New Releases from Washington State

This year I tasted more Washington State wines than ever before—no surprise, as the number of wineries increases every year. Even in a difficult environment for wine sales, there are now more than 240 wineries in the state, up from 170 as recently as 2001! Every year I discover talented newcomers, as well as too many wineries—and not just the new ones—that clearly are not yet ready for prime time.

The vintages in question. If 2001 was a classic warm year, producing fruit-driven red wines with sound acid lift and solid backbone, 2002 is often preferred by the local winemakers. Most insiders told me that 2002 was a generally hotter growing season, with a lot of very warm days in August and September. In fact, there were numerous similarities between the two vintages: good crop levels each year, normal flowering and veraison dates, similar berry size, similar harvesting period. Still, some growers worried that with grape sugars rising quickly toward the harvest of 2002, the ripening of the grape skins would not keep pace and that the resulting wines would show an overripe/underripe quality.

Ben Smith of Cadence Winery describes the 2002s as superripe—spicier than the 2001s, with riper, finer tannins. Paul Golitzin noted that there had also been a lot of heat early in the summer that stunted the growth of the young vines, and he thought that much of this fruit was ultimately harvested too early (at Quilceda Creek, the Golitzin family's recently planted vines have not yet made the cut for the estate's flagship cabernet). But the established vineyards ultimately did very well, said Golitzin, who told me that Quilceda Creek harvested until Halloween. There's fairly strong acidity in many Washington State reds from the 2002 vintage. In some wines, this acidity may never harmonize with the fruit. But where the acids were ripe, the wines should develop slowly and well in bottle.

Although most of the big reds reviewed on the following pages are from the 2002 vintage, it's worth noting that 2003 should prove to be another highly successful vintage for both red wines and whites in Washington State. In 2003, the hottest period was in July and August (rather than in August and September), and then temperatures cooled down in early September, slowing the uptake of sugar, preserving acid levels in the grapes, and stretching out the harvest. One grower told me that in the high desert of Eastern Washington State there were 20 days in August when temperatures hit triple digits, but that after September 15, the temperature never again exceeded 85 degrees. Still, Bob Betz (of Betz Family Winery) noted that his 2003 reds were very ripe, supple wines with high pHs. The white wines I've seen to date from 2003 show full alcohol levels and excellent flavor maturity.

. I tasted a larger number of successful syrahs this year than ever before. Syrah is becoming increasingly popular and is now the state's third most widely planted red grape following cabernet sauvignon and merlot. (But there's even more chardonnay than cabernet or merlot, and there's still a bit more riesling than syrah.) Look to Basel Cellars, Betz Family Winery, Cayuse Vineyards, Januik Winery, McCrea Cellars, Owen Roe and Rulo Winery for some of the best examples of syrah. Not surprisingly, viognier is also coming into vogue in Washington State, and I tasted several very good examples from the 2003 vintage.

On the following pages are recommended new releases from more than 60 producers. Additional wines from these producers that rated 83 or 84 points are listed with an asterisk. (I also tasted one or more releases that did not rate at least 85 points from well over 40 more wineries, and, folks, some of these wines were grim indeed.)