THE FIRST WEEK of May is far too early in the grape-growing season for a tour of the vineyards—nothing to see but gnarled canes and the first tender leaves. And Red Willow Vineyard doesn't cater to tourists anyway. But the passengers aboard the charter bus kicking up dust along the dirt track to Red Willow back then were not ordinary tourists; they were 30-odd members of the Institute of the Masters of Wine.
The Masters began in Britain in the years after World War II, when small family firms in business for generations were losing ground to the mass market. The idea was to save, if not the family firms themselves, at least the tradition of knowledge and dedication to quality they represented. Anyone who wanted to put the coveted MoW initials after his name had to prove he was a thorough professional, not only identifying a dozen wines in a blind tasting, but passing three days of tough exams covering every aspect of viticulture, oenology, and the business side of the trade.
Today, the institute is less a trade organization than a kind of Mensa for wine lovers, and there are almost as many female Masters as male; but the initials MoW still retain their cachet: enough that the successful candidacy this spring of two Americans, including Chateau Ste. Michelle's Bob Betz, earned extended mention in the snobbish, clay-coated pages of Wine Spectator. So when the Masters decided, for the first time in the group's history, to spend part of their 10-day trek through the wine areas of the American west coast in Washington state, it was a very big deal indeed.
The fact is—considering that it can take a grapevine three years to begin producing at all and 10 years to reach the peak of its potential—viticulture has come a long way in Washington in just 25 years. Back in the 1970s, it was the powerful rieslings produced by the legendary pioneer Lloyd Woodburne for Associated Vintners (predecessor to the well-known Columbia Winery) that attracted more than local attention here. After achieving respect for its white wines and struggling for recognition for its reds against California's two-generation head start, Washington winemakers suddenly found themselves in the spotlight for their way with merlot, the kinder, gentler red-wine grape that came into sudden fashion in the mid-1980s.
Today, Washington is as identified with merlot as Oregon is with pinot noir, but winemakers are already impatiently exploring further varieties. It's beginning to look as if one of these, the syrah, which forms the backbone of the big, robust, long-lived red wines of France's Rhone Valley (Chateeuf-du-Pape, for example), is going to be a big, big winner here. The hit of the picnic-table tasting mounted for the Masters' visit to Red Willow was a 1995 syrah made from Red Willow grapes by Columbia Winery's winemaker (and Master of Wine) David Lake.
Still, it's just one of many varieties being cultivated at Red Willow to discover how they respond to Eastern Washington's peculiar grape-growing conditions, which are unlike any other in the world: an irrigated desert with blazing hot, dry summers and equally dry, icy-cold winters. Syrah shares space on the slopes here with nebbiolo, sangiovese, lemberger, and other varieties that have yet to roll casually from the tongue of the average wine bibber.
Some never may; but as Columbia's Lake points out, Washington state already grows more diverse grape varieties successfully than any other grape-growing region, and it's entirely possible that somewhere among the yet untried is a variety capable of earning the kind of acclaim and hard currency that our merlot and riesling already rate worldwide. At this year's "Taste Washington" wine-and-food buffet at the Paramount Theater in mid-April, a number of growers chose varietal novelties to represent their whole output—in most cases, with complete success.
THERE'S ONE PROBLEM with such novelties, though; they're usually not yet produced in quantity, and often are available only at the makers' vineyard or winery. Fortunately, the vacation season is upon us, so adventurous wine fans can "Meet the Producer" on his or her home turf. When you're planning a jaunt through Washington, check your route against the winery maps provided by the Washington Wine Commission on its Web site, www.washingtonwine.org/trips/tripp.html; chances are, you'll be driving by one or more with fresh vinous experiences on offer.
Below we provide a brief selection of Washington wineries with something to offer a bit off the beaten track. Just keep in mind that growers here haven't been in the business as long as those in California, and can't (except for the largest) offer the cushy amenities that wineries in the Napa Valley roll out for tourists. Check the calendars and hours of operation of any site you're thinking about visiting; call ahead to make sure you'll be as welcome as the Masters of Wine.
There are two big reasons, apart from the quality of the wine, that should take you to the Bentryns' Bainbridge Island winery: First, it's only a short ferry ride and stroll from downtown Seattle; and second, you can't taste or buy its wines anywhere else. Belying the old canard that Western Washington is too cool and damp for wine grapes, you'll find a remarkable variety growing here, among them Germany's Mller-Thurgau and Burgundy's haughty and willful pinot noir. Tasting-room hours are Wed-Sun noon-5.
Bainbridge Island Vineyards and Winery
682 Hwy 305
Winslow (Bainbridge Island), WA 98110
Built at the foot of a sheer 400-foot-high basalt cliff, Cascade Cliffs enjoys a unique setting among Washington vineyards, and vintner Robert Lorkowski is following his own course toward finding just the right grapes for the setting. One of his great successes is made from the barbera grape, long a California jug-wine staple but capable of great things in the right climate (it's the main grape of Italy's noble Piedmont reds) and properly treated. Located on the less-traveled north side of the Columbia a little east of the Dalles, the winery makes a good complement to nearby Maryhill Museum with its replica of Stonehenge. Hours are Fri-Sun 11-5, April-October.
Cascade Cliffs Winery and Vineyard
8866 Hwy 14, PO Box 14
Wishram, WA 98673
Walla Walla area
Washington's newest fine-wine area is also its most remote, but such is the concentration of producers here that Walla Walla is rapidly becoming a destination in its own right for oenophiles. Among the experimenters here is Patrick M. Paul, whose careful handling has turned the cabernet franc, one of Bordeaux's humbler varieties usually employed as a blending partner, into a distinguished wine on its own. The Paul winery is a tiny operation and it's not always open to the public even in high tourist season. Be sure to call ahead, and if turned away, assuage your disappointment at one of the firm's distinguished neighbors.
Patrick M. Paul Vineyards
1554 School Ave
Walla Walla, WA 99362
Tours and tastings by appointment only.
Yakima Valley area
Established in 1976 by the Wallace family, Hinzerling Winery is the Valley's oldest family-owned and -operated winery. The Wallaces make a number of wines from a number of varietals, but chief vintner Mike is concentrating special effort these days on developing his own versions of the legendary Portuguese dessert wine, port. More important for port than the precise grape variety used to make it—Wallace uses a lot of cabernet sauvignon in his—is the mixture of blending and aging employed. Wallace blends separately aged lots of cabernet, merlot, and lemberger for his Three Muses ruby port; his single-year vintage port (1994 currently) is 100 percent cab, while his tawny is a blend of older and younger wines aged in oak by the traditional solera system. Although it's a small operation, Hinzerling is one of the state's more visitor-friendly operations. Still, you should call ahead to make sure of the summer hours: Mon-Sat 11-5, Sun 11-4.
1520 Sheridan (downtown)
Prosser, WA 99350