If you haven’t been watching what is going on in Washington State lately, you are missing out. Most oenophiles are well aware of the deliciously delightful reds coming out of Walla Walla, but head West, back to the continually expanding wine country just outside of Seattle for a taste of the wineries of Woodinville, Washington.
The town, best known as the headquarters of Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery, is now the home to almost 100 wineries and tasting rooms both from wineries based in the region as well as throughout the state, including many from Walla Walla that have established tasting rooms in this easily accesable town as getting to Walla Walla is a considerable hike inland to reach via plane and car transportation.
And these Woodinville wineries are impressive, many sourcing fruit from the prized, mineral rich Walla Walla soil, to make hearty reds like Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. I visited the area recently, both to explore the city of Woodinville and their wineries, and to attend an outdoor Lyle Lovett concert on the intimate lawn of Chateau Ste. Michelle, as their guest.
Woodinville sits just 45 minutes northeast of Seattle, making it an easy to get to destination if you are arriving straight from SEA/TAC airport or for a side trip while visiting the city or while staying in one of the many, beautiful suburbs of the area like Bellevue or Kirkland. We opted for the Woodmark Hotel and Yatch Club in Kirkland on Lake Washington with a view across the water to Seattle and a 10 minute drive north to Woodinville. Charming and comfortable, with a glass of Domaine Ste. Michelle to greet you as you checked in before we headed to Woodinville.
The town boomed when Chateau Ste. Michelle established their headquarters there in the mid 1970’s. The parent to over a dozen sister wineries throughout the state, country and world. Today the almost 40 year old winery can easily be credited with putting Washington wines on the international map, as their wines, like their Cold Creek Cabernet Sauvignon, have defined the flavors of the region for years.
I am a fan of the Ste. Michelle family of wines which range from brands like ColSolare, their partnership with the Antinori family producing gorgeous and intense Cabernet Sauvignon blends from Red Mountain; to Northstar, producing Merlot that will easily make non-Merlot drinkers happily enjoy a glass; to smaller production wineries that still have a family tie like Spring Valley Vineyard, producing incredible Merlot and Cab blends, along with their distinct and non-vegetal Cabernet Franc, Kathryn in Walla Walla.
Throughout the concert I had a chance to try a few of Ste. Michelle’s offerings that I hadn’t tried in a while, including their Ste. Michelle Erocia, the dry Riesling created in partnership with Dr. Loosen (one of the premier German Riesling producers) filled with fresh flavors of ripe melon, lemon curd and citrus; stone fruit filled Cold Creek Chardonnay; and a bold, elegant and layered Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Ethos, with leather and tobacco notes married with black cherry, black plum, dried fig and spice notes. Bright, balanced, earthy and delicious paired with appetizers like grilled flatbread with caramelized Walla Walla onions, grilled beef sliders, delectable pate, mounds of nicely aged blue cheese, and the stellar acoustics of Lyle Lovett throughout the concert.
Earlier in the day we had a chance to visit a few of the almost 100 wineries that now populate Woodinville. This is a town designed for tourists, and though somewhat kitschy, I appreciated the layout of the comfortable town. We started our adventure at Gorman Winery, and immediately looking around saw 7 or 8 other wineries that were on our “possible visit” list within 1 square block of Gorman. This is how the town of Woodinville has set itself up, with most winery tasting rooms sitting side by side with their competition or, as it would seem when talking with the locals, their brethren as the “if one succeeds we all succeed attitude” resonated throughout the town. I had a few recommendations on where to start, and couldn’t have been more pleased to start the authentic Woodinville wine tasting at Gorman Winery.
Started in 2002, Gorman Winery sources fruit for their 7000 cases of wine each year from incredible Washington State vineyards, having established lasting relationships with some of the best growers in the state, giving owner/winemaker Charles Gorman access to some of the finest fruit from Red Mountain, Wallula Gap, Walla Walla and Yakima. Known most for this expressive and intense reds, these wines are lively, balanced and representative of the mineral rich soils they come from.
Zachary’s Ladder, named literally for the orange ladder Zachary (Gorman’s son) used to play on as a child in the winery, is a blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot, yet barrel aged for just a few months to give this smoky, spicy blend an easy drinking style that can be enjoyed young or after a few years of aging, especially with barbecue. The Evil Twin blends 70% Red Mountain Syrah with 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, also from Red Mountain, creating a smooth, silky wine filled with licorice, chocolate and cherry with layers of spice.
The Bully is aptly named, as it is a wine that will get noticed and doesn’t hold anything back. 85% Cabernet Sauvignon with 15% Petit Verdot, the wine is intense and interesting. Aged in 100% new French oak and bottled unfiltered there is a richness and elegance to the wine filled with cherry, spice, leather and oak notes.
