What would happen to the wine industry in the United States if, by some crazy chance, Washington, Oregon, and California were hit by a devastating plague that wiped out every vineyard in the three-state area? Would it be the “end of the world,” so to speak, for domestic wine drinkers?
Without a doubt, the answer to that highly unlikely scenario is a resounding “yes.”
Certainly, California is far and away the biggest producer of premium wines in the United States, but Washington and Oregon are responsible for their fair share as well.
In fact, the three states accounted for nearly 91 percent of last year’s total U.S. wine production, according to Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau statistical reports. California, Washington, and Oregon rank first, second, and fifth respectively, leaving the remainder of the country with a mere fraction of today’s wines that one might consider comparable in quality.
The number of licensed wineries in each state is just as impressive, with the three left-coast states claiming the top three spots with a total of well over 5,500 wineries.
The key to this embarrassment of wine-related riches is the western United States’ combination of just the right blend of climate and geography: a varied base of volcanic soils, coastal regions blessed with the cooler influences of the Pacific Ocean (perfect for growing Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris grapes), and areas with abundant sunshine and sufficient heating degrees to ripen warmer climate grapes such as Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.
It all adds up to some pretty impressive stuff, and in terms of sheer volume alone, the Washington-Oregon-California wine connection is enough to keep any domestic wine lover swimming in quality wines and wineries.
WASHINGTON FROM BOTH SIDES
A handful of wine grapes flourish in Washington’s cooler Puget Sound region and the wines they generate are, more often than not, characterized by lighter body styles and refreshingly high acidity levels.
A great example is the San Juan Vineyards 2016 Siegerrebe (about $21). Grown on the island’s only commercial vineyard, Siegerrebe is a hybrid of Gewurztraminer and Madeleine Angevine grapes. The resulting wine is brimming with spicy aromatics and flavors of lychee and lemon/lime citrus, while the 1.4 percent residual sugar content is nicely balanced by slightly higher-than-normal alcohol and bracing acidity on the finish.
A move to Eastern Washington provides you with bigger, bolder, and more full-bodied red and white wines that have benefited from the region’s near desert-like climate that frequently yields less than 10 inches of precipitation annually.
The Bergevin Lane Vineyards 2013 She-Devil Syrah (about $24) is sourced from two, warmer Eastern Washington wine regions; the Wahluke Slope and the Walla Walla Valley, where the winery is located. Smoky aromatics are followed by dark, understated blackberry flavors and nuances of toasted oak on the finish. The wine was co-fermented with Viognier grapes and a splash of Malbec was added to lend just the slightest touch of peppery spice.
OREGON’S WILLAMETTE VALLEY
Talk about Oregon wines and the Willamette Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA) will invariably enter the conversation. The Valley stretches from Portland on Oregon’s northern border, to just beyond the city of Eugene to the south.
The region is responsible for more than 70 percent of both the state’s planted vineyard acreage and total wine production. And 80 percent of Oregon Pinot Noir production, the crown gem of the state’s wine scene, is generated within the Willamette Valley.
The Valley consists of a number of sub-appellations, one of which is the Chehalem Mountains AVA. There you’ll find a relatively newer winery, Rain Dance Vineyards, located in Newberg and founded in 2009. Their 2015 Estate Pinot Noir (about $40) is a grand slam, and most definitely worth a try.
This Pinot is darker in both color and flavor profile than most others from the region, with lovely aromas of fresh espresso that carry over to the palate along with generous black cherry fruit. The finish is lengthy and velvety, and contrasts with Pinot Noir’s signature streak of acidity for added depth and character. Outstanding!
And if you think Oregon is one-dimensional in its wine production, be sure to check out Chardonnays from the Willamette Valley region as well. A notable example, also from Rain Dance Vineyards, is the 2015 Estate Chardonnay (about $30). This wine’s base of apple and pear is accentuated with both edgier notes of bright citrus and a softer, creamier touch of lemon chiffon.
CALIFORNIA’S OLD GUARD
Located in Livermore, just east of the San Francisco Bay area, you’ll find Wente Vineyards, a family-owned, fifth-generation winery that originated in 1883.
Wente produces a number of varietals, but the current release of their 2016 Morning Fog Chardonnay (about $15) really shines in terms of solid winemaking at a highly affordable price. It opens with aromas and flavors of ambrosia and marshmallow cream, with juicy pear flavors on the mid-palate and a hint of vanilla bean on the finish.
Another long-time California winery, Mendocino County’s Parducci Wine Cellars, will celebrate its 85th anniversary this year. Parducci also has West Coast wineophiles covered with an impressive array of current releases.
Start with the Parducci 2014 Small Lot Cabernet Sauvignon (about $13), which features red fruit flavors of currant and plum along with subtle tannins. It’s a nice alternative for those who prefer their Cabernets a bit lighter in body.
On the other side of the coin, Parducci also offers a pair of heavier hitters. The Tie-Dye 2014 Red Blend (about $15) explodes with raspberry aromatics, a core of dark berry fruits, and nice acidity; while the ZinPhomaniac 2015 Lodi Zinfandel (about $15) offers brambly berry and ultra-dark cherry flavors, along with a long finish with sweet cedar and baking spice. Old Vine Zinfandel may be California’s quintessential grape, and this wine’s whimsical character proves that even “old-timers” can still have fun with it.