Rhônes on the Rise: Washington State Takes the Lead


It’s time to start looking beyond Washington State wine’s usual reputation. Most consumers associate Washington with Bordeaux blends, which isn’t wrong. However, beyond the seductive Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blend that Washington State has mastered, there has been a slowly-building revolt among producers and viticulturists. Some have planted Rhône varieties with notable success. A few have built significant customer waiting lists or are obscure and hunted for. Yet, when most reports on Washington State wine are published, they read more like a conversation about Bordeaux than the Rhône varieties blends, a travesty in my view.

I’ve loved Washington State wine for many years. It was often my choice over Napa and Sonoma because of a combination of price and quality that is unheralded within the United States. However, upon my first visit as a critic, as opposed to as a buyer, I quickly realized that Washington State needed to receive a different treatment. In the past, the region was covered in a single article spanning all wines and areas within, resulting in the intricacies of terroir and varieties getting lost in the 800 to 1,000 wines per report. Imagine if Bordeaux and the Rhône were combined into one single article. That would be unacceptable. And so, as of now, Washington State gets its just deserts because the level of high-quality, world-class Rhône varieties produced here is nearly unparalleled in the United States. The emerging AVA shared both with Oregon and Washington may one day be considered one of the choice pieces of terroir around the world. This is a new frontier, getting in on the ground floor, with producers waiting in anticipation to see what Washington State might accomplish. It’s an exciting time.

Looking out across Red Mountain from Upchurch Vineyards.

Washington Rhônes

Rhône varieties aren’t new to Washington State. Many wineries have done a terrific job creating wines that marry the region’s dry warmth with a terroir stamp and the winemaker's hand. Yakima Valley, Red Mountain, Royal Slope and Walla Walla Valley have all succeeded in creating Washington State Rhône reds and whites for over a decade now. The earliest plantings go back to the mid-eighties in the Red Willow Vineyard of Yakima Valley. 

To be clear, when I speak of Rhône varieties in Washington State, I’m referring to these reds: Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Carignan, Counoise and Petite Sirah and these whites: Viognier, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Roussanne, Clairette Blanche and Picpoul. In many cases, consumers will mostly find Syrah. In Washington's hot, dry and irrigated vineyards, Syrah can be wildly deep and expressive or savory and earthy, reminding tasters of the Northern Rhône. It can also be fruity and juicy but often forgettable. Knowing the right source and the producer's style is a trick to gauge what will be found from bottle to bottle. Outside of Syrah, there are many other varietal bottlings. Spicy Mourvèdres and nuanced Grenaches are among the most exciting, along with some genuinely seductive Viogniers. Châteauneuf du Pape fans have a wealth of GSM (Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre) bottlings to choose from. 

Certain producers, such as K-Vintners, have successfully communicated the individual terroir of these areas in a way that few others have. Their lineup of top-shelf single-vineyard Syrah is a perfect example. Meanwhile, the well-known and highly allocated Cayuse wines have blazoned the Walla Walla AVA on their labels since the winery's inception, with a unique style that has bewildered and seduced wine collectors. Betz family winery does a fantastic job of marrying site to winemaking style, with old-world-styled reds sourced from throughout the region. More recently, Liminal Wines, a project from Marty Taucher and Chris Peterson of Avennia, has committed solely to exposing the unique terroir of the relatively new WeatherEye vineyard on Red Mountain. 

The exploration of choice terroir to plant Rhône varieties continues and expands to this day. It’s safe to say that nearly all producers in the region are looking to get some skin in the game.

Charles Smith winemaker Brennon Leighton describes the diverse terroir that builds their Syrah portfolio.

What’s Everyone Talking About?

This brings us to the thousand-pound gorilla in the room: The Rocks District of Milton Freewater. The emergence of this region might seem sudden, but many locals have been watching the popularity of this AVA grow since its inception in February 2015. The Rocks District of Milton Freewater, a relatively new AVA which I’ll refer to as just “The Rocks” going forward, has breathed a new life into the category of Rhône varieties from Washington State. Plainly stated, nearly everyone wants a piece of this terroir. Interestingly enough, The Rocks is not as new as most people think. Christophe Baron has been planting vineyards here since 1997 and makes some of the region's best wines. For Baron, he has always chosen to label his wines as Walla Walla (The Rocks is a sub-AVA of Walla Walla) while lovingly referring to the area as “The Stones”.

Not only does the roster of producers making wines from The Rocks include the who’s who of Washington State wines, but it has also inspired outside investors to secure as much land as possible as quickly as possible before it’s all gone. As of today, The Walla Walla Land Company is the largest holder of vineyards in The Rocks, with 200 acres of vines and orchards that will be converted to vineyards over time, as well as amenities for their brand, including 50,000 square feet of cold storage that may one day become a custom crush facility. David Wanek, Principal of The Walla Walla Land Company, explains that, ultimately, they will be growers that pay complete respect to the land.

To make this happen, the Walla Walla Land Company has partnered with Todd Alexander (well known for his time at Napa Valley’s Bryant Family Vineyards and now the talent behind Force Majeure, Holocene, WeatherEye and many others) and Mike Martin (of The Walls Vineyards), who together formed a farming co-op called Monopole. Moreover, Alexander will make a limited series of wines from The Walla Walla Land Company's holdings to showcase the terroir's potential. An investment like this is a huge step forward for The Rocks, which totals just 5.9 square miles.

Deep in The Rocks of Milton Freewater.

