Monday, September 29, 2014

The Washington State Wine Country

Three domestic Cabernet Sauvignons, priced in the $15 to $25 range, all produced by large corporate interests, and because I bought a few cases of each, they all recently found their way to the tasting table here at the store.  The happy ending is that all showed well with our assembled tasters and I have no complaints other than the usual beef about vacuous winery websites that are so circumscribed by the aforementioned corporate interests that they actually never tell you anything interesting about the wines. Oh well, I'm just a frustrated muckraker who wants to know stuff that's only of interest to me anyway.

The least expensive of the three Cabs was Skyfall from Columbia Valley, Washington and they actually had the best website, albeit within the proscribed boundaries mentioned above.  Skyfall is owned by Precept Brands based in Seattle, Washington and Precept is one of the largest wine companies in the world.  Their portfolio is multinational but the lion's share comes from Washington State.  Seattle, of course, is on the rainy west coast so it has nothing to do with Washington's real fine wine country, sort of like the way Seattle's star corporate citizen, Starbucks, has nothing to do with the growing of coffee beans.

The Washington State wine country includes 13 AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) that seem to cover half of the state's map but the area we are concerned about is a twenty percent vertical rectangle that is along the southern border of the map and just east of the middle of the state.  That area is the Columbia Valley and it encompasses all twelve of the other AVAs and actually descends well into Oregon but that's another post.   The 2012 Skyfall is a blend of 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, and 5% Syrah all drawn from AVAs within that rectangle; 42% Wahluka Slope, 27% Horse Heaven Hills, 26% Columbia Valley, and 5% Yakima Valley. 

So why does the wine country look like this?  Like other places it has to do with the placement of mountains and rivers.  In this case the vertical ridge to the west of the wine country is called the Cascade Mountains and the convergence of four rivers; the Yakima, Snake, Columbia, and Walla Walla;  lies right in the middle of my imaginary rectangle.  The Cascade Mountains serve to block the rains from the west creating a dry continental climate to the east.  The rivers then moderate valley temperatures and provide the irrigation waters necessary for the vineyards.

At the end of the Ice Age the Missoula Floods deposited gravels, sands, silt, loess, and volcanic dust in the future wine valley.  Today the soil is a sandy loam over basalt, the result of the breakdown of lava.  Washington State has two readily apparent advantages over California.  At their latitude they have two more hours of daylight to ripen grapes and that sandy soil is fortunately the one type that the Phylloxera bug can not stand.  One negative though is the winter freezes that are, as one might expect, quite a bit worse than California's.

This Friday at the weekly store event (5-8pm) we are tasting Cabernet Sauvignons from several locations in the West with the hope of finding wines that uniquely reflect a place of origin.  The consolidation of wineries under banners like Precept has often resulted in wines that are circumscribed to what is believed to be the popular style.  Please join us for the tasting and let's all try to discern difference!

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