Photo by Tom Arena
One of the hallmarks of Washington wine is consistency.
Part of the state’s recipe for success is ever-warm summers in the Columbia Valley, where grapes always ripen. The desert-dry conditions also mean irrigation is required, giving growers control over the timing and amount of water vines receive. Combined with cool nights that retain acidity, these factors have led to quality so consistently high some have questioned whether Washington truly has vintage variation.
Though the answer has always been yes, the qualitative range from year to year is surely narrower than many other viticultural regions. Recent years, however, have shown more readily apparent differences across vintages, as growers and vintners grapple with a rapidly changing climate.
Quality has remained high throughout, but contrasts in style can be sharp, as shown in two recent years, 2018 and 2019.
A Decade of Challenges
The last decade indicates just how different each year has been in Washington. While 2011 was the coolest vintage on record, 2012 tracked perfectly to 20-year historical averages. The next three vintages could be categorized as hot, hotter and hottest, with 2015 the warmest vintage on record. When 2016 galloped out of the gates, it tracked ahead of 2015 before finishing cool. In 2017, meanwhile, growers had wildfire smoke and another cool finish to contend with.
“This is my 11th year [at DeLille Cellars], and I have to admit, it feels like it’s getting harder,” says Jason Gorski, the producer’s Woodinville-based director of winemaking and viticulture. “There’s nothing predictable now.”
For a state where many winemakers are located far from their vineyard sources, the varied climate has created a myriad of challenges. Growers, however, are on the front line.
“I don’t recall worrying about growers nearly as much 10 years ago as I do now,” says Gorski. While the final results continue to be impressive, they haven’t come easily.
“Once we get the fruit, in every vintage that we’ve seen in the last 10 years, there have been great wines,” says Peter Devison, owner and winemaker at Devison Vintners in Walla Walla. “It’s just been harder to get there.”