The Great Divide
Vintners in western Washington aren't letting faraway vineyards stop them from crafting fabulous wines
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It's a scene reminiscent of the Medoc, from the wine to the welcome, except for one nagging difference. When I wander to the window to see the Washington sun peering through the cloud cover, I look out at a vast expanse of sheep meadow, punctuated by the occasional barn of a dairy farm. There's not a vineyard in sight.
This corridor of western Washington wineries is unlike any in the world. From Quilceda Creek in Snohomish to the north, through Seattle, to Andrake in Olympia an hour south, Washington's wineries are making some of the best Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet blends anywhere in the country, and that includes Napa Valley. They're dabbling in world-class Syrah and Sangiovese, reinventing Merlot with lush Washington fruit, and experimenting with edgier Mediterranean varieties like Nebbiolo and Tempranillo. The wineries are proliferating like wildflowers; this small town of Woodinville alone has 13 of them. Yet the nearest grapevine is hundreds of miles away.
The fruit comes from eastern Washington, spilling into the northern reaches of Oregon, on land that was once used to grow apples and cherries and even wheat. In wine regions like Napa and Bordeaux, almost all of the highest-end wine is made from estate vineyards, meaning that the grapevines are owned by the winery. Not in Washington, where many of the best vineyards are run by independent operators who sell fruit to a range of producers.
Some of these vineyards, with colorful names like Champoux, Red Willow, Ciel du Cheval and Sagemoor, are more renowned than the wineries. "You can buy seven or eight or nine bottles of wine, all with Champoux fruit," says Bob Andrake, of Andrake Cellars. "It gives us an opportunity to compete against ourselves and to showcase our individual styles."
As often as several times a week, winemakers make the four-hour-plus trek over the Cascade Mountains from the Seattle area to the Columbia Valley, Pasco and the Walla Walla Valley beyond to check on the grapes. When the harvest arrives, the wineries send the fruit back over the mountain in refrigerated trucks.
The result, somehow, is remarkable wine -- from the $11 Chateau Ste. Michelle varietals to Alex Golitzin's Quilceda Creek Cabernets, available for about $100 at auction and as serious a bottle as America produces -- from equally remarkable settings. A walk around DeLille's grounds shows how tastefully a winery can be landscaped when you don't need room for vines. There's a shaded fish pond bordered by a rock outcropping, and a gazebo where winemaker Chris Upchurch was married in June 2001. Throughout the summer, a series of wine dinners are held on tables set in the soft grass between the soaring trees.
That's one option. On the other end, Ben Smith makes small batches of his single-vineyard Cadence wines hard by the freeway in downtown Seattle, near Safeco Field. Why not? Once the grapes come in, they don't know where they are.
"It adds to the logistics, that's all," says the fresh-faced Smith, 40, who worked as an engineer for Boeing for 14 years before leaving to make wine. Smith buys grapes from several vineyard sources, including Tapteil and Ciel du Cheval on Red Mountain. "If we were on the east side of the state, we'd be driving every weekend over the mountains in a Ford Explorer with 50 cases, trying to sell them all," he says. "You drive either way."
Up in Snohomish, a short drive north of Seattle, Alex Golitzin doesn't even bother with an external facility. He makes Quilceda Creek in an annex of his home. A chemical engineer, he moved to the state from California in 1967. "Seattle at that time was a gastronomical wasteland," he says, and what wine there was tasted worse than the food.
Golitzin knew wine. Born in France to a Russian émigré family in 1939, he'd grown up in San Francisco, the nephew of esteemed enologist Andre Tchelistcheff, who for many years made Beaulieu Vineyards wines and, later, the Niebaum-Coppola Rubicon blend.
Frustrated, Golitzin decided to make his own wine -- and sell it, beginning with the 1979 vintage -- by using fruit from Otis and, eventually, Klipsun and other eastern Washington vineyards. Even after Quilceda Creek became a commercial success, Golitzin never contemplated moving to the other side of the Cascades. He had a day job with Scott Paper until 1994, and a lifestyle he didn't want to lose. "San Francisco to Seattle was bad enough," he said. "Eastern Washington? Never."
Today, the Cabernet Sauvignon he gets is so good, Golitzin believes, that it is no longer necessary to blend in Merlot grapes. "We've come to the conclusion that, if you do the Cabernet right, you don't want Merlot in it," he says. A taste of the 2000 Cabernet confirms the theory. Despite being a 100-percent Cabernet, the wine already tastes like a first-growth Bordeaux.
