Ken Robertson

Insights of a wine tour guide

Since April, I’ve had an interesting window into a rather select group of wine consumers from across the United States. They are all passengers taking a week-long cruise on the Columbia River aboard the American Empress, a 360-foot sternwheeler based in Vancouver, Wash., and in its inaugural year sailing the Columbia and Snake Rivers. And I’ve been their wine tour guide for shore tours to Walla Walla and Red Mountain in Washington.

They come from all over the United States, with California, Texas and the Southern states especially well represented. Since the American Queen Steamboat Co., which owns the American Empress also runs highly regarded Mississippi River tours, the number of Southerners aboard is no surprise.

But there also have been a few surprises, with Canadians and even Australians and New Zealanders riding the wine tour buses.

As a Northwesterner who’s lived in Kennewick, Wash., for 38 years and who has been writing about Northwest wines since 1978, my belief has been that the world of wine discovered our region’s fine wines at least two decades ago.

Well, since I started guiding the bus tours, I’ve discovered that the folks who are familiar with the fine Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris from Oregon and the matchless Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon from Washington are scarce indeed.

Here’s a sampling of my observations:

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1. Of the 15-20 passengers typically aboard the bus, only two to four appear to have more than a passing knowledge of the Northwest’s wine regions, although about two-thirds of them are rather avid wine consumers.

2. Idaho and British Columbia are virtually unknown territories.

3. On each tour, usually only one couple plans to extend their stay in the Northwest to taste more wine. And usually, they plan to explore the Willamette Valley, not Walla Walla, Red Mountain or any of Washington’s other wine-producing areas.

4. Malbec ranks higher on their wine radar than Merlot or Syrah. Maybe it’s partly the lingering effect of the movie “Sideways,” but many clearly like the South American-style wine bought at their hometown wine shops, supermarkets and liquor stores.

5. Our nation’s crazy liquor laws, many dating to the heyday of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, remain a deterrent to folks who want to ship back home some of the wines they’ve discovered here. Perhaps it’s time for Congress to end the silly protectionist rules and the clear restraints of trade individual states and counties have devised.

6. Only two Northwest labels are commonly encountered in most of their home states — Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia Crest.

7. Many are shocked when they taste Northwest Riesling for the first time. Even off-dry examples are not sweet enough to meet their expectations, and they find the crisp acidity of Northwest whites surprising and sometimes a shock to their palates.

8. Viognier, Roussanne, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc are known to a relative handful.

9. Sangiovese is the only Italian wine grape most have encountered.

10. Albariño, Tempranillo and the other Spanish varieties of wine grapes are virtually unknown.

11. And, like everyone else, they find Gewürztraminer unpronounceable. If ever a wine needs a good ad agency makeover, this is it.

What’s to be learned from this? Well, Washington especially needs a state agency to promote tourism. We’ve been resting on the long-dried-out laurels of the Seattle World’s Fair of 1962 for more than 50 years, and since the state scrapped its tourism agency back in the bleakest days of the recent recession, even wine lovers know little about us.

It’s hard to believe the same isn’t true about Washington tourism in general. There’s a reason that Oregon’s Willamette Valley is recognized by at least some of these tourists, yet Washington’s Red Mountain gets little love indeed.

Wine words: Veraison

Careful readers who have been following this column for several years may recall that I chose this as the wine word several years back. It’s the French word derived from the Latin verb verto, which means to turn. It denotes the time when grapes turn from green toward red and purple hues. And it means harvest is only a few short weeks away. I thought it was worth revisiting this year because 2014 is shaping up to be an unusually early vintage. The first reports of veraison began coming in from the Northwest’s vineyards in mid-July, following fast on the heels of an early July report by my colleague Eric Degerman of Great Northwest Wine that the 2014 grape-growing season was up to 50 percent ahead of the 40-year average, as measured in degree days. Eric’s report was based on statistics gathered by Greg Jones, a nationally recognized climatologist based at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, from four sites around Oregon. Washington State University’s records don’t show as marked a gain, but still are trending ahead of 2013, which was a very warm year.

Too much heat, however, can delay ripening. It may seem counterintuitive, but when temperatures rise above 95 degrees, as they did in mid-July and again as the month ended, the heat slows grape maturation. By the time the Wine Press Fall edition is printed, much of the uncertainty about how late summer weather will affect the 2014 crop will be resolved. But don’t be surprised to see pickers out in force by early to mid-September, perhaps in vineyard blocks that usually aren’t picked until two or three weeks later.

Even though hot weather does slow ripening, heat retained in the soil into the fall will speed ripening and likely push up this year’s harvest dates. And, with a little luck, a long, warm fall will include cool evenings, producing an outstanding vintage.

-- Ken Robertson, the retired editor of the Tri-City Herald, has been sipping Northwest wines and writing about them since 1976.

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