The state of Washington has never been synonymous with wine country. Its best boast has been the colorful, artistic monarch of King County—Seattle—and the ruggedly beautiful coastline it reclines upon. And yet, the eyes of the world are turning to the airy, shrub-steppe south west where wine production is growing at a break neck speed.
Back in early 1825, when Washington was wildly young and newly settled by Germans, Italians, and the French, plantings were brought by traders of the Hudson’s Bay Company to Fort Vancouver. By the 1860’s and 1870’s, these European immigrants had begun cultivating an imaginative and enthusiastic wine culture that followed the path of their immigration across the state. Hybrid varieties sprang up. The irrigation developed by runoff on the eastern side of the Cascade Mountains unveiled a dormant volcanic soil as eager to soak in the sunshine of this arid land as the people were to cultivate it. Vitaculture was on the rise—until the Prohibition struck in 1917, that is—three years earlier than most of the 50 states.
The Prohibition shut down practically all the commercial wine growers, leaving only a few small family owned vineyards to eek out a living by selling their grapes to home winemakers. Ironically, this suppression seemed to encourage these home growers. By the time the Prohibition ended, Stretch Island had developed the first bonded winery in the Northwest, and shortly thereafter up to 42 more wineries were started. Restriction on liquor had not caused wine interest to wane.
Commercial scale plantings began in the 1960’s. Now there are over 240 wineries in Washington Wine Country. The most prolific growers are in the Walla Walla Valley, Yakima Valley, and the Tri-Cities regions. Less than 1% of the wine growers in Washington lie in the western portion of the state, by Seattle, Tacoma and Olympia. Nearly all of the production stems from the Columbia Valley area. Here the annual average rainfall is 8 inches, which means that the vineyards rely heavily on irrigation from the Cascade Mountain Range.
This reliance has, rather than staunching wine production, released growers to strictly control the amount of water the vines receive. In so doing, they can create new nuances of flavor and carefully planned development of the vines, which help to cement the growing creative influence on viticulture at large.
A Bright Future
Washington wine is now available in all 50 states, and in over 40 countries world-wide. Its influence is only expected to increase, as consumers both national and international discover its unique quality. A new winery opens nearly every fifteen days. As suits the Washington culture, most of these wineries remain small independently run family operations.
This means that your next west coast wine-tasting tour should include the Washington Columbia Valley, where you will be able to meet the owners of the vineyards, and take personalized tours of this beautiful country. New acreage, increasing varieties, and grape-growing visionaries have secured this corner of the world a virtually limitless horizon.