On the joys and sorrows of rising cabernet sauvignon in Washington State

Booming cabernet sauvignon plantings in Washington State have made wine news this past week following a new report from the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. This news makes me sad, though I probably shouldn’t be.

Washington can do superbly good things with cab sauv. Even if some efforts are built for earning high points from Wine Spectator rather than actual drinking enjoyment, Red Mountain and its neighboring AVAs in the state’s southeast can turn out beautifully dense, velvety, complex cabernets that make you want to pull out the good china for dinner. And cab sauv gives strength and seriousness to the red blends that are, across the board, what southeastern Washington does best.

Back In 2014, I wrote a piece for Palate Press inelegantly titled “When your iconic wine is everything: Washington’s diversity issue.” I had just returned to New Zealand from a fieldwork visit to my old home state, where I’d reveled in good bread, central heating, people who didn’t want me to taste multiple sauvignon blancs in a row, and plenty of really excellent wine. In that context, I’d been struck by the extent to which neither Washington State nor any of its subregions had One Big Wine that made up their public identity. New Zealand immediately conjures up Marlborough sauvignon blanc, Central Otago pinot noir, and Hawke’s Bay syrah. In the States, most readily nameable “regions,” whether states or American Viticultural Areas, have an equivalent: Napa cab, Oregon (Willamette Valley) pinot noir, Finger Lakes riesling, even Virginia cab franc and Missouri Norton. All grow other things, and in particular I’m sorry that Central Otago isn’t better known for its aromatic whites and that Marlborough isn’t in a position to develop its promising chardonnay and pinot noir. Nevertheless, the iconic wine is what consumers latch onto, what makes the region memorable and easy to understand, and what sells.

Washington doesn’t (yet) have an equivalent. (Red Mountain is known for cab sauv and Walla Walla for merlot, but only regionally as yet.) The state’s diversity doesn’t help it when a nervous New York City restaurant diner just wants to choose something familiar. Moreover, the best wines being produced in Washington are cab sauv, merlot, or blends driven by those grapes. If New York noshers are going to recognize not just Washington but Red Mountain, Walla Walla, and Horse Heaven Hills, big reds will be the reason.

But the best wines don’t always make for the best drinking. Diversity makes for a joy-provoking field to explore if you’re willing to get to know them, and a welcome tasting experience if you’re out for the day. Washington winemakers – most of them running tiny businesses by California standards – to their credit, aren’t afraid to experiment in their still relatively young terrain and to find varieties outside the big 6 that are worth both their time and yours.

Not all of those experiments need to become traditions, and some no doubt deserve to be planted over with cab sauv. But some of those unusual wines are brilliant, from the totally unexpected and thoroughly delicious montepulciano I once tasted in the winemaker’s garage to the creamy semillons more often offered alongside those big reds – but, the numbers suggest, increasingly being edged out by cab sauv. These trends are signs of the state’s wine industry growing up. They’re also signs, perhaps, of losing something unique and beautiful the state losing a big part of what makes it unique, worthwhile, and beautiful to someone who isn’t nervously noshing in New York.

There’s much more to be said about the interactions of developing an icon style with winery size, consumer expectations for consistency, brand associations with wine labels or wine regions, climate change, fashion, distribution, and the development of new AVAs, among other things (some of which I say here). All topics that I hope the industry is discussing, and discussions that I hope to see taken up more publicly as well. For now, it seems that what I really want to say is: three cheers for odd-ball wines, in Washington and elsewhere.

3 thoughts on “On the joys and sorrows of rising cabernet sauvignon in Washington State

  1. Hi, have you had the chance to try Delille Cellars, Washington.
    Emulating Bordeaux
    Their red blends are wonderful, but the white is lot of fun and is a blend of Semillon and about 1/3 Sauvignon Blanc. You might appreciate what they are doing.
    The wine, for me, is very nice when first opened, but improves over a few days.

    • Once upon a time, yes, and I agree. Unfortunately, Washington State wines (apart from the very occasional bottle of Ste. Michelle) are more or less impossible to find in New Zealand and Scotland — to our detriment!

  2. I own a small vineyard and winery in one of Washington’s newest AVAs, Lake Chelan. Not only is it a great place to come wine tasting: small, family-owned wineries but as we seek to determine our identity with experimental plantings, we promise not to serve you multiple sauvignon blancs in a row, but diverse wines made by pioneer winemakers and growers. That is the beauty of Washington State. (P. S No we are not distributed, I highly recommend ordering online from one of the hundreds of statewide boutique wineries and have some “odd-ball” wine sent right to your door)

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