David Lake, the British-born Master of Wine who has served as the winemaker at Columbia Winery in Woodinville since 1979, remembers when Washington was considered a white-wine state. So do most wine lovers; such conventional wisdom held until the early 1990s. Cold, wet Washington was Riesling territory, America's Rhineland. "The thought was that nothing else would ripen here," Lake says.
In Woodinville, nothing does. But the grapes aren't in Woodinville; they're in the arid, sun-steeped plateaus of the eastern half of the state. At the same time that Washington was earning a reputation for fruity, good-value whites, Lake was making robust yet elegant Cabernet from vineyards such as Otis and Red Willow, and shaking his head at the stereotypes.
Then the Merlot boom hit California in the mid-'90s, and Washington was poised to benefit. The brightness of the local grapes worked perfectly with that variety, which is generally softer and fruitier and less tannic than Cabernet Sauvignon. Specializing in Merlot provided a point of difference from Napa and Sonoma, which were known for Cabernet and Chardonnay.
Nobody really noticed that Washington's Cabernets were even better than its Merlots. "The marketplace was hungry for Merlot," Lake says. "We made it well, the market wanted it, and to keep saying, 'You shouldn't be buying our Merlot, you should be buying our Cabernet' seemed rather self-defeating."
Lake pours three of his single-vineyard Cabernets from the difficult 1996 vintage, and revels in the differences between Otis, Red Willow and Sagemoor fruit. He has long-term contracts with the vineyards, so his ability to obtain grapes is secure, barring the killer frost that tends to blanket Washington's viticultural areas several times a decade. If that happens, at least he has options, unlike wineries wedded to fruit from a single source.
Downstairs from Lake's reception area is a tasting room and gift shop the size of a Gap store, which sells older vintages, shirts and caps, and assorted wine-related trinkets. Across the street sits Chateau Ste. Michelle, a massive producer that attracts more than 300,000 visitors a year to its manicured grounds for wine tours, concerts and even a live broadcast of Garrison Keillor's "Prairie Home Companion," the long-running radio variety show. Columbia feasts on the spillover, as do most of the other wineries in Woodinville.
That's one reason so many are concentrated together. But what's DeLille doing here? It has no tasting room, gives no tours and declines to even hang an identifying sign, so as not to encourage visitors. When I ask Jay Soloff, one of the four partners in the winery, he offers an embarrassed smile. "Look, we knew Chris [Upchurch] would be a good winemaker, but we didn't realize he'd be this good," Soloff says. "We were going to put the tasting room right here. Then we started selling out everything we made, and we realized we didn't need it."
Unlike Columbia, which makes a Signature Series of high-end wines retailing for as much as $45, and many hundreds of cases of varietals priced from $9 to $24, DeLille has no pretensions of catering to the masses. Its strategy is to produce a tiny amount of premium wine, charge from $30 to $55 a bottle, and sell it all in a matter of months. "We have very high aspirations," Upchurch says. "We hope that we'll be here longer than Microsoft."
Upchurch was buying wine for a high-end grocery chain in 1992 when the four partners came together. Soloff had a wine brokerage firm. Greg Lill was a wine aficionado working as an insurance salesman, and his father, Charles, was a retired insurance executive who agreed to play banker for the enterprise. They had the chateau built by 1994, just as they were releasing the first wine. "We decided when we got into this that we were never going to answer a question, 'We'd like to do this, but we can't afford it,'" Greg Lill says.
Instead of starting with young vineyards, they were able to buy fruit from older vines right away. "We thought, 'Look, none of us is Robert Mondavi, none of us has a reputation,'" Upchurch says. "If we can go out and get Cabernet from twenty-year-old vines, let's get it, and make our reputation that way."
They have. Today, DeLille's three Bordeaux-style blends, a Syrah and a white Bordeaux-style blend are sold by mailing list, and at a few select wine shops and restaurants around the country. None of the wines are available in large quantities too far away from Seattle, except in stores in markets such as San Francisco and New York. In fact, you're more likely to see a bottle of DeLille's Chaleur Estate on the Upper East Side of Manhattan than you are in eastern Washington, even though the grapes come from there.
