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It wasn’t so many years ago that when people said they were going to Walla Walla, it was for 10 to 15 years — with time off for good behavior.

Now it’s for a weekend of wine tasting.

That we can travel to nearly every region of Washington and enjoy local wine is a testament to the talent and tenacity of winemakers who for the past three decades have refused to accept mediocrity or conventional wisdom.

“I didn’t imagine 30 years ago that we would have wineries in every corner of the state,” said Ted Baseler, president of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates in Woodinville. “Today, we’re much more on the world stage than we were even 10 years ago.”

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This year is Baseler’s 30th with the Northwest’s largest wine producer. His company’s roots date back to just after Prohibition, and he now leads an industry that is responsible for 12 million cases of wine and more than $8 billion annually for this state’s bottom line.

But Washington’s reputation has not always been as a world-class wine region. That distinction can be traced to the sleepy Eastern Washington town of Walla Walla, once better known for the state penitentiary and wheat farming than for cabernet sauvignon and syrah.

In the 1970s, Gary Figgins was a machinist at Continental Can Co. But the Italian side of his family’s heritage tugged at his passions, and in 1978 he launched Leonetti Cellar and made a cabernet sauvignon that was so superb it was named best in the nation by Wine & Spirits magazine.

With that, the quality bar was set — and it was high. By 1981, Figgins was joined by Rick Small, who started Woodward Canyon Winery in the Walla Walla Valley community of Lowden. His focus was on cabernet sauvignon, too, and he found fast success. His 1987 cab was the first Washington wine to be ranked among the top 10 wines in the world on the annual Top 100 list of Wine Spectator, the world’s largest wine magazine.

“It was pretty clear we had something going on,” Small said.

Surprising the experts

These early successes in tiny Walla Walla created waves that ultimately washed across the entire state.

“I distinctly remember when Woodward Canyon and Leonetti were the darlings of the wine industry,” said Baseler, of Ste. Michelle. “They proved you could make exceptional wine in this state. That helped us in a big way, and we began to focus on total wine-quality management and invested more in oak, vineyards and everything else. Everyone in the state has benefited from those wines made by Gary and Rick.”

Doug Charles, owner of Compass Wines in Anacortes, agrees. He began his journey into the wine industry in 1978, working at a Bellevue restaurant. “I think what happened early on with Leonetti and Woodward, with spectacular wines, made everybody push quality in that direction,” Charles said.

Until these successes, California wine experts thought Washington was just too far north, too cold and too rainy to grow proper wine grapes. That misperception
was formed by visions of gray, drizzly Western Washington, the observers not realizing the arid, sunny, wide-open Columbia Valley east of the Cascade Mountains could provide near-perfect conditions. European wine grapes had been grown in the Yakima Valley since 1917 — a fact often ignored.

People often say, correctly, that Washington is on the same latitude as such famous French wine regions as Bordeaux and Burgundy. While that lends legitimacy to Washington’s right to make wine, the comparisons end quickly. The vast Columbia Valley, which covers nearly a third of the state’s land mass, is unlike any region of France and is more reminiscent of areas of Spain, Australia or California’s Central Valley.

Cabernet country

Washington was perceived as white-wine country well into the 1990s. In fact, 2012 was the first year state winemakers crushed more red-wine grapes than white. Last fall, the state harvested a record 210,000 tons of wine grapes, and for the first time in Washington history, a red grape — cabernet sauvignon — was the No. 1 variety, edging ahead of chardonnay and riesling.

Wade Wolfe, owner and winemaker for Thurston Wolfe Winery in Prosser, Benton County, said cabernet sauvignon’s ascendancy to No. 1 bodes well for the state’s future.

“Cabernet is always king in red-wine sales,” he said. “We’ve gone through phases where merlot was the red grape for Washington, then syrah. I think cabernet has rightfully taken the lead there, both in volume and prestige. I consider it the best grape in Washington.”

Wolfe came here in 1978 to run vineyard operations for Chateau Ste. Michelle. He later managed Hogue Cellars in Prosser before leaving about a decade ago to focus on his own operation.

