This episode of Wine 101 is sponsored by Columbia Winery in the fine state of Washington. (What, you thought only apples grew there?) Columbia Winery crafts critically acclaimed wines from some of the most impossible wine-growing terrains in the state. Did you know grapes grow in the desert and make rich, amazing wine? No, really, it’s like Columbia Winery has captured the state of Washington in a glass. Give Columbia wine a swirl at their tasting room located 43 minutes north of Seattle, where this very podcast is produced. Or, take a Wine Exploration class. You won’t be disappointed.

On this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair’s tastings director Keith Beavers dives into the history of wine in Washington State. The region’s industry is fairly young, but thanks to its climate, terrain, and soil, it’s developing quickly in the modern age. Tune in to learn more about the wine coming out of the Pacific Northwest, why Washington Merlot was so popular for so long, and the innovations happening in Washington wine today.


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Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers, and one thing I will never do is skip the credits for “Stranger Things.”

What’s going on wine lovers? Welcome to VinePair’s “Wine 101” podcast. We are heading off to the Pacific Northwest for a couple of episodes to talk about what is going on up there. Washington State: What’s it about? It’s one of ours. Let’s get into it.

OK, wine lovers. We are diving back into the regions, and you are so stoked. As you know, I’m pretty obsessed here with this whole American wine story. I dedicated an entire series on that because I’m fascinated with what we’re doing, how we got here, what we’re doing now, where we’re going with it. When you look at the history of the United States in wine, I say this a lot, but we’re very young. And even though we have a very storied past with wine, especially once everything starts happening in California — my gosh, things go crazy — there’s so much more out there. We’ve talked about New York, we’ve talked about other states in the country that make wine and how new they are. We’re talking about Washington State today. And then next week, we’re going to talk about Oregon. It’s the Pacific Northwest. And actually Idaho’s in there, too. I’ll mention that.

But when we’re talking about Washington State, I really love the fact that in doing these regional episodes, we really get to see how exciting it is to be a wine drinker of American wines in the United States today. Because we are still a young country, and there’s still so much more we can explore and find. As proven, that’s still happening in Sonoma and somewhat in Napa. But they’re the major wine regions. The two big ones, Sonoma and Napa, have their varieties. But there’s still a lot of exploration going on, especially in Sonoma. And in places like Washington and Oregon, and then we’ll get on top of Virginia at some point. You’ve heard about Washington, you’ve heard about Oregon — especially Oregon. But what’s really wild about this is they’re still working on it. They’re still getting it. We’re not done exploring states like Washington State. And when you hear the history of this place, you’re going to get a sense of it. So let’s get into it.

Have you guys ever heard of the Pacific Ring of Fire? It’s a really intense title, and it’s actually a very intense thing. The mountain ranges that border the Pacific Ocean are called the Pacific Ring of Fire. And this name is given to this area because of this particular part of the Earth and all these mountain ranges having significant volcanic activity. In the Pacific Northwest, actually starting in British Columbia, the Cascade Mountain Range runs from British Columbia through Washington State, down through Oregon and into Northern California. Being that it’s part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, all of the eruptions that we’ve experienced for the past 200 years in the upper 50 of the United States have been in the Cascade Mountains. Although everyone in wine likes volcanic soil, it’s not about volcanic soil, but it’s about what the volcanoes and eruptions over time have done to create the wine region. Let me get into it.

The highest peak of the Cascade Mountain range is a mountain called Mount Rainier, and it’s over 14,000 feet above sea level. And it’s in Tacoma, Wash. So Washington State has some of the highest peaks in the Cascade Mountains. Therefore, with the Cascade Mountain range splitting right down through the state, that height protects whatever is to the east of that mountain range from any moisture that comes from the Pacific Ocean. This is called a rain shadow. And I say protect, but when it comes to wine, it’s a little bit complicated. Or, it’s not complicated. But what happens is on the other side of this mountain range, you have a valley. This valley on the east side of the Cascade Mountains is a desert. Isn’t that crazy? It’s a desert, a highly irrigated desert. So there is fertile land in this desert area, but it’s highly irrigated to make it so.

Every time we talk about Sonoma, and when we talk about Oregon — we’re going to get into that — that Pacific Northwest influence with all that moisture and fog and all that is not Washington State. We’ll get into it in a second. But the majority of the wine being made in Washington State, in the east of the Cascade Mountains in the Columbia Valley, is an irrigated desert. I just find that fascinating. And it’s here in the Columbia Valley, along the Columbia River, is where the wine industry of Washington began. Well, I should say the modern era of Washington State wine. In the early to mid-19th century, just like everything that was going on in California with people coming from all over Europe to California, they were in Oregon and they were in Washington State.

