Washington: Neither Smoke Nor Rain Nor Heat Nor Frost of Night…


Since enduring record heat in 2015, Washington’s growers and winemakers have enjoyed an unprecedented string of very good to exceptional vintages. Even 2020, so tricky in Oregon and parts of California owing to massive wildfires up and down the West Coast, appears to have been very successful in Washington. This year’s report features mostly red wines from 2018 and 2017 and whites from 2019 and 2018. All three of these growing seasons were capable of yielding outstanding wines. 

The Golitzin family’s (Quilceda Creek) Mach One vineyard, surrounded by a stone amphitheater in the Horse Heaven Hills AVA.

This Dispiriting Year Offered a Rare Tasting Experience

My extensive tastings of new releases from Washington from late June through November were a markedly different exercise this year: the COVID pandemic prevented me from traveling to Washington and tasting one-on-one with dozens of winemakers for the first time in 25 years. This year, I sampled about a thousand wines in my dining room in New York City as well as at a vacation home on Cape Cod in September. As a group, these wines were the best I have tasted to date from Washington. For starters, I experienced fewer cooked or oxidized wines than ever before. It was clearly easier for growers and their winery clients to avoid picking overripe grapes in 2017, 2018 and 2019 than it had been in some earlier vintages like 2014 and especially 2015.

Happily, I was able to make a virtue out of necessity: this year, I could spend as much time as I liked with the wines I tasted. Obviously, this has never been possible at my large group tastings in Seattle and Walla Walla, or in my face-to-face tastings with winemakers. This year I was able to follow almost all of the best wines for 24 to 48 hours, and sometimes even longer than that. It was a treat to be able to watch the best wines evolve in the bottle with extended aeration. This exercise was a kind of tutorial, allowing me to better identify which wines were more flash than substance and to improve my recommendations about when to drink the wines at their best.

The only real downside to this year’s atypical approach was that a few winemakers with whom I taste in Washington each year were unwilling to send samples cross-country. In some other instances, I tasted smaller selection of new releases than I might have sampled with their makers in Seattle or Walla Walla. But my communications by phone and email with dozens of winemakers provided me with considerable insight into the vintages I tasted, and I share some of their comments in my vintage notes below. 

Steep vines in Christophe Baron's Hors Categorie vineyard in the foothills of the Blue Mountains.

Early Thoughts on 2020

Two thousand twenty was a very warm growing season overall. By most accounts, the grapes largely escaped smoke taint and most of the best fruit was in before a nasty freeze arrived late in the harvest: five consecutive frosty nights beginning on Friday, October 23, with some sites experiencing frigid temps in the high teens on the nights of the 24th and 25th. As the freeze had been predicted a week in advance, most wineries were able to harvest whatever grapes were still hanging, although finding sufficient tank space was a logistical challenge for many of them. Of course, high-yielding vines that had not quite ripened their fruit by then will not produce good wines, but much of the best fruit had been harvested a week or even two before the frost. At this early stage, winemakers are very optimistic about the quality and concentration of their wines, as the growing season featured generally low crop levels, warmer total degree days than 2019 but with just a couple of heat spikes, and plenty of hang time. The wines of 2020 will be a topic for a later date.

2019 Benefitted From an Extended Cool Harvest

Following a cold February, which featured a major snowstorm on the 8th and 9th, and significantly below average temperatures through the first half of March, unusually high soil moisture in some areas delayed the budbreak and resulted in unusually active canopy growth. In many sites, growers had their hands full with shoot thinning and vine treatments. Degree days were then generally average through late spring and summer, except for a single multiday heat spike in early August. A very warm first week of September was followed by cooler-than-normal temperatures through the rest of September and October, including a very cool spell during the last few days of September and first few days of October. Frost in low-lying spots on October 9, 10 and 11 was a serious issue in some vineyards, and a sharper, more prolonged freeze beginning on the night of October 20/21 effectively put an end to the harvest. Overall wine production in Washington was the lowest since 2012. 

