A vintage year

A toast to 2000—and to Washington's wine makers.

DOT-COMMERS aren't the only ones hurting in the Evergreen State. Crushed by Chinese competition and supermarket price pressure, apple growers are losing their farms to the banks. It's cheaper to dump potatoes than ship them to market. Wheat prices aren't what they used to be.

Taste Washington!

Paramount Theater, April 22

But one Washington crop is booming, a crop that barely existed 25 years ago. In the year just ended, wine grape growers harvested a record 84,500 tons of fruit—more than 15 percent more than in 1999. More often than not, bumper crops mean low prices for farmers. But Washington's grape bounty has yielded not only good prices for growers but promises to produce exceptional wines as well—the kind vintners can confidently charge top dollar for.

The paradox is only apparent. The big harvest is due to a tremendous growth in acreage planted in vines, up 100 percent in just six years. But the number of grapes harvested per acre in 2000 was rather low. Other things being equal, low yields are good news for growers and wine makers alike. A severe spring frost, when the tender buds of the vines are still forming, can blight an entire harvest, but moderate frost damage can actually help the farmer, naturally "thinning" the vines so that they concentrate all their energy on the buds remaining.

A mild frost did its beneficent work in some of Washington's five official wine regions; cool, overcast spring weather also contributed to a low "bud-set." From late spring onward, growing conditions could hardly have been better: long, cloudless days, high but not scorching temperatures. In August, just as growers were getting concerned about heat damage, nights cooled off, preventing the ripening grapes from losing their essential acids while allowing sugars to balance them to develop fully.

Washington farmers initially grew mainly white wine grapes, which tend to mature earlier—an important consideration in regions as far north and freeze-prone as Washington. But over the years, red wine varieties like merlot, cabernet, and syrah have proved not only hardy enough to survive an Eastern Washington winter, but so responsive to careful treatment in field and barrel that they can compete with some of the finest wines grown in the world.

Exceptional quality is key to the comparative prosperity of Washington wine makers in an era of agricultural glut and falling prices. Good, ordinary grapes produce good, ordinary wine, and the world is awash in ordinary wine, much of it produced in countries like Chile and Spain where labor costs are much lower than in the United States. To make decent money in a market as competitive as that, you have to target the "high end" of the market: discriminating consumers who are willing to pay a premium for premium quality.

WASHINGTON'S grape growers and wine makers have been incredibly lucky in recent years. Even as total output has grown, a series of exceptional growing seasons has burnished the burgeoning product and supported the industry's vigorous efforts to establish the state in the minds of affluent connoisseurs as one of the world's great wine regions.

One avenue toward that goal has been pioneered by the state's largest winery, Chateau Ste. Michelle. By collaborating with noted names on the international wine scene, like the Mosel Valley's Dr. Ernst Loosen and Tuscany's Marchese Piero Antinori, on "branded" bottles like the "Eroica" riesling and Col Solare red, the winery earns crucial credibility with leaders in the trade—and can charge top dollar for the product for their trouble.

But a few renowned bottlings do not an industry make; it's the ability to produce exceptional wine year after year that builds consumer confidence, and Washington has recently been blessed with a string of first-rate vintages. 1998 wines now on the market are winning prizes right and left. Few 1999 reds are yet on the market, but barrel tastings suggest to awed experts that it may prove the finest vintage in 15 years.

So far nobody's claiming that 2000's wines will entirely match the promise of 1999's, but everybody is expecting something close in quality. "In '99, we had a cooler summer with most of the ripening in the fall," says Chris Upchurch of DeLille Cellars. "That's why we got high everything, acids, tannins, sugars, the iron fist in the velvet glove. 2000 was a more 'normal' year, with more balance of summer and fall ripening, but our yields were way down: fewer berries, smaller berries, and consequently greater concentration of flavor."

When growers, vintners, and plain consumers get together this Sunday for the 2001 edition of Taste Washington!, most of the 100-plus wines being served will stem from the '98 vintage, but the toasts will be to 2000, and to an industry that has not only survived the slump affecting more established seniors but continues to expand its repute and market reach ever more widely. Raise a glass: To wine! To Washington wine! (Who'd have thought it?)


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