In Washington State, like in the 1840s, it was mostly German and Italian immigrants. I find that interesting because of some of the varieties that are being worked with today. I don’t know if it was because of the Gold Rush or whatever, but that element of Washington wine is just a mention, if you will. It did begin to put wine in grapes in the state. By the 1930s, the Washington State wine industry was based mostly on the Concord grape. We’ve talked about the Concord Grape before. It’s from Massachusetts. It was one of those hybrid grapes that was trying to save all of the eastern part of the United States when it comes to wine. It’s also the wine that makes Manischewitz and jams and jellies. And Washington State was a big produce state as well — apples, hops, grapes. So it kind of makes sense. And if you remember from the American Wine History Series I did, around this time in the 1930s, this is when Napa was just getting started to figure out what they’re going to do to save that wine region after Prohibition. But speaking of Prohibition, Washington State was one of 35 other states that helped to get to the majority so that the Volstead Act would pass. So Washington State and 35 other states were basically responsible for initiating Prohibition. And by 1969, there were only a few wineries in the entire state of Washington.

It was in the late ’30s that a man by the name of Walter Clore came to Washington State and changed everything. The one thing about this valley east of the Cascade Mountains, it’s a large valley called the Columbia Valley. And we’re going to get into that when we talk about appellations. In the Columbia Valley, there’s a significant number of rivers, three very important rivers: the Yakima River, the Columbia River, and Snake River. These are the water sources for the irrigation in this semi-desert area. And it’s a very hilly area, too, because we are in the foothills of a major mountain range. It makes sense. It feels like a wine region.

The thing about this area is it has very hot summers and very cold winters. The challenge is to find the varieties that work in this area. And this is what David Clore did. He was a horticulturist from Oklahoma who got an opportunity to work at what is today called the Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center. This is right along one of the major rivers, the Yakima River. Now, I believe this dude was brought to Washington to mostly work with apples and hops. But when he got to the Yakima station, he started getting very interested in wine grapes. Not only Vitis vinifera, but even the hybrids that were around. He started hearing how difficult it was to grow grapes in this area. And he realized, well, that’s because people don’t know what grapes to grow. So he embarked on a years-long experiment to find the varieties that would thrive in this area. A lot of the major work happened in the 1950s, so that by 1974, Clore had seen the plantings of over 300 varieties in this experimentation station. (Yes, that rhymed.) Also, because of the general terrain of the area, he was able to develop a trellis system of the vines to actually help with mechanical harvesting. Now, this guy didn’t become a winemaker or anything, but this was a big moment for Washington State.

This is the moment that proved that there was the potential for premium wine here in the Columbia Valley. Oh, and also to this day, 80 percent of the vines in Washington State are machine-harvested. In the 1950s in Washington State, they really saw the beginning of the modern wine industry. Around 1951, a man by the name of Lloyd Woodburn, who was a psych prof at Washington State University, and a bunch of buddies — some professors, some not — started a winemaking operation outside of his garage. They were determined to make premium wine out of Vitis vinifera grapes, specifically.

And then in 1954, there was a wine company called the National Wine Company and Pomerol Wine Company. They were the only ones in the 1930s that were there, but they were still around and they ended up merging, calling themselves American Wine Growers. And because they were a bigger company, they are considered the first to really promote and market wines from eastern Washington State. From here, everything just pops off. In 1962, Woodburn and his buddies actually incorporated into Associated Vintners, and they started planting vineyards in the Yakima Valley. And in 1967, André Tchelistcheff, the consulting genius hero of Napa — if you listen to the American Wine Series, you’ll hear about him — he somehow gets his hands on a Gewürztraminer made by Associated Vintners treasurer. This is the guy at vineyards in Napa changing the game. He tastes this wine and says, “This is the best one I’ve tasted in the U.S.” And from then on, he was interested in Washington State.

That same year, he actually gets hired by American Wine Growers, that merged company, and becomes the consultant for vinifera wines for that company. That company, American Wine Growers, actually has a label called Chateau Ste. Michelle. And if you know Washington wine, you know Chateau Ste. Michelle. Eventually through the years, I think it’s late in the mid- to late ’80s, Chateau Ste. Michelle becomes the label. He gets a little more involved in that. But for our purposes, this is the beginning of one of the major wine labels of Washington State to this day. Now, as far as the Associated Vintners are concerned from the garage, in 1967, they started using Associated Vintners as their label. But in 1983, they changed their name to Columbia Winery. They were able to secure more vineyard space and became the other major wine label coming out of Washington State. Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia Winery, through their efforts, really began the modern wine industry of Washington State.

