Back in the day, when people said they were off to Walla Walla, it was more likely for a prison sentence. But these days, many professionals are headed that way for a weekend of wine tasting.
Today, people can drive to just about any part of Washington state to enjoy tasty, local wines. This is largely due to the fact that Washington winemakers for the last 30 years have refused to give up, despite many saying that Washington wasn’t right for the wine industry.
According to the president of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates in Woodinville WA (pictured above), he never thought that there would be so many wineries in the area. Now the Washington state wine industry is more on the global stage than ever before.
The Top Producing Wineries in Washington State by Gallons Sold (2012)
Ste. Michelle Wine Estates – 14,747,000
Walla Walla Wine Works – 1,546,328
Hogue Cellars – 1,402,000
Columbia Winery – 822,759
Pacific Rim Winemakers – 613,432
K Vintners – 434,248
Wahluke Wine – 321,000
Hedges Family Estate – 209,000
Badger Mountain Vineyards – 158,675
Maryhill Winery – 149,000
That grower, named Ted Baseler, has been a grower in the state for more than 30 years. The roots of his vineyard go back to before Prohibition. He now is one of the leaders in the wine industry in Washington state, a growing industry that ships 12 million cases of wine each year. That adds $8 billion annually to the state’s bottom line.
But this state has not always had a top flight reputation in the global wine industry. That lofty distinction can be traced to Walla Walla, a small town in eastern Washington. It was once better known as the home of the state prison and for its wheat farming, than for wine.
Walla Walla’s place in Washington wine lore goes back to the 1970s, when Gary Figgins launched the Leonetti Cellar wine company. He produced a cabernet sauvignon that was so good, it was named tops in the country by Wine & Spirits magazine.
That high achievement set the bar high in Walla Walla. By 1981, Figgins joined Rick Small, who was the owner of Woodward Canyon Winery in nearby Lowden, WA. Small also focused on cabernet sauvignon, and was very successful. His cab in 1987 was the very first wine in the state to be ranked among the best in the world in the yearly Top 100 List of Wine Spectator, which is the largest magazine on wines in the world.
Early successes like that in Walla Walla sparked the wine renaissance in the state. Baseler noted recently that he remembers when Woodward Canyon and Leonetti were the talk of the wine industry. Those two pioneers showed that you could make great wine in the state. Baseler said that their early success really helped his company. That was when his winery started to focus on top flight wine quality management, and it invested more resources into vineyards and oak.
The owner of Compass Wines in Anacortes – Doug Charles – agrees completely. He thinks that the early success of Woodward and Leonetti made all winemakers in the state to push for the very highest quality.
Until these huge successes, many California wine experts believed that Washington was too far to the north and too rainy to grow the best wine grapes. That was a misperception due to the cloudy, rainy western part of the state, with which Californians are most familiar. But the sunny, arid, Columbia Valley to the east of the Cascades provides almost perfect wine grape-growing conditions. As a matter of fact, European wine grapes have been growing in the Yakima Valley for more than 90 years.
Other experts note that Washington is actually at the same latitude as famous wine producing areas, such as Burgundy and Bordeaux in France. The top wine growing areas of the state are not really that similar to France, actually; they are more like the best wine growing regions of Australia, Spain and the Central Valley of California.
Today, more than 50,000 acres of wine grapes are grown in Washington, supported by an astonishing 800 wineries. This makes Washington the #2 wine producing state in the US. It is much bigger than the #3 and #4 states – New York and Oregon.
While some people still think that ‘Washington wine’ is grown on the Potomac River (in Washington, DC), there is no doubt that Washington state wine is going to be a force to be reckoned with on the global stage for years to come.