; If you haven't been exposed to a variety of wines from this region by now, expect to be in the near future. Washington has already established itself as the second largest producer of wine in the United States with critical acclaim pouring in from an abundance of reviewers, including yours truly.

Although the vast amount of Washingtonians live in the western part of the state in cities like Seattle, Tacoma, Olympia, and Vancouver, grapes simply don't like it there; It's far too wet and cold. Our wine scene is huddled among the eastern regions of the state, in areas like Columbia Valley, where climates are much warmer and drier. The western rains, which keep many people locked indoors the majority of the year, do produce one pleasant advantage- An almost unquenchable desire for fine dining and drinking. Washingtonians have a well developed palate for great beer and wine!

If there is one thing I have discovered about the Washington wine scene, it is the propensity to add flare, sensuality, and style to everything they do. Hard Row to Hoe Vineyards, found in the newly established Lake Chelan AVA, shocks conservative minds with wines like "Shameless Hussy", "Burning Desire", and "Double Dip Magnum". The central theme of this outlandish winery is based upon an entrepreneur running a rowboat taxi ferrying miners across Lake Chelan to the brothel on Point Lovely. Wineries like Hard Row continue to grab the attention of wine lovers looking to avoid stuffy and pretentious wine scenes. 

Your browser may not support display of this image.One varietal in particular has held steadfast in its place among Washington wine elites. Through the decades, while perceptions of the grape swayed up and down, Washington has had an unwavering ability to deliver solid Merlot. The long days and cool nights of Eastern Washington have proven perfect for Merlot and it is now the most widely planted grape. Fresh wineries like Hard Row to Hoe and 14 Hands are springing up in kitchens across the state. I can't imagine describing Hard Row to Hoe's Shameless Hussey Merlot any better than reviewer Rick Bakas did when he raved, "[this wine] grabs you by the back of the head and says I’m gonna rock your world so buckle up".

I've personally watched as 14 Hands Merlot rapidly spread in popularity here. Once only found in restaurants, this fine, reasonably priced wine is now at Safeway and Costco. The 14 Hands bouquet is ripe with spice and black cherry, followed by flavors of plums, dark cherry, mocha, and spice, then finished nicely with distinct tannins; A fantastic selection for holiday gatherings soon to be taking place.

Statistically, Washington is a viticulture powerhouse set to take over the United States in the coming decades. It is quite possible that future generations will come to know the Pacific Northwest, not Napa and Sonoma, as the greatest wine viticulture area in our country. Recent and repetitive research projects, the latest of which was conducted by Stanford University, have shown that climate change could shrink top-quality wine grape acreage in California by up to 50% by 2040. The same temperature effects of global warming are set to drastically increase the amount of premium viticulture land in Washington. As Washington vines continue age, local wine expertise continues to increase, and climate change creates more top-quality land, Washington wine is sure to be on the tongues of wine drinkers in every corner of the world. Stay tuned...


Unknown said…
Another excellent post! I have enjoyed Washington wine for a long time now. They have always made quality, excellent wine. And if I drink Merlot it is almost always from Washington! Well said:)
Matthew Delaney said…
Thanks Renee! And thanks again to Bill for asking me to write the article. It was a lot of fun!
Will Eyer said…
Hey Matt,

Thanks for the contribution, it’s a wonderfully written piece, on a subject which I don’t think gets enough attention, Washington State Merlot. Only one thing about the last paragraph, the West Coast Wine scene does not seem to be in the warming dire-straights, which the study you cite; seems to suggest it is. There are many contributing factors to quality of Washington State Merlot; however the last one cited is most likely a distant factor.

Because from empirical evidence that I’ve personally seen in the harvest records, taking at a random handful of Washington State wineries, Oregon and California, asking to see their harvest records [which I have done], you’ll begin to see a pattern. What kind of pattern, one that shows a pretty consistent ebb and flow of cool to warm years, stretching back decades. In just the last two harvest years, especially on the west coast, they have been cool years, with this year's harvest being one of the coolest across the board on the west coast.

I’m not a scientist by any stretch and by the same token I don’t get grant money based on research that I do or don’t do. I was merely curious having heard of the conversation about the subject and noted that harvest records don’t seem to line up with the story that the folks at Stanford have put forward via their study.


Will Eyer said…
Hey Renee,

Good stuff huh, Washinton State Merlot is always one that I recommend as well and like to drink myself.

Matthew Delaney said…
Hey Bill,

Great follow up comment- I love that you had first-hand experience to share from looking at the raw data. I am going to have to start asking to see harvest records when I am out at the wineries (just for fun of course; I'm no scientist either!). You have the inside track!



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