Also in 1983, as a young Keith Beavers was marveling at a movie screen watching “Return of the Jedi,” Washington State was awarded its first American viticultural area, in the Yakima Valley. Which makes sense, because that’s where a lot of the activity was at the time. And you can tell the expansion and the excitement was growing pretty fast because that next year, in 1984, when “Ghostbusters” came out, Walla Walla Valley and Columbia Valley became AVAs as well. These three American viticultural areas defined the Washington State wine region.

In 1995, the American viticultural area, or AVA that was awarded to Washington, was not part of the expanding of the Columbia Valley. This was a wine region that was actually on the other side of the Cascade Mountain range with an extreme Pacific Ocean influence just north of around where Seattle is. The Puget Sound and all of its islands becomes an AVA. Now, to this day, you’re not going to see a lot of Puget Sound wines. Maybe at some point we will. But not a lot of wine is made there. A lot of the action really happens in Columbia Valley because by 2001, AVAs are being awarded to this place like crazy all the way until 2020.

I’ll just run through some of these because Washington State has, as of this recording, 19 AVAs. That’s a lot of AVAs for a small amount of wine. Only 5 percent of the national wine production is in Washington State. What’s great about that is that these older areas are being carved up into small little subregions, meaning people are finding small plots and small areas to make amazing wine. AVAs are awarded for a list of reasons, but one is, “Why is this place special?” If a place is being awarded an AVA, it has a special soil, special sun exposure, all that stuff. But here we go. From 2001 to 2016 alone, 10 AVAs were awarded to Washington State with names like Red Mountain, Columbia Gorge, Horse Heaven Hills, Rattlesnake Hills, Wahluke Slope — I may not be saying that correctly — Snipes Mountain. A lot of these were brand new, and they are just smaller areas in larger areas to find smaller plots to make even better premium wine. I mean, the latest AVA to be awarded to Washington State is Goose Gap in 2021. Also, the Burn of Columbia Valley in 2021. How about that as a name for an AVA, The Burn of Columbia Valley … Merlot?

I only say Merlot because there was a moment in Washington State where Merlot was the most popular variety in the state. Some of you may or may not know about this, but in 1991, “60 Minutes” did a 12-minute segment called “The French Paradox.” It was a moment in the media that was really great for wine in America. It was the first time since Prohibition that the media was like, “You know what? It’s OK to enjoy wine; it’s OK to get into it. It’s OK to drink a bottle. It’s OK. Get into wine. It’s a beautiful thing. It’s not poison.” That was an eye-opening moment for America. And for some reason, Merlot caught it at that point. And the Merlot plantings in Washington State went nuts.

So Merlot is often associated with Washington State, but also a grape called Riesling. (Listen to my Riesling episode.) Riesling does really well in this area also. It is a very popular variety. It’s so popular that German winemakers have collaborated with winemakers in Washington State just on the Riesling grape alone. That says a lot for a place where Riesling was basically born is going to the New World and collaborating with younger, newer winemakers in the Pacific Northwest. It’s just awesome. But really, this is what I want to leave you with with Washington State wine. I didn’t go into a long list of varieties, right? I could do that really quickly. Riesling is the most planted, of course, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Semillon, Viognier, Chenin Blanc, Gewuürztraminer, Merlot, Cab Sauv, Syrah. What I just listed is the result of all the work from Clore back in the day. And the thing about these wine regions is, there are certain wine regions that certain varieties do well in.

But these wine regions are brand new. The soils are just being tested, even from 1983. That’s not a long time ago. Where Washington State is at is one of the most exciting times in its wine history. There is a national attention for wine, and there’s a place called Washington State that has the Columbia Valley that is still being explored. So I guess what I’m saying here is what’s so great about Washington State and other states like this is you, as an American wine drinker, are right smack dab in the middle of a historical moment. Because for the next 20 years, Washington State is going to either increase their AVAs and/or they’re going to focus even further into their existing AVAs and really draw down onto the varieties that will absolutely define their region.

That’s why I’m not going into each region and what they do well, because you should just go out there and get Washington State wine. It’s American wine, but you don’t see a lot of it on the American market. We need to see more. You’re going to see a lot of Merlot, you’re going to see a lot of Riesling, and some Chardonnay. But I’d like to see more Syrah. I’d like to see more Pinot Gris and Chardonnay from that area. But it’s going to come. It’s going to happen. That’s the most exciting thing about Washington State. Because the history is so recent, we’re right in the fever pitch of it. So go out there, buy Washington wine, pop a bottle, take photos of it. Tag me on Instagram at @VinePairKeith. I want to see what you’re drinking out there. I want to see what kind of Washington wine is available on the American market. It’s an American wine-growing state. It’s one of ours. Let’s enjoy it. All right. Next week, Oregon: This is going to be fun!

@VinePairKeith is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcasts from. It really helps get the word out there.

And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.

Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.