Best New Wines from Washington State

A July vacation in Seattle and the spectacular northern Cascades was the perfect pretext to visit some of Washington State top wineries and survey current releases. Or was the wine stuff a pretext for the vacation? No matter. In any case, a major dose of refreshing Pacific air was just what this visitor from the sweltering Northeast needed, even if the atypically cool Northwestern summer of '99 has not been quite so enjoyable for the grape growers of Washington and Oregon. It is already clear that the ultimate quality of the 1999 crop will depend on a warm, dry early fall. But it was the '98, '97 and '96 vintages that were the point of my quick tour of Washington's most important growing regions.

Recent vintages. There is considerable optimism for the 1998s, and, indeed, the barrel tastings I did in July confirm that the vintage shows strong potential. "It was a hot year, and thus ideal for normally cooler sites," explained Quilceda Creek's Alex Golitzin, "but at the same time, it was not a year with short hang times." Lauren Jacobsen, national sales manager for Hedges Cellars, described 1994 as a great vintage, "but 1998 is better than great." Indeed, the best '98s show unusual opulence and density, along with sappy crystallized fruit and a compelling wild berry character and adequate supporting acidity-although at least one winemaker told me that acidity levels in '98 were the lowest to date. If the vintage has an Achilles' heel, it will be the wines made from fruit picked too quickly: many growers harvested early because sugar levels were already high, but in some cases the flavors were not yet thoroughly ripe.

But don't overlook 1997 while waiting for 1998. The earlier year's wines are entering the market with less fanfare but 1997 is a vintage that yielded nicely balanced wines from a growing season Golitzin characterized as having offered "average" (i.e., more typical) conditions: "A bit cool but with long hang times." Acidity levels were sound, grape sugars were healthy, and tannins appear to be firm but not excessive. This may be the kind of vintage that gains in stature as the wines age in bottle.

A lot of the current red wine releases are from the nightmare 1996 vintage. This was the year in which a savage January frost wiped out numerous vineyards (the damage was worst in Walla Walla Valley, where merlot and sangiovese were particularly hard-hit), leaving growers who are dependent on purchased fruit-and this group includes most of the state's wineries-scrambling to find grapes, often from second-rate sites, and driving prices sharply higher. Numerous wineries clearly compromised quality just to have wine to offer, so there are many disappointing bottles from this vintage. Yields in many sites were tiny, but the fruit that remained ranged widely in quality. The high ratio of skin to juice due to the limited quantity of small berries led to some overly tannic examples. On the other hand, some of the strongest current releases I tasted this summer are red wines from this difficult vintage: these bottlings offer terrific concentration without losing their balance.

Vineyard and yield control. Perhaps the most promising recent development on the Washington wine scene has been the realization on the part of an increasing number of winemakers that low yields are the key to making world-class wines. And the key to low yields is controlling one's own vines and raw materials. I asked several winemakers and other Washington insiders what percentage of the state's bottlings come from fruit that is controlled from the outset by the man or woman who makes the wine. They all agreed that the answer was very little, perhaps as little as 1%. But the old mindset is beginning to change, as a number of producers are purchasing established vineyards or buying and planting their own. To cite just one prime example: Gary Figgins of Leonetti Cellar purchased 40 acres of land around his house in Walla Walla and has already planted 12 acres of merlot and cabernet franc. In addition, he has planted several varieties in a superb, higher-altitude, south-facing 19-acre vineyard nearby. Despite the fact that he is in the process of building an expensive new winery and barrel cellar, Leonetti plans to maintain production at or slightly above current levels, replacing most of his purchased fruit with his own grapes to further improve wine quality.

The bugaboos of new oak and acidification. While today's Washington State wines are better balanced than ever before, I still find a preponderance of overoaked examples, as well as wines whose excessive acidity (in most cases added) has compromised their appeal. Too often, a high percentage of new oak barrels-often from rather coarse American oak-is still used to mask substandard raw materials. Aging powerful, highly concentrated juice in new oak is one thing, but perpetrating American oak barrels on cabernet or merlot cropped at five or six tons to the acre is asking for trouble.

In my July tastings, I also ran across too many wines that showed a distinctly hard edge. Especially when combined with excessive oak, high acidity has a tendency to produce a rigid texture, and to dry out a wine's middle-palate flesh and finishing fruit flavors. Acidification is certainly the culprit here, but other contributing factors include underripe fruit and phenolic harshness due to clumsy handling of the grape skins.

In theory at least, most of the state's established vineyard sites yield fruit with decent natural acidity-even if growers are now letting the fruit hang longer for greater ripeness. (Most of the state's top vineyards are located east of the Cascades, in the irrigated high desert of the Columbia and Yakima river valleys. Although daytime temperatures during the summer months can be scorching, nights are generally cool, especially during September, which helps the grapes retain acidity.) Unfortunately, however, the fruit-preservation, wine-by-the-numbers philosophy of many of the U.C./Davis-trained winemakers who founded the Washington wine industry has typically caused them to automatically add acid to bring down pHs and give their wines the constitution to be keepers. "But impressiveness is not necessarily deliciousness," to quote Dan McCarthy, co-owner of Seattle's McCarthy & Schiering wine shops and co-author of the pocket guide Northwest Wines The good news, though, is that an increasing number of emerging winemakers are crafting more graceful, more natural wines. And some of the region's veterans are rethinking their acid adjustments, and are now creating more approachable bottles with the lusher textures most consumers seek.

A note on pricing. Prices for the state's handful of topnotch reds have risen sharply, and so, unfortunately, have prices for many second-tier wines. It is clear that Washington's producers are all too aware of skyrocketing Bordeaux and California prices and are trying to establish their own super-premium red bottlings in the marketplace. In some cases the quality, as they say, is not yet in the bottle: in my recent tastings I tried more than one $60+ red wine that was impressively constituted but distinctly unlovely. Consumers may try these overpriced wines once, but it is hard to believe that they will return for seconds.

My notes on the following pages are limited to wines that scored at least 85 points in my tastings this summer. Due to space constraints, the several dozen additional wines that rated less than 85 points have been omitted.