With all that has happened to boost the quality and profile of Washington wines in the past few years, we needed a good book on the subject. The number of existing wineries, counted in the dozens only a decade ago, passed 500 sometime last year. Big companies such as Columbia Crest and Chateau Ste. Michelle deliver great values and some stunning reserve wines. Small specialists, such as Quilceda Creek, Leonetti and Cayuse, challenge the best from anywhere.
I review the entire range of Washington wines in Wine Spectator, and chronicle the proliferation of new appellations, wineries and personalities. But someone needed to rope it all into a book. Paul Gregutt, who writes on wine for the Seattle Times, does an excellent job of wrapping his arms around the topic in Washington Wines & Wineries: The Essential Guide (University of California Press, $34.95, 305 pages).
I have known Gregutt for 30 years and (full disclosure) he credits me with publishing him in this magazine for his first national exposure. He tastes virtually everything Washington makes (but not exclusively local wines), and visits the wineries constantly. He even set up a second home in Walla Walla to be closer to where the grapes grow than Seattle, which is on the wrong side of the Cascade Mountains for that.
And he gets it mostly right in this book, which has two recurring themes. One is that Washington wines are not like those of either California or France, but seem to exist in the gap between them, showing the ripe, pure flavors of California and the structure and balance of France. He is right about that. He also succumbs to a general defensiveness about how others see Washington. But Gregutt should not care if some writers say that the state has no signature grape, or that its prices are too high. He makes a persuasive case on his own.
Part 1 covers the history, geography, grape varieties and profiles of 10 of the best vineyards in about 70 pages. Most importantly, he constantly relates the geography to the flavors and style of the wines. This section also has a set of relief maps that show the appellations (AVAs) well.
Part 2 profiles the wineries, rating the top 70 or so (but not individual wines) on style, consistency, value and contribution to the industry. In covering the wineries, he does not try to be exhaustive, instead focusing on those 119 wineries he believes produce quality wines. He identifies 13 leaders, 30 more "specialists" (a confusing term because they don't specialize), 30 "bench" players (the next tier down) and 46 "rookies" that have fewer than five vintages under their belts but are worth watching.
Although limiting quality wines to roughly 25 percent of Washington wineries implies that what the rest make are unworthy, not everything is so critical. The general sections are relentlessly upbeat. Even in writing about Yakima Valley reds, for example, he focuses on the few vineyards and producers who are taming the prevailing green characters in the Merlots and Cabernets, glossing over the majority who do not.
But the ratings for the individual wineries are tough. Only seven of the 13 leaders total 90 points or more. For the record, they are (in order) Quilceda Creek, Leonetti, Cayuse, Columbia Crest, Betz, Woodward Canyon and Andrew Will. I suppose I could argue with relatively modest ratings for the likes of Cadence, K Vintners, OS, Owen Roe, Sineann and Spring Valley, but nonetheless it's a thought-provoking way to establish a hierarchy of Washington producers.
Part 3 starts out with profiles of nine European-born winemakers who have succeeded in Washington. These include Christophe Baron of Cayuse, Ernst Loosen of Eroica, Serge Laville of Spring Valley and Enzo Cotarella of Col Solare. The final chapter quotes members of the industry in a survey of what they see in Washington's future, more suited to a trade publication than a consumer book.
Get this book for its focus on vineyards, the grapes and the important producers. Washington is going to be more important with each succeeding vintage. This makes a handy reference.