E.economically speaking, that vine in Kiona Vineyard should have been pulled up years ago. Two former General Electric engineers planted the country’s first commercial Lvivian under the endless blue skies on Red Mountain in 1976 with the bold idea that Washington could make wine. Excellent wine, actually.
The state fulfilled this prophecy when it accepted Cabernet, a grape that vineyards like Kiona could sell for two, maybe three times the money. Many of these original vines were torn out before Kiona’s owners decided to preserve these acres for posterity – and for their Lemberger estate.
Then Matt Austin called. The winemaker, who co-owns Grosgrain Vineyards with wife Kelly, loved the history and underdog nature of the grape. Kiona is already making a nice station wagon version. “I wanted to do something different and be fun,” says Austin. “I had never had a rosé made out of it, let alone a sparkling wine.”
The bottle that resulted from this plan has a crown cap like a beer and opens with a similarly satisfying crack. The wine inside is bubbly and crystalline, the color of a peach in the shade. Its acidity spreads over the taste buds like a time-lapse video of a blooming flower. Grosgrain released this Lviv Pet-nat (short for petillant naturel) as part of its 2018 debut – a crisp and bubbly turning point for the state’s wine community.
Wine drinkers consider Washington a land of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah – and for many years these dominant reds were the reason they considered us in the first place. But a critical mass of wineries across the state is expanding the definition of what Washington wine looks like. Newcomers like Grosgrain and Devium from longtime Sleight of Hand winemaker Keith Johnson are joining elders like Syncline, WT Vintners and Savage Grace to help steer the industry in a new direction.
Sean P. Sullivan, Seattle Met‘s go-to wine guru, says Michael Savage founded, has influenced other winemakers to an extent reminiscent of the film Beginning: “He planted this idea in people’s minds about how to do things differently.” The results reach quality levels that drive this movement beyond a trend.
Approaches vary – you probably won’t find another Lvivian pet in the state, let alone in the world – but results tend to complement the food rather than calling for your palate’s full attention (or using an oak stick to do it) beat). They are more acidic and less alcoholic than Washington’s red wines from the past 20 years. Winemakers who embrace this ethos can go into great detail about harvesting grapes earlier than usual, only minimally intervening in the winemaking process, or visiting the (relatively) cooler grape-growing areas of the state. The result for amateur drinkers: wines that reflect their surroundings better and that don’t hammer with a few glasses.
“None of us do anything new,” says Jeff Lindsay-Thorsen, whose WT Vintners in Woodinville have been internalizing these styles for almost a decade. These practices are based on ancient world predecessors. Natural wine may be such a hot trend that the backlash is already picking up pace, but the pet-nat style of this grosgrain Lemberger is so old it is older than champagne. More recently, before great wines became fashionable in the early 2000s, Washington winemakers like Cadence and Andrew Will made names for themselves who advocated many of these values. Then came the rich, ripe reds. And the awards and impressive scores.
When visitors to the WT Vintners tasting room in Woodinville’s warehouse district try the Syrahs from individual vineyards, staff usually have to explain his methods, says Lindsay-Thorsen. “The wines don’t taste like those of any of our neighbors.” He doesn’t think that’s necessarily bad. “Any conversation that has been had about these wineries, good or bad, draws attention to the fact that this alternate version of Washington wine exists.”
In May of 2016, Paul Zitarelli of Full Pull Wines typed out a daily email with the subject “Bang the Drum”. This particular percussive act should urge readers to explore the “fresh, energetic”, food-friendly bottles of Memaloose in Columbia Gorge (now known as Idiot’s Grace). It’s “that amazing gem in the northwest that nobody knows about,” Zitarelli admonished his customer base. “It can’t be easy (for sales, I mean) to defy popular beliefs about the style of Washington wine.”
When he started his wine-by-email retail business in 2009, Zitarelli only sold Washington bottles. Which meant that his inbox prose boasted mostly Cabernet, Syrah, and Bordeaux blends. “People were absolutely thrilled with Red Mountain,” he recalls, “a region that is capable of producing these huge, opulent wines”. Nevertheless, whenever it was possible, he tried to smuggle Washington white or sparkling wines into his offer, “even if they didn’t work so well in the beginning.”