So, what’s so special about this location? The Rocks is a singular soil series named the Freewater Series, a combination of basalt cobblestones and a single landform on an alluvial fan. The fist-sized rocks that make up most of the soil in this area, if you can call it soil, were deposited by the Walla Walla River flowing down from the Blue Mountains. Over time, the river changed directions, as each channel it flowed through would be filled with stones. This created numerous deposits of differently aged rocks and depths, yet it’s virtually flat throughout. These rocks hold in both the day's heat and regulate temperatures throughout the cool nights, creating grapes with a high pH and low acidity, yet are mysteriously able to age beautifully over decades. What is noteworthy is that nearly any taster can identify the terroir of The Rocks in a glass of wine. Place a Rocks Syrah in a blind lineup, and you’ll see what I mean. It’s like picking out a G.B. Burlotto Monvigliero from any lineup of Barolo. It’s uncanny. That said, Todd Alexander commented, “What I’ve learned working with a lot of sites around here is that it’s not as much of a one-trick pony as many people think, even though it's a single-soil series.” It will be fascinating to see how Alexander communicates the diversity of terroir in the upcoming wines. 

However, one complication that will likely confuse nearly all but the most dedicated Washington Rhône wine lovers is that The Rocks is located entirely within the Walla Walla Valley AVA. Yet, it lies on the Oregon side of the valley. Any winery from Oregon or Washington can make wines from this location, and it happens that most wineries are in Washington. That said, by law, only a winery located in Oregon (Force Majeure is a good example) can produce wines from The Rocks, listing its AVA on the label. Yet, anyone on the Washington side can use the Walla Walla AVA instead and reference The Rocks in some creative way, such as Reynvaan’s Syrah In The Rocks. It will be interesting to see how many Oregon wineries will invest here, but that is a discussion for a separate report. 

In the end, The Rocks is currently where it’s at, and it’s easily one of the most exciting pioneering locations for wine in the United States, including a downtown area ripe for investment to bring tourists in.

Sean Boyd is a pioneer of Rhône varieties in Washington State.

Rhônes Throughout Washington

Looking beyond The Rocks, we find numerous locations on the Oregon and Washington sides of Walla Walla Valley that demand attention. One of my top-scoring wines from the last two vintages is Hors Catégorie, from a vineyard located on the steep slopes of the North Fork of the Walla Walla River, within the foothills of the Blue Mountains. The success of this wine, plus others, has spurred serious interest in this location. Touring the Hors Catégorie vineyard was eye-opening, to say the least. The south slope consists of darker soil, containing more clay (around 35%), while the east slope is lighter, with about 8% clay, and all at dizzying degrees of elevation that would remind many world travelers of the Mosel. Christophe Baron jokes that these two locations are his Côte Brune and Côte Blonde. Other significant sources of Rhône varieties in the foothills of the Blue Mountains include the Powerline and Les Collines Vineyards, southeast of Walla Walla, where we find cobblestone river rocks and underlying layers of sand and gravel deposits. 

It’s often the case from the Yakima Valley to see fruit sourced from the Red Willow, Olsen and Boushey Vineyards. This is a cooler location than many other areas of the Columbia Valley, with elevations that rise to 1,400 feet, steep inclines and soils that consist of silty loam, windblown loess and deposits from the Missoula floods over fractured basalt. Then there is the Stoneridge vineyard of Royal Slope, made famous by K-Vintners’ Royal City Syrah. Here, elevations range from just 760-814 feet in gravel and sandy loam. That said, what’s important to remember about Washington State is that it’s rare, outside of some particular locations, such as The Rocks, to find a vineyard dedicated to just Rhône varieties or Bordeaux varieties. Experimentation and matching location to variety are ongoing projects as the region's wine scene constantly evolves. 

A great example is the WeatherEye vineyard on Red Mountain, located on both its north- and south-facing slopes, meaning that not all of the plantings are part of the AVA. This is another sight that has piqued the interest of growers throughout the region. The Red Mountain AVA has already proven itself as an excellent source of Rhône varieties, yet a search for more diversity of soil and exposition, along with the ability to extend the growing season, inspired the planting of this 33-acre location. 

Planting began in 2016, making WeatherEye a very young vineyard, yet what producers are already turning out from this location is fantastic. The native biodiversity throughout the vineyard remains fully intact. Each block follows the natural contours of the land without upsetting the natural flora and fauna that predated the planting of the vines. Ryan Johnson designed, planted and currently manages WeatherEye. Johnson was previously in charge of Ciel du Cheval and co-founded Force Majeure. For Johnson, experimentation is the name of the game. While traveling throughout Washington State, it's always interesting to hear other producers gossip about what new and exciting idea has been placed into action in the WeatherEye Vineyard. As of now, producers sourcing fruit from WeatherEye are also very impressive. Liminal Wines is dedicated solely to exposing individual blocks from the vineyard and WeatherEye estate vineyards, with their wines made by Todd Alexander. Other producers include Kobayashi, Kevin White, Devium, Sleight of Hand, Latta, Dillon Cellars and Valdemar.

The sun rises over WeatherEye Vineyard on Red Mountain.

An Early Look at the 2021 Vintage

Later this year, I’ll follow up with more details on the 2021 vintage and notes on Bordeaux varieties. My current thoughts are formulated after tasting primarily Rhône varieties that were recently bottled. 

Following the complicated, smoke-tainted 2020 vintage, the 2021s are beautiful, pure, rich wines that are a pleasure to taste. However, production is down due to the extreme heat of the vintage and a late frost in 2020. Outside of a warm and dry start to the season, the defining factor for 2021 was a record-breaking heat wave at the end of June, with temperatures reaching up to 120 degrees. Hot temperatures remained throughout the summer months. The saving grace was a cool-down period through September and October that allowed the vines to reach perfect phenolic ripeness. While the resulting wines are often fruit-forward and, at times, opulent, the best of them are genuinely harmonious. 

I tasted all of the wine in this report while in Washington State in May 2023, followed by tastings in our New York office in June 2023.

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