IT’S A ROLL of the dice to enter a wine competition, particularly an international judging, yet Rocky Pond Estate Winery hit the jackpot this summer at the Las Vegas Global Wine Awards when its 2019 Stratastone red blend was voted best of show.
That was just the latest West Coast award bestowed upon this stylish wine since its release, prompting us to select it as our No. 1 Northwest wine for 2022.
Winery owner David Dufenhorst, who grew up in Boise, isn’t shy about taking calculated risks. His years as CEO of Seattle-based real estate development firm Security Properties prepared him for the investment and diligence required to transition 200 acres of fruit trees in cobblestones into promising vineyards a stone’s throw from the Columbia River, not far from Lake Chelan. This summer, the federal government recognized the special qualities of this growing region upstream from Wenatchee, establishing Rocky Reach as an American Viticultural Area.
There are similarities to Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the Rhône Valley of France, famous for its fist-size stones, so it makes sense Rocky Pond’s vines produce stellar, stand-alone examples of grenache, syrah and mourvèdre. When blended, a tradition in the Rhône, the resulting wines often are referred to by their abbreviation — GSM. Rocky Pond’s Stratastone program follows that formula.
For several years, Chelan Valley native Shane Collins served dual roles at Rocky Pond — award-winning winemaker and manager of three estate vineyard sites — including the 2019 vintage. Earlier this year, Dufenhorst recruited Elizabeth Keyser from the Napa Valley to take over the winemaking duties. Look for her 2022 Stratastone in 2024. The bar is quite high.
1. Rocky Pond Estate Winery 2019 Stratastone Red Blend, Columbia Valley, $45: Although it’s a proprietary blend, this is made in the GSM style of Rhône — grenache (56%), syrah (30%) and mourvèdre — and is a bright and approachable presentation of raspberry, red currant and Rainier cherry. Spice box, crushed herbs and cocoa make for a complex and juicy finish.
2. Abeja 2021 chardonnay, Washington, $48: For the second straight year, this iconic Walla Walla producer earns its place on this list for a chardonnay that offers exemplary balance and presents lightly toasted bread, apple butter and lemon curd.
3. Elk Cove Vineyards 2021 estate pinot noir, Willamette Valley, $32: The hottest brand in the U.S. wine industry is Oregon pinot noir, and no one does it as well at such scale — 20,000 cases — as the Campbell family. Think of a slice of cherry pie sprinkled with allspice, and layers beyond.
4. Cinder Wines 2021 dry viognier, Snake River Valley, $28: Ste. Michelle alum Melanie Krause annually produces an array of gems in Idaho, and her viognier serves as a benchmark for its tropical nose, fleshy midpalate and lemony-ginger finish.
5. Passing Time 2019 cabernet sauvignon, Walla Walla Valley, $89: Woodinville talent Chris Peterson quarterbacks this expanding program for retired NFL signal callers Dan Marino and Damon Huard, and their blend from Seven Hills and Pepper Bridge vineyards is built for greatness with brambleberries, herbs, toast and dark plum.
6. Crayelle Cellars 2021 albariño, Ancient Lakes of Columbia Valley, $25: Ivy League grad Craig Mitrakul credits the pixie dust found in famed Evergreen Vineyard for helping him produce a fascinating expression of this buzzworthy white wine native to Spain. Think of a walk through a Wenatchee Valley orchard grabbing peaches and green apples, then there’s a sense of crushed Maui Gold pineapple for a ripe and tart approach that’s impeccably balanced.
7. DeLille Cellars 2019 D2 red wine, Columbia Valley, $50: Jason Gorski’s first vintage as head winemaker is exemplified in this 15,000-case effort from a dozen of Washington’s top vineyards, which gathers up cassis, plum and cinnamon amid a structure formed by merlot that’s ready to drink but also to cellar.
8. Mt. Hood Winery 2018 barbera, Columbia Valley, $38: One of the Northwest’s most overlooked talents remains Rich Cushman, and he reached just past the Columbia Gorge for this Italian red redolent of violets, dark raspberry and dense cherry juice.
9. Clearwater Canyon Cellars 2019 Phinny Hill Vineyard Coco’s Reserve carmenère, Washington, $42: Coco Umiker continues to embrace and tame this rather obscure red Bordeaux grape, allowing its spicy and herbal side to stand alongside dark brambleberries.
10. Long Shadows Vintners 2020 Poet’s Leap riesling, Columbia Valley, $20: Gilles Nicault’s elegant expression with this noble white wine offers classic tones of lime, grapefruit and minerality backed by a pinch of Thai basil.
11. Brian Carter Cellars 2018 Tuttorosso red wine, Yakima Valley, $34: The deft touch of Brian Carter shows in this Super Tuscan-inspired blend of sangiovese, cab and syrah that conjures thoughts of cherry, vanilla, black pepper and leather.
12. Hat Ranch Winery 2021 estate dry moscato, Snake River Valley, $21: Retired Air Force pilot Tim Harless continues to take this aromatic Italian white to the heavens, and does so in a superbly dry approach.
13. Wapato Point Cellars 2018 Cougar Crest Vineyard cabernet franc, Walla Walla Valley, $125: The winemaking Hansen family grew the grapes that Chelan Valley winemaker Oscar Castillo turned into a wine that won several sweepstakes awards this year, thanks to classic yet restrained notes of bell pepper and pink peppercorn supported by charming red fruit.
14. 3100 Cellars 2017 Whitewater, Snake River Valley, $36: The Minders met on a whitewater rafting trip in Idaho and have dedicated themselves to producing traditional sparkling wine, including this dreamy blanc de blancs reminiscent of brioche, lemon and green apples.
15. Reustle-Prayer Rock Vineyards 2021 estate Green Lizard grüner veltliner, Umpqua Valley, $36: The standard-bearer in the United States for this white Austrian grape produces several styles each year, led by this ripest version, which features bites of nectarine and clementine.
16. Massalto Wine 2019 Interstellar red wine, Royal Slope, $60: Former Chilean naval officer Matías Kusulas makes the wine for Gård Vintners, but the Lawrence family — his bosses — also sells him fruit for his boutique label, including this plush and peppery mourvèdre that gushes with blackberry juice.
17. Two Bad Labs Vineyard 2021 sèmillon, Lewis-Clark Valley, $20: Don’t let the homespun label fool you. Dog lover Paul Sullivan, in Lewiston, Idaho, is serious about this white Bordeaux, taking a floral and peachy approach that picks up some salinity.
18. Lenné Estate 2019 pinot noir, Yamhill-Carlton, $40: From what is viewed as a classic vintage in the Willamette Valley, Steve Lutz uses the “sexy clone” — Pommard — as the foundation of this elegant cuvée, which pushes ripe and dusty red berries ahead of earthiness.
19. Portland Wine Co. 2021 Love & Squalor gamay noir, Willamette Valley, $32: Matt Berson is nearly a decade into his pursuit of this fun red from Burgundy, and vines in the Eola-Amity Hills provide plenty of pop within this offering of pomegranate, marionberry and strawberry SweeTARTS candy.
20. LA FRENZ Estate Winery nonvintage tawny Port, Naramata Bench, $24.50: There are many charms at this storied property near Penticton, B.C., and Aussie winemaker Jeff Martin’s fortified solera is a sensuous marvel with its woodsy, fig and fruitcake approach.