The Washington wine industry begs analogies that never quite fit: “The little engine that could,” “small but mighty,” or “a sleeping giant.” None of these satisfy. They are imperfect perhaps because Washington is none of these things. With a little over 60,000 acres of vineyards and more than 1,000 winemakers, Washington is the second-largest wine-producing state in the U.S. Washington wines get plenty of respect, but the question remains: “What is Washington known for?”

In many ways, Washington is the wild frontier of New World wine. But if California’s icon is Napa Cabernet and Oregon’s is Pinot Noir, what is Washington’s flag on which it can hang a marketing juggernaut? That answer lies in the state’s incredible diversity of terroir, fruit, and winemakers who are setting out to prove the quality of the Pacific Northwest’s rich wine traditions — and it’s quite possible that the very best vineyards in Washington have not yet been discovered by winemakers.

“I would buy into that,” says Dick Boushey, owner of Boushey Vineyards in the Yakima Valley, about three hours east of Seattle over the Cascades. “But we’re exploring pretty rapidly. It’s not so much new growth we’re seeing, but switching varieties of grapes and expanding north along the Columbia River Gorge,” he says. Boushey has farmed his own 300 acres of fruit trees and vineyards since 1980 and also manages another 300 more on Red Mountain southeast of his farm.

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Some of the vineyards in Washington have been there for 30 years or more, and Boushey says many of them are hitting their prime. If they’re not, “then they go away,” he says.

David Rosenthal, head white winemaker at Chateau Ste. Michelle, agrees with Boushey. “I think it’s absolutely true that our best vineyards have yet to be discovered,” Rosenthal says. “So much is happening in places like Walla Walla and Ancient Lakes and even Chelan, where we’re just getting our fingers on it.”

The King of Washington Wine

Both Boushey and Rosenthal agree that while Washington’s vineyards produce a number of great wines, the grape that perhaps started it all was Riesling — the versatile, supple white wine grape that was planted all over the state as early as 50 years ago. “Over the last 20 years at least, we’ve found better places to plant Riesling,” Rosenthal says.

As vintners plant new vines, Riesling has thrived in areas once thought too warm to grow the grape. “We learned a lot by experimenting,” Rosenthal says. “And so as good as the Riesling was and as much as it put Chateau Ste. Michelle on the map, we have better Rieslings now than we’ve ever had, just based on the evolution of growing regions.”

Boushey does some farming for Ste. Michelle among the vineyards he manages. “Riesling was the king originally, but it’s hit a plateau,” he says. “There is actually a shortage of it right now. It grows really well here, and it’s a wonderful wine that yields a lot of juice per ton, but there’s none being planted right now.”

Riesling’s hold on the Washington wine market is still strong, and Chateau Ste. Michelle produces more of it and in more styles, from sweet to dry, than any other winery in the world. But while it continues to consume a significant share of the market, Riesling no longer represents all that Washington can do.

Terroirists Among Us

The dry climate in the eastern part of the state makes Washington ideal for wine growing. With annual rainfall of between 5 and 10 inches (as opposed to Seattle’s 39 inches), the grapes work hard to establish themselves, aided by irrigation from the rivers that traverse the area. “We have really reliable heat in eastern Washington,” says Andrew Januik of Andrew Januik Wines and Novelty Hill Wines in Woodinville. “We don’t have to worry about rain hitting during the harvest season causing issues on the vine, but we still have enough access to water through irrigation.”

Januik, who also produces wine in Chile and Argentina, says that many wine regions have been dealing with fire and smoke as of late, which have proven problematic. “But where our grapes are, there’s just not enough fuel to really cause the same problems you find elsewhere,” he says.

Januik says most people think of Seattle when they think of Washington, and the region’s notable rainfall is the legend everyone knows. “I don’t think people get a full grasp of truly how drastic eastern Washington weather is, where we have these very consistently extreme heat days week after week during the summer,” he says. “But on the other hand, we get to the winter and extreme cold. Our vines go dormant and are protected from a lot of disease because of that. It makes a really big difference.”

“We’re so good at so many things in this state,” says Jonathan Sauer, who along with his father Mike, owns and farms Red Willow Vineyard in the Yakima Valley. “The geology and topography are so diverse, and it makes so many microclimates. Growing in these hills gives us good drainage and good winter protection.” Unlike the Cascades, the hills in the Yakima Valley run east-west, getting southern exposure on some of the vineyards, which are mostly at between 500 and 1,500 feet.

It was Jonathan’s dad who planted the first Syrah grapes in the state in 1986 — becoming a pioneer of Washington wine, working alongside Dr. Walter Clore and David Lake researching the state’s wine-growing possibilities. “Dad experimented with Sangiovese and Malbec, Viognier, Mourvèdre, Tempranillo, Syrah, and others. We can ripen it all,” Sauer says.

“I’m Not Drinking Any F*cking Merlot!”

A boutique producer, Seattle’s Eight Bells Winery sources its wines exclusively from Boushey and Red Willow Vineyards. “Washington’s two best varietals to me are Syrah and Merlot. They’re world class here and can be as good as any in the world,” says Frank Michiels, partner at Eight Bells.

But Merlot as a varietal suffered at the hands of one movie, “Sideways,” in which actor Paul Giamatti’s character Miles famously shouts, “I am not drinking any f*cking Merlot!”

“It’s a shame,” says Michiels. “We get people coming in for tastings and they’ll say they don’t want to try the Merlot. I tell them they should at least try it. It’s a free tasting!” But Michiels believes this is owed largely to consumer experiences with California Merlot, which has largely been overproduced and not taken seriously in years past. “Washington Merlot is simply a great wine,” he says.

He may be on to something. A number of vineyards across the state produce Merlot, and the wines are consistently compared to those from the Bordeaux region of France.

The World Is Washington

“Washington makes damn good Merlot,” says Emily Parsons, owner of Eagle Harbor Winery on Bainbridge Island. Sourcing her fruit from the eastern part of the state, she agrees with her colleagues that Washington produces world-class wine. “I like to think that Washington is like Napa was 40 or 50 years ago,” she says. “It’s very collegial and collaborative, and we’re all helping each other.” Parsons earned her level 3 WSET certification in August 2017 and has been championing Washington’s wines since she moved there. “I got exposed to more and more and thought, ‘These are world-class wines,’” she says.

So if it’s a marketing campaign that Washington needs to gain wider industry respect, the rule of focus on one topic may be harder to achieve. Washington’s extraordinary diversity in climate, geology, vineyards, and fruit make it hard to nail down. Perhaps that serves a larger purpose for the growers and winemakers here, though. “It does present a marketing challenge,” says Rosenthal. “The average consumer doesn’t have a ton of space in their brain for wine. Napa Cab tells a story, and they get it,” Rosenthal says. “So does Oregon Pinot Noir. Washington wine requires a conversation, though, and it’s really hard to have a conversation with a consumer when they walk up to a grocery store shelf for 20 seconds.”

While that may be a challenge for the region’s winemakers, Rosenthal believes those conversations will open up this wild frontier. “The more people try our wines,” he says, “the more they’re going to gravitate to them.”