Washington winemaking is on the rise. In the blink of an eye, Washington has positioned itself behind only California in number of bonded wineries, planted acreage, and grapegrowing diversity. A visit in 1990 to towns like Walla Walla, Richland, or Yakima would have been in passing--for a sandwich and a quiet bemusement of "what do these people do here?" Today however, these same small towns are centers for viticulture and winemaking activity. It reminds us of hamlets like Calistoga, Yountivlle, and St. Helena--30 years ago!
Eastern Washington's meteoric rise onto the worldwide wine scene is appropriate considering its cataclysmic history.
Around 15,000 years ago a geologic anamoly called the Missoula flood transformed and shaped the "terroir" of the Columbia river basin, much of southeastern Washington, and Oregon's Willamette Valley. As enormous ice dams began to crack or burst at the end of the last ice age, torrents (walls really) of meltwater rushed across 800 miles of plains and grassland, and deposited hundreds of feet of loess, alluvial sediments, and basalt from the land "upstream." Geologists presume this flooding event occurred at least 40 times over a 2000 year period, each time carving the landscape into the modern day scenery we enjoy today along Interstate 84.
The floods laid the foundation of soils that Oregon and Washington vineyards thrive on today. Coupled with the regions dry, temperate climate, grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc found an American home somewhere other than California. However, it was the search for aromatic, expressive Syrah that led us to a meeting with Denise Slattery and Steve Michener a few months ago.
We had heard about a pilot program in Walla Walla that provided upstart vintners with a small winemaking facility on a "campus" of wineries near Walla Walla airport. The promise is that each winery will limit their production to under 1000 cases, and be willing to give up their lease after 5 years to other upstarts. Slattery and Michener recently had stepped away from longtime "professional" gigs--she as media consultant for Joe Boxer and Kodak, he as a bass player and lyricist with the Boston-based rock band Big Dipper. Adult degrees in fermentation science, viticulture and enology led them to the birth of their own winery operation two years ago.
During their studies they met Tim Boushey who introduced them to Dick Boushey's beautiful vineyard near Rattlesnake Ridge in Yakima. It is from Boushey's vineyard that this Trio of Vintners sourced the magnificent fruit for their maiden Syrah in 2004. This is one of the oldest, well-tended Syrah vineyards in the state--the concentration and structure of the wine is terrific. According to Boushey, "when you get fruit this good, the winemaker's job is to just get out of the way." It would be hard to argue with his assessment once you open this gorgeous, dark-fruited, peppery bottle of wine.
Enjoy it now. At a mere 170 case production it will be gone in the blink of an eye.