Cabernet sauvignon, the grape that made both Bordeaux and the Napa Valley famous, is bringing fame to Washington, too. The owners of Pine Ridge Vineyard in Napa Valley purchased land in 2007 in the Horse Heaven Hills south of Prosser and released their first wine — a cabernet sauvignon — from the 2010 vintage under the Double Canyon label. Already, critics are raving.

Red Mountain, a small ridge in the eastern Yakima Valley near the Tri-Cities, is attracting international attention because of its reputation for cabernet sauvignon. Last fall, Napa Valley’s Duckhorn Vineyards announced it would be launching a winery called Canvasback with a focus on cabernet sauvignon from Red Mountain. In December, it bought land and hired Yakima Valley grape grower Dick Boushey to plant a 20-acre vineyard.

Just after Thanksgiving, a high-profile land auction for 670 acres of potential vineyard property on and near Red Mountain came to a shocking conclusion when the owners of the Vancouver Canucks hockey team swooped in and bought all the land — to the dismay of many Washington winemakers who were hoping to acquire it. The Aquilini Investment Group paid $8.3 million for the land and intends to plant grapes as soon as water is available via a new irrigation system that should be finished next year.

Marketing problem

With more than 50,000 acres of wine grapes and 800-plus wineries, Washington is firmly the No. 2 wine-producing state. It is dwarfed by California but vastly larger than No. 3 and 4, New York and Oregon. And while everything would appear rosy, the road ahead remains a challenge.

“In terms of global acceptance of Washington wines, we’ve probably had one of the toughest trails to hike,” Baseler said. “We have to be tenacious. There is still a misunderstanding about Washington.”

At a recent wine show in Germany, Ste. Michelle’s top salespeople were asked which side of the Potomac River the grapes were grown on and how close the vineyards were to the U.S. Capitol.

“In terms of marketing, Oregon has a huge advantage over Washington,” said Baseler, who grew up near Portland. “The name is distinctive to the state, and marketing it principally as pinot noir is an advantage. Beyond that, it gets a little more complex.”

Ste. Michelle has a stake in Oregon, too, as owner of Erath Winery near Dundee, and it owns or co-owns three wineries in Napa Valley. But they are not its focus.

“Washington is our home,” he said. “We love it, and we see continued growth and expansion.”

As it has for the past 30 years, Ste. Michelle continues to drive the industry forward — in no small part because it uses two out of every three grapes grown in Washington. Rapid vineyard plantings are fueling the growth. In just the past five years, vineyard acreage in the Horse Heaven Hills has jumped 29.6 percent. Of that, most of it has been cabernet sauvignon.

“We have the right climate up here,” said Rob Mercer, owner of Mercer Estates, whose family has been farming the region for more than 100 years. “We’re excelling in cabernet sauvignon, and it’s our strategy to go with those strengths.”

Mercer’s uncle, Don, planted the first grapes in the Horse Heaven Hills some 42 years ago at what is now famed Champoux Vineyards.

“It was pretty fortuitous and somewhat lucky that we planted the right varieties to start with,” Mercer said. “That turned out to be a great decision. Those original five acres have led to some pretty tremendous things since then.”

That’s no overstatement. Quilceda Creek Vintners in Snohomish, which now is a part-owner of Champoux, has produced a string of highly touted cabernet sauvignons primarily from that vineyard, with several of them earning perfect 100-point scores from The Wine Advocate, an influential newsletter started by Robert Parker, the world’s most-powerful wine critic.

Few could have predicted such success.

“Anyone who says they saw this coming would really be fibbing,” Baseler said. “They’d get at least two Pinocchios. Nobody thought we’d be producing 12 million cases of wine as an industry. Nobody thought we’d be distributed in 100 countries around the world. I doubt anybody had any idea we’d be making wines that were getting No. 1 ratings and perfect 100-point scores.”

Andy Perdue is The Seattle Times wine columnist and the editor and publisher of Great Northwest Wine (, a news and information company.

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