Some winemakers describe 2019 as an outstanding vintage for white wines, as even some Sauvignon Blanc could hang into early October. The normally earlier-ripening white varieties must frequently contend with hot conditions shortly before or during harvest, but in 2019 they were able to ripen more slowly and thoroughly, maintaining sound acidity, lively aromatic character and unusually good balance. Still, in the coldest, normally latest-picked sites, even some white grapes struggled to ripen during the late-season cool-down. Chris Peterson (Avennia, Passing Time, Liminal), who considers 2018 the best vintage in recent years for white wines, noted that 2019 was also excellent, with the wines showing “more acidic verve and almost a degree less alcohol than the 2018s, while still featuring concentrated fruit.” Many winemakers agree that cooler weather brought freshness and finesse to the wines of 2019, and several noted that the vintage favored Burgundy and Bordeaux varieties over Rhônes. Two thousand nineteen also offered excellent conditions for making rosé wines. As for 2019 reds, evaluating their flavor development, tannin ripeness and overall balance will be an exercise for a future time.

Washington's wine-producing regions, including its newest AVA, Royal Slope (2020).

Growing Conditions in 2018 Were Hard To Fault

Most Washington insiders describe 2018 as a nearly ideal year. According to Erica Orr (Orr Wines, Baer), “2018 was a long, slow-ripening season—smooth sailing from the get-go.” Added Josh McDaniels (Doubleback Wines, Bledsoe Family Winery, Bledsoe-McDaniels): “2018 was an easy year—in a good way. I didn’t feel like we experienced any large climatic challenges.” July and August were quite warm, with many days in the high 90s but not many over 100 degrees. As the vines generally shut down when afternoon temperatures surpass 95 degrees, the hot weather had the effect of slowing down ripening. Temperatures then moderated at the end of August but sunshine ruled through late October. So, once again, the growing season enabled long hang time. As Peter Devison (Devison Vinters, LUKE Columbia Valley) put it, “we had what I thought was the best ripening-stage weather that I can remember: warm, sunny and dry from late August through early October and no early freeze pressure.”

As for the wines themselves, several winemakers mentioned the larger berry size in 2018, which they credit with producing especially juicy wines. Clearly, crop thinning, in some cases more than once, was essential in vineyards carrying heavy grape loads. Still, most winemakers are enamored with the concentration and balance of their 2018s. Said Josh McDaniels: “While we had great acidity, we also had great body and richness. The wines are very round and so things were perceived to be in better balance than in 2017.” Chris Peterson added that “2018 features more color and concentration than 2017, and the wines should be a lot longer-lived.” Peter Devison noted that “the tannins were ripe in 2018, and there were a lot of them.” He added that “getting the sweet spot just before over-extraction was a bit tricky, although I think these wines will age beautifully.” Aryn Morell (Gard Vintners, Alleromb, Tenor, Morell-Peña, The Royal Bull and others), described the ripeness of the red grapes: “The 2018 vintage brought the highest total anthocyanins I’d ever seen to date. Total tannins were only slightly under the historic numbers from 2017 but the sheer amount of other phenolic material makes the 2018 wines so much more plush and hedonistic.”

As to the aging potential of the 2018 reds, most growers are confident that the wines will be relatively long-lived owing to their tannic structure and equilibrium. Said Casey McClellan (Seven Hills Winery): “I find that the 2018 reds have more power and extract than the ‘17s and are classically styled.” According to Keith Johnson (Sleight of Hand Cellars): “Bordeaux lots in 2018 were both darker and more tannic than in ’17 but still with lovely balance.” Erica Orr added, “2018 is more serious, more tightly wound, more concentrated and complex than 2017, and I think 2018 has the potential to be a really stunning ageworthy vintage for Washington.”

Louis Skinner (Betz Family Winery), who crafted a stellar set of wines in 2018, concluded that “the ‘18s are not the biggest blockbusters but they show a level of flavor intensity we only achieve a couple times a decade. The Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines show a high level of polish, while the Rhône-style wines hit a level of tension, aromatic range and interest that sets them apart from what we typically produce.”

Some especially intriguing new Chardonnays from Tranche, Rasa Vineyards and Abeja.

2017: A Warm Year That Acts Like a Cooler One 

The 2017 growing season was preceded by a cold, wet, snowy winter, and early spring continued cool, with widespread outbreaks of mildew requiring constant attention. (Some growers reported losing a sizable percentage of their potential crop.) Bud break was later than average and some growers feared a repeat of the atypically cold 2011 growing season. By the time of the flowering, though, the vines had made up a good part of their deficit. Temperatures were generally very warm through July and August, and by late August total degree days for the growing season were actually slightly above average. 