Being accessible to the markets is one of the reasons many winemakers like to live near Seattle. "I love having the chance to taste other people's wines," says Andrake, who lives on the outer fringe of the metro area, in Olympia. He makes some of the biggest, most extracted wines in the state, using only free-run juice, meaning no bruising wine presses are employed. Yet he'd have a difficult time selling the wines if he wasn't where the markets are. "I enjoy the people of eastern Washington, and going over there to see them," he says. "But would I live there? No. It isn't worth it. You give up too much."
I knew such a sentiment wouldn't sit well with the eastern Washington producers. So one morning, I flew out to talk with one of them for myself.
Since the 1970s, Gary Figgins has been making wine on his Walla Walla property. First he made it for himself and his family. Then, in 1977, he bonded Leonetti Cellars -- named for his mother's parents -- and started to sell wine commercially the following year. Soon there was a working winery out back, heady reviews, scores in the 90s and brisk sales. Today, Leonetti is arguably Washington's most coveted wine, and its relatively new facilities, boasting stainless steel, new barrels and blond wood, would hold its own with anything of similar size in Napa, or the world.
In the ongoing battle between eastern and western Washington wineries, Leonetti's wines are the strongest salvo. For years, Figgins has sold every bottle he has produced, to select restaurants and off a tightly controlled mailing list, the waiting list for which has been closed for years. Freed from the burden of marketing, he has directed all his energy toward continuing to improve the wines, first in the cellar and, lately, in the vineyards.
When Figgins started making Leonetti, Walla Walla didn't have many grapes. It was apple-growing country, so Figgins bought his grapes from the Columbia Valley and other parts of Washington. Lately, Figgins -- who has ceded some of the winemaking duties to his son, Chris -- has become convinced that the vineyards in the Walla Walla Valley, as young as they are, produce the finest wine grapes in the state. "We used to be about 60 percent Columbia Valley fruit," he says. "With the 2000 vintage, we've gone 85 to 90 percent Walla Walla."
The grapes aren't in his backyard, where the winery is, but they're close enough. "Now we can check them all in a single day," Figgins says. Instead of relying on hired vineyard managers to determine ripeness, he and his son are able to taste the grapes on the vines and know exactly when to pick. "Throughout the world, wineries are located in the wine regions, and it makes sense," Chris says. "You don't see wineries in Paris crushing Bordeaux fruit!"
Gary Figgins takes a sip of Leonetti's 1998 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, made for the first time with a Walla Walla Valley designation, then a drink of cool water drawn from a well on the property. We're sitting in his yard, behind the house and in front of the winery, eating cold cuts and bread and olives and three kinds of cheese, and drinking Leonetti. This is because there isn't really anywhere to eat a terrific lunch in Walla Walla on a Tuesday afternoon, but also because it's somehow more fitting to eat meat and cheese out under the open sky. "We're pickup country," Figgins says, smiling. He isn't kidding.
That night, back in Seattle, I meet winemaker Chris Camarda for dinner at Campagna. Together, the 55-year-old Camarda and his wife, Annie, own Andrew Will Winery, which they named after their son and nephew. They live in the middle of Vashon Island, cut off from the mainland by the East Passage of Puget Sound. When he wants to come to Seattle, Camarda drives his silver Porsche Boxster onto a ferry, makes the 10-minute trip across the water, and rolls into downtown.
Over foie gras, we taste the 1999 Andrew Will Klipsun Merlot, which is on the wine list at the restaurant, and then some barrel samples from the 2000 vintage that he has brought, and we soak up the urbanity of one of America's most cosmopolitan cities. Vintage French posters adorn the wall, and a waiter seems to know Shakespeare. With his silver hair and articulate manner, Camarda could pass for a university professor, except for the Boxster.
I ask him if he would make better wine if he lived in Walla Walla, and he assures me he wouldn't. "No, what lets me make better wine is trying other wines a lot, and just thinking about what I'm doing," he says. "You just have to think, and contemplate, and figure out what you need to do." Even now, having made wine commercially for more than a decade, he'll still find himself sitting in the barrel room of his winery, lost in contemplation.
Camarda has to catch the ferry back to the island, so he clambers down the steep, cobblestoned streets around Pike Place Market, then ducks into his Boxster to make his way home. Home is a winery, in his case, though it's surrounded by water, across Puget Sound and over a mountain range from the nearest grapevine. Camarda roars into the night, confident that his wine will never give the secret away.
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