Ken Robertson

Ancient Lakes, Wahluke Slope making their mark

Ask an average wine drinker from outside the Northwest about Washington’s best places to grow wine grapes, and chances are you’ll get one of three answers:

Walla Walla.

Red Mountain.

Huh? Washington?

Today’s topic is none of the above. It’s a primer on two American Viticultural Areas that are helping define the future of Washington wine: Wahluke Slope and Ancient Lakes. Each is making its mark, but a look back 40 years into Washington wine history shows it was a rugged start.

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For the Wahluke Slope, that history begins in 1982 when a major German winery with an international reputation — Franz Langguth — opened near Mattawa. Alas, hardly anybody came. Washington wines made in a rather dry Germanic style just weren’t big sellers. By 1987, Langguth departed and its operations were folded into Snoqualmie, which later became part of Chateau Ste. Michelle Wine Estates.

A decade later, three Columbia Basin farmers, who also grew apples and potatoes, began planting grapes on the Wahluke Slope and the nearby Ancient Lakes area.

It’s fair to say a cup of coffee was the catalyst when friends Butch Milbrandt of Mattawa and the late Jack Jones of Quincy sat down to chat and Jones invited Milbrandt to join him on a visit to Ste. Michelle’s Columbia Crest Winery in Paterson.

“At the end of the day, I had a contract for 80 acres of grapes — Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Chardonnay,” Milbrandt recalls. He began planting northwest of Mattawa in 1996-97, starting with whites, a venture that led to Butch and his brother Jerry growing about 3,800 acres of wine grapes in the Wahluke Slope and Ancient Lakes AVAs.

“Jerry and I decided we wanted to be large enough to have some measure of control,” Butch recalls.

Jerry started planting white wine grapes in 1998 in the now-famous Evergreen Vineyard, starting with 452 acres overlooking the Columbia River near George, growing to about 1,200 acres two decades later, mostly Riesling and Chardonnay. Now, it’s likely best-known for Riesling, thanks to Chateau Ste. Michelle using Evergreen grapes as the backbone for its Eroica Riesling program.

Jones also began planting vineyards in 1997. They now supply the Jones of Washington label, launched in 2001, and he also linked up with Dick Shaw, who grows grapes on Red Mountain and the adjacent Horn Rapids area, to form J&S Crushing in Mattawa. Jones followed up by planting Trinidad Vineyards in 1999 in what’s now the Ancient Lakes AVA.

Wahluke Slope was recognized officially as an AVA in 2006, followed by Ancient Lakes in 2012.

In the decades since, Wahluke Slope has built a reputation for rich, full-bodied red wines, especially Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. Its south-facing slopes along the Columbia River, after being scoured practically bare of soil by the Missoula floods 12,000 to 15,000 years ago, have acquired sandy loam soils, underlain by basalt and a layer of gravelly caliche (calcium carbonate). The AVA’s 80,490 acres now include about 10,000 acres of grapes, or 15% of the state total.

“The Wahluke Slope has a bit of an advantage that doesn’t get talked about,” said Kendall Mix, who makes wines for both Milbrandt brothers and met them while working for Ste. Michelle, starting in 1993. “It has some of the warmest sites in the state that approach Red Mountain.”

The Ancient Lakes AVA, with 169,153 acres, is twice as large as Wahluke Slope, but grows only about a fifth as many grapes, just over 1,600 acres. Its grapes are known for producing surprisingly aromatic wines with crisp acidity and minerality, partly because of the caliche under its wind-blown loess silt and sandy soils.

Mix, who’s also worked with Evergreen grapes, calls it “a pretty special place for whites — especially Riesling and Chardonnay.”

The awards won by wines made from grapes from the two AVAs offer abundant proof of their quality. Since Mix began making wines for Butch’s Milbrandt and Ryan Patrick labels, his red wines have won a flock of gold medals at state and regional competitions and gained national notice. His work for Jerry’s custom crush operation, the Wahluke Wine Co., is in high demand.

As for the Jones family, their longtime winemaker Victor Palencia has consistently won awards for reds, whites and rosés made for Jones and for Palencia’s own Palencia Wine Co. and Monarcha Winery labels.

Wine words: Agraffe, Muselet, Placomusophilie

Once again, it’s time to delve into the abundant array of foreign words borrowed from the French. Agraffe (sometimes agrafe), though officially French, is likely of Germanic origin. It’s the wire cage or basket that encloses the top of a sparkling wine bottle and holds the cork in place despite the 70 to 90 psi of the carbonation inside the bottle.

You’re at least as likely to encounter muselet as agraffe when you’re brushing up on your wine geek speak, and more likely to encounter agraffe in the world of music. It’s also the name for the parts of a grand piano that serve as guides at the turning pin end of a piano string and are turned into the tuning pin block.

The chief assistant to the agraffe/muselet is a metal cap, or helmet, which ensures the pressure can’t spread apart the wires of the agraffe and push the cork through top of the cage and literally pop the cork.

As for placomusophilie, it’s the term for folks who collect the helmets from the bottles of Champagne they’ve drunk and put them into display cases. Yes, just when you thought you had heard of everything.

You might think such matters trivial, but about two dozen people are killed annually by flying Champagne corks — which can be ejected at speeds up to 55 mph — most commonly at weddings. That makes the humble agraffe and its helmet potential lifesavers.

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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