The most consequential characteristic of 2017 was the effect on the vines of massive forest fires in British Columbia—and to a lesser extent in the Columbia Gorge. Thick smoke haze, particularly acute for nearly two weeks in late August and early September, acted like cloud cover, decreasing sunlight intensity during a part of the season critical for anthocyanin development, thus affecting grape leaf photosynthesis and the accumulation of sugar in the berries. The smoke reduced afternoon temperatures in the vines during what normally would have been very hot days by 5 to as much as 12 degrees. The result was that ripening stalled significantly. And after the smoke cover eventually dissipated, temperatures cooled considerably during the second half of September. Grapes could slowly accumulate sugar without rapid loss of acidity, and much of the state’s fruit was picked in October. In many instances, in fact, the harvest stretched into early November, and some late-season rainfall forced some fruit to be harvested short of full maturity.

While there were concerns about possible smoke taint in the wines, most growers maintained that the layer of smoke was too high to directly affect the berries, with the possible exception of some vineyards in the Columbia Gorge. Paul Golitzin (Quilceda Creek) described what sullied the sky as “old aged smoke,” explaining that “volatile phenols become nonreactive fairly quickly in the atmosphere.” In fact, those winemakers who especially like their 2017s largely credit the quality of their wines to the longer hang time provided by the smoke cover.

But descriptions of the 2017 reds range widely. Some describe these wines as savory, while others say they have early charm. According to Chris Peterson, “2017 features a lot of freshness and elegance and the wines are maybe more charming young.” Andrew Trio (Corliss Estates, Tranche) told me, “Our 2017s are more elegant and lighter in texture than the ‘16s but show intense aromatics and varietal purity.” For Josh McDaniels, “2017 seems to be a bit more austere, with more natural acidity showing off in the wines than in 2018.” Billo Naravane (Rasa, Echo Ridge, Mackey Vineyards, Rivaura Estate Vineyards, Delmas) thinks the wines are built for aging: “2017 is slightly more reserved than 2016 though still riper than average, but the grapes retained lovely phenolic tension in ‘17. The phenolic tension is most obvious in Cabernet Sauvignon. This vintage is one that can be laid down for a long time given the beautiful natural balance we received from the grapes themselves.” 

In my tastings, I found that the wines in general showed more open-knit structure than the 2018s, even if the ‘18s entice with their deep fruit. If the ‘18s are more serious, complex and ageworthy wines with deeper reserves of sweet, fresh fruit, the best ‘17s stand out for their finesse, with reds made from Bordeaux varieties often lifted by spice and floral elements and complicated by earthy nuances. 

Many outstanding wines were made in 2017 but the vintage is less consistent than 2018. To my palate, some ‘17s display a wider range of fruit ripeness and even some evidence of underripe fruit that can be attributed to the interrupted ripening in late August and early September. Growers with large crops were particularly likely to struggle to get their fruit ripe. Merlot was often strong in 2017 because of the extra hang time and the moderate temperatures just before the harvest, and many white wines also benefited from these conditions. Extra hang time also helped Grenache grapes develop flavor in 2017 before alcohol levels rose too high. As a general rule, the best 2017s stand out more for their balance than for their extract or opulence. Not surprisingly, many winemakers praise the pure aromatic character, lower alcohol levels and acid retention shown by the 2017 white wines, but a few reported nagging worries about the possible impact of smoke on some of these wines.

The strongest partisans of the vintage virtually all point to the smoke layer as beneficial. For example, Ben Smith’s (Cadence Winery) capsule description of the vintage was, ”nearly perfect cooler, longer season; bright fruit, fine tannins and great length.” Louis Skinner described 2017 as “an unusually concentrated year, for Cabernet and Syrah in particular—the richest since 2014.” Others, though, give the edge to the Bordeaux varieties in 2018 and to the Rhônes in 2017. Justin Wylie (Va Piano Vineyards), who works extensively with both, told me, “Personally, 2017 was a difficult vintage for blending the Cabernet Sauvignons as the tannins could be very angular; I feel this had to do with the smoke interfering with photosynthesis at the end of maturity. But Syrah had a great vintage and 2017 is one of my favorite years for these wines.” As David O’Reilly (Owen Roe) put it, “the red Rhônes in 2017 were more aligned to a familiar harvest window, as opposed to the riper and slightly earlier 2018s. And the wines themselves tend to show more red fruits and perfume while the 2018s show darker fruits and more weight and opulence. The 2017 Bordeaux varieties possess more herbal notes than the cassis-dominated 2018s.“

The state of the art in Washington Syrah.

