Seattle Wines, without Vines

Although the wines are good, Seattle is not the next Napa Valley.

By Mark Ashley

With the increasing popularity and quality of wines from Washington, interest in wine tourism in the region has been growing rapidly. Travelers to Seattle will find brochures touting wineries at their concierge’s desk, and with well-known names like Chateau Ste. Michelle in the area, wine tourists might assume that Seattle is the next San Francisco – a big city with a beautiful wine country a short drive away.

They’d be wrong.

While there are indeed wineries near Seattle, travelers hoping for a miniature Napa Valley will be sorely disappointed. The real Washington wine country is far to the east, separated from the nearest major city by hundreds of miles. (The closest airport is the Tri-City Airport in Pasco, WA.)

However, if you’re less interested in “Napa style” and more interested in wine itself, with some great natural vistas thrown in, then greater Seattle does indeed offer some worthwhile tastings.

The Woodinville area, a half hour’s drive north of Seattle, offers the best wines in the region. The irony is that none of the grapes that are crushed in Woodinville wineries’ presses are actually grown here. Rather, they are picked in eastern Washington, loaded onto trucks, and driven 3 to 4 hours west to be vinted in Seattle’s suburbia.

Why go through this trouble? Why have the winery so far removed from the vineyards? In a word: Marketing. Tourists have not discovered eastern Washington yet, so the wineries have come to where the tourists already are many in town before or after their cruise to Alaska. For the larger wineries, having the facilities closer to the masses is an exercise in brand building, while the smaller players who sell all of their wine directly to the consumer are simply maximizing their odds of a sale.

Some wineries, such as Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia, inhabit grand structures that create the illusion of a long, cherished history of winemaking at this location. Some have planted a few token vines out front to signify that this is indeed a winery. There is even a dinner train, much like in Napa, which winds along Lake Washington to its final stop adjacent to Columbia’s facility.

Chateau Ste. Michelle has the most elaborate grounds, which are often rented out for weddings, corporate functions and even the odd concert including Natalie Merchant and Kenny G at the 4,000 seat (!) amphitheater. You are encouraged to picnic here, weather permitting, of course. To taste their wines, you must take their 45-minute tour of the facilities, where most of their wines (but not their sparklers) are produced.

Though our tour guide was informative, I thought he got on a bit of a high horse during the guide-managed tasting he insisted on teaching everyone about how to taste wine, from how to hold the glass, to how to swirl, to the search for particular flavors in the wine. Well-meant, perhaps, but tedious, frustratingly slow, and not optional. In the end, the visit wasn’t worth it, from a tasting perspective. Four of their large-production wines were served as part of the complimentary tour, with the cabernet sauvignon being the best, but none were particularly interesting, unusual, or difficult to find in the local Safeway. The reserve tastings, for a charge, offer a better option, and allow you to skip the tour.

Just across the street, and a stone’s throw from the vaunted (and pricey) Herbfarm restaurant, Columbia Winery offers tours as well, but doesn’t require them for entry to their tasting room. Try to avoid the tasting bar when the wine train arrives with its passengers: Not only will you get space at the bar, but you’ll actually have a longer (and better!) list of wines to choose from. I found the German-varietal whites to be particularly good here.

Forgoing a neo-chateau for their facilities, other producers have taken a less ostentatious approach, choosing to make their wines in the backs of corrugated-walled warehouses, with a purely functional tasting area that consists of a bar and a cash register. Still others have simply built full-service tasting rooms behind the drab exteriors, with all the knick-knacks for sale as in the most commercialized Napa winery.

Perhaps the best of the “warehouse wines” is Facelli Winery, a small family operation where owner and chief winemaker Louis Facelli pours his handicraft from behind a spartan bar on weekends. His reds are especially worthwhile, and include some quirky wines. While I didn’t care particularly for the Lemberger, a fairly uncommon varietal that originated in Austria, I really enjoyed the late harvest syrah. This was far and away the most memorable wine that any Woodinville winery poured, and it is a wine that Louis is particularly (and justifiably!) proud of. This inky dessert wine was a real surprise, a complex, fruit-forward concentrate, without being syrupy-sweet. (My wife still grumbles that we left without buying a bottle.)

Besides Woodinville, there are wineries to the west of the city, on the Olympic Peninsula in Port Angeles, Sequim, and Port Townsend, as well as on Whidbey and Bainbridge Islands. As in Woodinville, most of the wine is produced from grapes trucked in from the east. However, some do grow their own grapes on tiny plots nearby, from relatively unknown varietals better suited to the difficult climate, such as Madeleine Angevine, and many make wines from honey, berries or other fruit. Production is tiny, usually with less than 2000 cases per producer per year.

For the most part, these wines are unfortunately not very good. For example, Greenbank Cellars on Whidbey Island touts their wines as “Alsatian style,” but their whites were high in acid without a balance of minerality. The nearby Whidbey Island Winery’s wines were far superior overall, though generally unremarkable. Whidbey’s rhubarb wine (!!) was an odd surprise. I would love to see this wine in a blind tasting competition, just to see what contestants would guess it to be. Produced by first freezing the rhubarb, which causes the cell structure to break down, the resulting wine is a light, fairly dry rose with an unexpected but not entirely unpleasant finish. Stump your friends! Alas, Whidbey asks $2 tasting fee for its wines.

I cannot wholeheartedly recommend a trip to these western maritime areas just for the wine. (These producers have combined to form the North Olympic Peninsula and Islands Winery Loop Association, www.wineryloop.org, which offers details on each of its members on the website.) But the small wineries are indeed charming, and a brief visit is a nice way to break up a day of hiking in the beautiful surroundings.

On the other hand, the Woodinville area is indeed worth a short drive. I would certainly go back on my next trip to Seattle, to sample some of the smaller family-owned wineries’ offerings. To visit these tasting rooms is truly to come for the wine. You’ll find natural beauty–including vineyard charm–elsewhere in the state.

***

Here’s a link to Seattle area wineries. Yowza. I wish I had that list before going…

http://www.weekendwinery.com/Wineries/Wineries_WA_Seattle.htm

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