Washington State - In 1966 Washington State University started a 10-year trial growing 149 different grape varieties throughout the Columbia Valley. From them they produced 88 different types of wines. The leader, Dr. Walter Clore, concluded that Washington had the potential to make wines just as good as those of California.
Oregon also soon recognized areas such as the Willamette Valley held similar promise. In the 1980s the state's vineyard acreage tripled.
... from American Vintage by Dr. Paul Lukacs, Yr. 2000
So, is the Northwest realizing that potential? To get an answer, we pitted 12 Northwest wines against 12 California wines of the same varietal, price and vintage. Here is the winner of each match.
Cabernet Sauvignon, Hogue,
Columbia Valley, Washington, '98
Chardonnay, Duck Pond, Columbia
Valley, Washington, '99
Sauvignon Blanc, Chateau Ste.
Michelle, Columbia Valley, '99
Chardonnay, Monterra, Monterey,
Pinot Noir Reserve, Barefoot,
Sonoma County, '97
Fumé Blanc, Chateau St.
Jean, Russian River Valley, La Petite Etoile Vineyard, '98
Syrah, Jekel, Monterey, '98
Cabernet Sauvignon, Sagelands
(Chalone), Columbia Valley, '98, pictured.
Chardonnay Reserve, Ivan Tamas,
Central Coast, '96
Pinot Noir, Belvedere, Anderson
Valley, Floodgate Vineyard, '97
Cabernet Sauvignon, Chateau
Ste. Michelle, Columbia Valley, Canoe Ridge Estate Vineyard,
1. Dr. Clore's forecast is looking good. In this tasting, the Northwest won 42% of the matches.
2. Two of the Northwest's best, Oregon Pinot Gris and Washington Merlot were not in this tasting. So, we'll pick up some good ones and put them in another blind tasting soon, to see how California does against them!
3. We had two vaunted Oregon Pinot Noir in this tasting. They failed to win. We'll put some pricier models into the next tasting. I expect they'll do better. Stay tuned.
All five Northwest winners were from the Columbia River American Viticultural Area (AVA). You're going to see Columbia Valley on more and more labels in the future, so here are just a few fun facts.
Huge - The Columbia Valley AVA size: eleven million acres. The Napa Valley AVA is less than 3% of that.
Dominant - The area produces about 99% of Washington State wines.
Growth - Vineyard acreage is increasing about 10% a year.
Dry - The Cascade Mountains cut off the moist marine air from the area. I have a note made in the 1980s that rainfall was averaging about eight inches annually...and I haven't heard of any improvement. Vineyards are irrigated.
Sunny - During the hot growing season, the Columbia Valley receives two more hours of sunshine a day than does the Napa Valley.
Br-r-r - The Rocky Mountains on the east and the Cascades on the west channel cold winter Artic air onto the shivering, dormant vines.
Small - While the Columbia Valley AVA (area) is enormous, the number of vines isn't. Although vineyard acreage is increasing rapidly, my latest figures indicate is about half that of Napa.
The Future - Ted Meredith in Northwest Wine sums it up nicely. "The climate is so unique and the region so diverse that the Columbia Valley's full potential as a winegrowing region is scarely known, and may not really be understood for decades."
About the Writer
Fred McMillin, a veteran wine writer, has taught wine history for 30 years on three continents. In 1995, the Academy of Wine Communications honored Fred with one of only 22 Certificates of Commendation awarded to American wine writers. For information about the wine courses he teaches every month at either San Francisco State University or San Francisco City College (Fort Mason Division), please fax him at (415) 567-4468.