Don’t Overlook Washington State Wines

Goose Ridge Estate Vineyards with Red Mountain in the background. Photo from Roberto Viernes

Everyone is looking for the next breakthrough grape or wine region on the planet. Importers scour distant continents to find some really cool, tasty and world-class wine.

I have to admit that I try to do the same. But one of the areas that is right under our noses, excuse the pun, that I think is really coming into its own is Washington state.

Washington is certainly not unknown. In fact, there are many (most of them hailing from the area) consumers who recognize Washington as a one of the premier wine regions in all of America. But still, in the eyes and on the palates of a large majority of producers, they believe that Washington takes a backseat to California in terms of quality and fame.

As an example, how many wine programs do you see (outside the state of Washington) pouring a Walla Walla or Columbia Valley wine, any wine, be it Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Merlot or Syrah by the glass? Those crickets that you hear are the answer: none or approaching zero.

The truth is, there are a lot of exciting and excellent wines being made in Washington from several different grape varieties and in different price points. So much that I think them worth sharing.

Here are some new discoveries for me.

A recent one happens to come from a fellow Master Sommelier Greg Harrington, who founded Gramercy Cellars along with wife Pam in 2005. Gramercy Cellars focuses on producing Bordeaux- and Rhone-inspired blends from the best vineyard sites in the state. Greg’s philosophy is one of minimal intervention, preferring for the place to speak louder than the maker. I have been nothing but impressed by the purity of the wines and their stylish aesthetic. These wines are lush but not overly ripe or simply overt. They are polished but not antiseptic. One of my favorites in this stable is the 2011 Third Man ($45) which is a 55 percent Grenache, 40 percent Syrah and 5 percent Mourvedre – a blend you would normally find in Chateauneuf du Pape. It has a powerful and deep nose of juicy black fruit along with herbs and spices. It hits a lot of bass notes straight off in the aromas. And when you put it on your palate, the flavors are seamless from beginning to end. The texture is fabulous, coating the mouth with blackberry and plum nuances. It has a floral component on the aftertaste, which makes it even more complex. They made just under 700 cases of this.

Not to be outdone, their 2010 Walla Walla Cabernet Sauvignon ($49) is also a treat. This is a powerful wine that would make many a Napa Valley Cabernet blush. It exudes richness with dark fruit essences married with sweet vanilla and cocoa nibs. The texture is enveloping with palate-staining intensity of flavor. Currants, cassis, even blueberries provide the core of flavors that lead to toasty vanilla on the extended finish. This wine is truly impressive.

Sure, it might be easier to find great wines from boutique producers in Washington, but they also can excel in the “everyday drinkers” niche of wine as well. Have you ever heard of Stonecap wines? If not, you should search them out. These wines are made at the Goose Ridge Winery. The estate is comprised of 1,900 acres adjacent to Red Mountain. They produce some limited-production wines under the Goose Ridge label with the Stonecap wines being made for day in and day out consumption priced at about $9 a bottle. And for the money, the Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet and even the Syrah are rocking good wines. The Chardonnay is plump, juicy and round with a short dollop of creamy vanilla in it. The Merlot is plush and velvety with gorgeous plum flavors. It is smooth and inviting. The Cabernet has good structure bolstered with plenty of ripe fruit. And the Syrah totally over-delivers with concentrated black fruit flavors and a persistent finish.

For the money, these wines are really hard to beat.

So the next time you see Washington state wines on a menu, don’t automatically dismiss them for a California version. Washington is a hotbed for new discoveries and ones well worth the search.

Roberto Viernes is a master sommelier. Email or follow him on Twitter @Pinotpusher.