Though the winery has been around for quite some time, they used to only open their tasting room twice a year, and usually only to club members for release parties. The weekend we were there was shortly after they opened the tasting room full time, which by the crowds of visitors stopping in as we tasted proved to be a smart move for the winery. Gorman’s wines can be found online via their website, as well as some local retailers. I saw a few bottles on the wine racks at Veritas the other evening.
After Gorman we crossed the street to Delille Cellars. Like a cozy French country home we stepped into the back garden to taste in the sunshine on a warm Washington day. Begun 20 years ago by four friends, Greg Lill, Jay Soloff, Chris Upchurch (winemaker) and Charles Lill, with a goal to make the highest quality, old world style wines from gorgeous Washington fruit, mostly from Red Mountain. The word “uncompromising” is tossed around the Delille tasting room, as having a focused, determined and uncompromising philosophy about the quality wine they would make is the guiding factor. They would do it right, not cutting corners….even if it was expensive. Which they take very literally – each cork in a Delille bottle costs $1.50 (usually a cork is around $0.15 – $0.25,) they pick all of their fruit by hand into small, 30 pound trays that are then inspected by two different people to ensure the quality of the fruit before it even gets to the winery. The result – gorgeous Bordeaux and Rhone style wine.
Doyenne Roussanne, from the Delille’s introductory line, was a wonderful surprise. Rhone style whites are becoming more and more popular, as vineyard owners experiment with grapes like Roussanne, Marsanne and Viognier that can stand beautifully on their own, as well as add texture and body to a blend, often with red varieties. This one was fresh and fragrant, filled with light floral notes of honeysuckle and orange blossom with white peach, honeydew and golden apple. Not overly complex, but a lovely, fruit filled wine that can be easily enjoyed throughout an afternoon into evening.
Doyenne Aix, named after the French city and countryside north of Marseille filled with rolling vineyards and landscapes that were a particular favorite of Paul Cézanne. This blend of 58% Syrah with 38% Cabernet Sauvignon and just a touch of Mourvedre to create a powerful wine filled with raspberries, boysenberries, licorice, coffee and cedar. Lush and juicy, yet still refined.
Delille Cellars D2 highlights why Merlot from Washington is so special, blending 55% Merlot with 34% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Cabernet Franc (also a stand out Washington variety,) and a touch of Petit Verdot. Ripe black cherries and black plums blend with layers of chocolate and black licorice with a touch of pepper and sweet baking spice. Grand Ceil is the big Caberent of the winery from 100% Estate fruit grown on vines planted Southeast to Northwest, slightly different than most wineries planted in Washington, with the first vintage produced in 2004. Filled with floral notes of lilac and rose with blackberry, black cherry and espresso.
I have had a chance to try a few other Woodinville wines since our trip, as our one day in town was simply too short to try them all. Dusted Valley, a winery based in Walla Walla with a tasting room in Woodinville, poured a few of their expressive wines at the Washington wine tasting at TEXSOM. Their Dusted Valley Wallywood, paying homage to the wines grown throughout the state from Walla Walla to Woodinville, is as much a wine of Southern France as it is of Washington, blending Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre with Petit Sirah and even a touch of Viognier. Spicy, juicy and approachable with flavors of ripe berries, fresh herbs, spice and a hearty meatiness.
Though based in Walla Walla, Amavi Cellars and Pepper Bridge also have tasting rooms in Woodinville. Amavi Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the best bang for your buck wines, sister winery to one of the leading and most well loved wineries in the state. I like the Amavi wines for their approachability and style. The Cabernet balances ripe cherry and berry with chocolate, cedar and eucalyptus notes. Easily enjoyed on its own, but beautiful with simply grilled meat or a pasta with Gorgonzola sauce.
Mark Ryan Winery was started in 1999 by the largely self taught, Mark Ryan McNeilly. Always asking questions and looking for help where he could find it, McNeilly truly built his winery from the group up, crushing his first vintages in friends garages. Today his wines shine among those in Woodinville. Though best known for his reds, I had a chance to try his Mark Ryan Viognier recently and was impressed by its structure, subtle flavor profile and balance of acidity. Filled with orange, honeysuckle, apricot and meyer lemon, the wine is rich without overpowering, with steely minerality balancing the ripe fruit flavors.
Chateau Ste. Michelle still has a few concerts left on their summer series this year. If you can’t make it up this year, make a date to get out of the Dallas heat in 2013 to escape to this serene part of the country on one of their cool summer weekends….and make sure to schedule more than one day to explore these tasty Woodinville wineries.