Beyond California

June 2022

While California lies at the beating heart of winemaking in the United States, in both quantity and quality, there are other centres of excellence worth exploring. Today we look straight north from the Golden State into the Pacific northwest – Oregon and Washington. These two states, noted for their mountains and coastal scenery, are also developing growing reputations for fine wine, although their production is a tiny fraction of their dominant southern neighbour.

For this article I conferred with my friend Patrick Horn, a California violist who came to Thunder Bay to join the Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra. A wine afficionado steeped in new world traditions, Horn travels to Oregon every summer to perform with the renowned Britt Music Festival. We have toured the west coast together, with Horn as my guide, visiting winemakers up and down the coast and sharing many a fine bottle; his insights and experience have been invaluable to me.

Washington is second in American wine production, making nearly 5% of the country’s total, an amount dwarfed by California’s almost 90%. Washington’s neighbour to the north is British Columbia, and there are many parallels in the winemaking traditions of those neighbours.

There are thirteen AVA – American Viticultural Areas – in Washington: Ancient Lakes, Columbia Valley, Horse Heaven Hills, Walla Walla, Yakima Valley… All these regions produce wines of all types from a wide variety of grapes; Cabernet Sauvignon is their best-known red, along with Merlot, although many Washington wine enthusiasts tout Syrah as their finest red. For whites, they make both Chardonnay and Riesling. The challenge emerging wine regions like Washington encounter with both Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay is that they must face head-to-head competition with the finest from California, Australia and France; it is a struggle to get noticed in that well-established, highly-competitive marketplace. For Washington wines available here in Ontario, look to Columbia Crest or Chateau Ste. Michelle for good value introduction to the region. There are many higher-end offerings: Quilceda Creek (Patrick’s recommended favourite), Reynvaan, Betz Family, Seven Falls – but it may take some serious searching for you to find them.

Oregon produces just 1.5% of all American wine; that is enough for fifth place in American production. There are eighteen AVA designations: Columbia Gorge, Dundee Hills, Eola-Amity Hills, Ribbon Ridge, Walla Walla, Willamette Valley… Oregon winemakers, cleverly, are strategically focused on high quality in a niche market: Pinot Noir is their sole premium red wine, with Pinot Gris its white counterpart. This has attracted investment from world-renowned Burgundian winemakers opening branch-plant wineries here; Joseph Drouhin has founded Domaine Drouhin Oregon, and Louis Jadot has launched Résonance; both of these have established themselves as keen competitors in the international marketplace, rivaling their own French originals. These can be hard to find, as they have created significant international demand, but we occasionally find them at the LCBO. Look for Rock Point, Underwood, Erath, Sokol Blossom, and Wine by Joe as accessible starter examples. The LCBO Vintages department occasionally brings in more high-level offerings, including Domaine Drouhin, Domaine Sirène, Eyrie, Beaux Frères and Adelsheim vineyards.

Pinot Noir is often called the heartbreak grape; it is fickle, thin skinned, and difficult to grow to full ripeness. Oregon is succeeding where many have failed. If you are an afficionado of great Pinot Noir, you must include those sourced from Oregon in your cellar.

Washington and Oregon have not suffered such devastating wildfires that climate change is inflicting on California, but there were some bad fires in Oregon last year, so that threat may yet have profound impact on vineyards here, as it has so ferociously in California.

© Paul Inksetter 2022

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