A Few Comments on “Green” Wines 

As I have noted many times through the years, and not just in my reviews of Washington, many wine drinkers, particularly those with less experience of wines from cooler regions, not to mention fully mature bottles, frequently turn up their noses at red wines with obvious green elements, such as fresh herbs, green pepper, mint, olive and even tobacco leaf.

Bordeaux varieties in particular, including Sauvignon Blanc as well, often contain significant amounts of the aroma compound called methoxypyrazine (pyrazine for short). Pyrazines are particularly apparent in underripe grapes, which in turn are frequently the result of poor vineyard management. But pyrazines are often precursors of complex, varietal flavors that evolve with bottle age. When does a pyrazine element (think of bell peppers) contribute to complexity and when is it overbearing? When is it an element of complexity and when is it an indicator of underripe grapes? Having tasted many thousands of distinctly herbaceous lesser Médoc wines over the past 40 years, it’s no surprise to me that a good portion of these bottles are flogged in French supermarkets or consumed in coach class at 35,000 feet. On the other hand, I suspect that some wine lovers would find some young vintages of Château Cheval Blanc vintages unacceptably green too, if not downright ugly. But come back to those wines in 15 or 20 years and they have been transformed into swans. 

A critical challenge to growers in Washington, as in other hot regions, is that grape sugars tend to race ahead of true flavor development. So even wines carrying 15% alcohol can exhibit signs of incomplete fruit ripeness. Smart growers employ a host of techniques to slow down sugar development and extend hang time, including obvious strategies like spring pruning, crop reduction during summer, and pulling leaves to get more direct sunlight on the grapes. Certainly, recent growing seasons in Washington have featured late cool-downs, which have enabled growers to let their fruit hang for thorough skin ripeness without fear that sugars would skyrocket, grapes would dehydrate and acidity levels would plunge. And of course the decision of when to harvest is always crucial. Two thousand seventeen could be tricky in this regard, and indeed, some of its wines, particularly the normally later-ripening Cabernets, show a green streak. Climate conditions in 2019 may well have resulted in similar issues, especially in vineyards that struggled to ripen heavy crop loads and were caught by October frost.

I have tried to make it clear in my tasting notes when a green character throws a wine out of whack and when it is simply an element of complexity—a feature rather than a bug.

Allow Me To Ride Another Hobbyhorse

For years, I have watched other critics give scores well into the 90s for Washington red wines that I would describe as dark and powerful. but chunky and lacking refinement—wines that I was more likely to rate three, four or even five points lower. In some instances, the higher scores may have been a function of a critic’s limited experience of wines on an international basis. I have never scored Washington’s wines within the narrow context of Washington State, but rather against other wines made from the same varieties—and similar blends—around the world. And I would argue that winemakers who are not intimately familiar with the best Old World wines are far more likely to make wines of power than wines with aromatic complexity, flavor definition and class. 

Clearly, Washington’s top growers are producing fruit that can be translated by talented winemakers into world-class wines, and every year there are more of them—never more so than in the past few vintages, which the better growers and winemakers have been able to turn into truly suave bottles with subtlety as well as density. This year I tasted fewer clunky, porty and oxidative wines than ever before.

This is partly a function of better vineyard practices and smarter, more flexible winemaking. Then too, seasons that are not complicated at the end by searing heat allow growers and makers to let the fruit hang longer. They’re less likely to pick grapes with a wide range of ripeness, a condition that can make extraction decisions very tricky. (Underextraction can result in light, simple wines, but overextraction can concentrate a wine’s green elements, particularly its underripe tannins.) Certainly Mother Nature has also cooperated in recent years: the growing seasons of 2019, 2018 and 2017 enabled the overwhelming majority of producers to make wines without cooked fruit flavors or even obvious notes of surmaturité. What a relief!

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