His drumbeat is no longer a solo. That summer, Zitarelli offered a small amount of grosgrain wine, including the Lviv Pet-Nat. Full Pull tickets usually sell out quickly, but the response has been even wilder than usual, “like the top 10th percentile of Cray Cray”. Growth in Washington’s wineries is similarly modest; the state now has more than a thousand of them. “A lot of the new energy is in the people who do this style,” says Zitarelli. “I can’t remember the last time someone came on the market whose pitch was: We wanted to make fat Cabs and Syrahs.”
After Renee Erickson closed The restaurateur took a road trip to her original restaurant, Boat Street Cafe, to learn more about Washington wine. In 2015 she crossed the Cascades and directed her old Audi southeast towards Prosser, with Chinook Wines as her home base. Erickson poured his wines on Boat Street, but in more than two decades of making wine lists for their restaurants, wine from France or Italy (or even Greece or Spain) deserved more space than bottles from their home state.
“I’ve always felt guilty about it,” she says. “In every other aspect of the restaurant, we try to be as local as possible.” Washington’s grand, age-appropriate styles didn’t speak for their menus. Their prices (and their need to be stored in the basement for years) felt more of a steak house than a little hideaway where leeks or lentils were as likely to be the star of the plate as a piece of meat. Generally speaking, says Erickson, “The wines felt more about awards and less focused on what food they would be drunk with.”
Of course there were exceptions. Erica Orr’s “beautiful” Chenin Blanc from Orr Wines helped spark Erickson’s interest in Washington’s white wines. Her desire to get to know more women winemakers led her to Kelly Hightower – and to her rosé. A food-friendly, old Malbec from à Maurice Cellars made it on their list. Syncline is another long-standing favorite. “They make champagne, for God’s sake.”
Washington’s youngest generation of winemakers goes even further in bridging the strange irony of the state: our food culture celebrates ingredients that come from the country around us, but the wines from the same country often stand alone. Erickson is excited about the new winemaker roster; Westward pours Devium Rosé, and the Whale Wins snagged as much of Grosgrains Albariño and Rouge (his term for rosé) as they could. “We now have more Washington wines on our list than ever before,” says Erickson. “In all of our restaurants.” Like their typical local oysters, bottles are rapidly disappearing from smaller producers. But one of the biggest names in this wine movement can be found in the grocery store.
Conversations about lighter, For food-friendly wine in Washington – whether among drinkers or fellow winemakers – turn to Michael Savage quickly. Before joining the wine, Savage was a musician, playing guitar and piano in a recording studio. (These two professions seem to attract a certain kind of spirit; Grosgrains Matt Austin used to play guitar in a punk band.) If Washington’s signature reds are a beautifully constructed wall of sound, Savage’s are purposely acoustic. “Usually the first tape is right, even for mistakes and everything else,” he says. “That’s why it was important to me not to get in the way of things.”
When he started Savage Grace (his wife is the defending champion Grace), he looked to the fringes of Washington. Much of our state’s great wine energy comes from growing mainly under the blazing sun in east Washington. This heat allows the grapes to ripen. More ripe grapes mean more sugar can ferment into alcohol, sometimes exceeding the individual hallmarks of a higher alcohol harvest and the dependable appeal of rich fruit flavors. Now, winemakers like Savage are seeking fruit from mountain slopes and other locations that were once considered too cold for grapevines. Slow-ripening zones that once caused trouble for winemakers offer opportunity.
In 2018, the winery moved from the cramped booths of Woodinville to Underwood Mountain in Columbia Gorge, where Savage and neighbors like Syncline and Cor Cellars redesigned the area from a simple day trip to Portland to the center of Washington’s understated revolution. The vineyards that speak so expressively through Savage’s wine extend down the slopes below his tasting room.
Most fans associate Savage with Cabernet Franc, but one Sunday afternoon the friendly woman who runs his Woodinville satellite tasting room pours a taste of Gewürztraminer orange wine, cloudy with spicy notes that you would not expect from a melon-colored wine.
“This is definitely not Washington State,” she says happily. Except now, more and more often.