Time to double down on Washington Cab

September 13, 2018 

Andy Perdue

Andy Perdue

Now that Washington has established Cabernet Sauvignon as its signature grape, the fun part begins.

Now the gratifying work of figuring how the grape will show its best must be showcased.

Fortunately, the Washington wine industry must look no farther than its nearest neighbor to the south for the model. Oregon long ago established Pinot Noir as its No. 1 grape, and winemakers and grape growers in the Willamette Valley have refined viticulture practices, clonal selections, locations and other factors to create a culture for greatness with Pinot Noir that resonates around the globe.

In the last half-decade, Cabernet Sauvignon has emerged as Washington’s state's No. 1 grape, and it shows on the global wine stage. This has proved to be a perfect grape for Washington. Some of the state's most famous wines have been Cabernet Sauvignon.

Washington has proved it can grow several wine grape varieties very well, and in some ways this has hurt the industry, because the state hasn't had a focus. Now, we can align ourselves with other Cab regions, including Bordeaux and Napa Valley.

Here are a few steps the Washington wine industry should take to forward the agenda of our state's signature grape:

Explore best viticulture practices: What are the optimal tonnages based on location? How about trellising systems? Red Mountain growers are working on row orientation. Irrigation practices? There are a lot of variables to work out to get the most out of the grape.

Vineyard designation Cabs: I think winemakers should make multiple styles of Cab each year. This gives us the opportunity to evaluate different styles of Cab. Charlie Hoppes of Fidelitas bottles six different Cabs from Red Mountain. They are utterly fascinating to taste. I'd love to see winemakers crafting two or three different Cabs each vintage. This helps consumers explore the grape and also will help winemakers refine their work on the grape. Former Ste. Michelle winemaker Joshua Maloney’s personal project is highlighting one Cab per vintage under his Maloney Wines label.

Bring in the clones: This is where Oregon has seen separation from other Pinot Noir regions. By planting multiple clones, producers continue to learn which work best in different soil types and at various elevations, combining those elements with various viticultural practices. In Argentina, different clonal selections of Malbec are found in the vineyard and those are propagated to help determine the best versions. This kind of work is why Argentina is making some of the greatest Malbecs in the world. Some growers in Washington are already doing this with other varieties. Hoppes works with no fewer than eight clones of Cab from various vineyards. He's seeing different flavor profiles from each and is making his picking decisions and even barrel-buying decisions on what he's learning.

Research: The Ste. Michelle Wine Estates Wine Science Center at Washington State University’s campus in Richland is set up to research Washington Cab. Imagine being able to do multiple fermentations of the same clone of Cab using different yeasts to see which yields the best flavors. What's the ideal yeast for Red Mountain Cab? Or for Walla Walla Valley Cab? That's important work.

Exploring location: Part of the exploration of Washington Cab is finding the best location to grow it. So far, the areas leading the charge would seem to be the Horse Heaven Hills, Red Mountain and the Walla Walla Valley, but I have high hopes for the western edge of the Wahluke Slope and the Frenchman Hills. There also are vineyards in the Yakima Valley and Rattlesnake Hills that are showing great promise.

Cab-focused events: Cab-related events would undoubtedly forward the cause of Washington Cab. Ask Oregon oldtimers about the importance of the early Steamboat conferences, and they'll hold it in high regard. These were open only to winemakers, who were open to constructive feedback on their wines. Today, the annual International Pinot Noir Celebration brings the world of Pinot Noir together in Oregon, also attracting many motivated consumers. These types of events could easily coincide with Washington’s annual winter grape growers conference or Taste Washington, where there are lots of winemakers in attendance. Simply having an atmosphere where information can be shared will do much to forward the cause of Washington Cab. Consumer education should be a component of this.

A united voice: Oregon Pinot Noir became famous not only because of the good wines. It also was because the Oregon wine industry provided a united voice that talked about the grape and the wines at every opportunity. This led to a unified message to buyers, consumers and the media.

ANDY PERDUE is the founding editor of Wine Press Northwest magazine. He is the wine columnist for The Seattle Times and is editor and publisher of Great Northwest Wine, an award-winning media company. He has written books on wine and also serves as a judge at various West Coast wine competitions.

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