At that time, the state’s two dozen or so wineries were offering consumers a fairly predictable menu of Riesling, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Semillon, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and little else.
It wasn’t until the early 1990’s that several Washington wineries began producing blended wines with any regularity, and as time progressed and the number of Washington wineries exploded in the decade following, a tasting room that didn’t feature a blend was the exception to the rule.
Today, there may be no better place in Washington to experience the state’s vast array of blended wines than the Woodinville area. The expansion of the area mirrors the popularity and success of Washington blends, and one might even consider Woodinville itself to be the model for a “blended wine community.”
Start with the older, pre-year 2000 wineries that followed pioneers Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia Winery to give Woodinville its solid foundation; add in post-2000 satellite tasting rooms from established Eastern Washington-based wineries; then complete the package with scores of newer wineries who have set up shop here during the past ten years.
Together, this hodgepodge of now over 100 wineries and tasting rooms has blended together to near perfectionevolving into a backyard playground for Seattle-area wine enthusiasts and other Western Washington wineophiles by offering a closer-to-home option to experience a taste of the state’s 850-plus wineries.
WOODINVILLE’S “OLD GUARD”
When Executive Winemaker Chris Upchurch helped co-found DeLille Cellars in 1992 there were only three wineries in the Woodinville area. From its inception, Upchurch was passionate about Bordeaux blends, and he was among the first winemakers in the state to produce them.
“We try to make French-inspired Washington wine, which to us means food-friendly with good acidic balance,” says Winemaker Jason Gorski, who came on board at DeLille in 2011.
With just a few exceptions, most of the wines produced at the winery are blends. “Although we’re not afraid to let a single wine stand by itself, our philosophy is simple,” notes Gorski. “Get the best vineyards you can, make the best (base) wine you can, and start blending.”
The winery’s original Chaleur Estate and Merlot-dominant D2 labels have expanded to include three other Bordeaux-style reds and a Bordeaux white. A separate “Doyenne” label also was added in 1998, and features wines with a Rhone varietal-based focus.
Current releases include the 2014 Chaleur Estate Blanc, a spicy, creamy blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon; the gorgeous 2012 D2 which draws on Merlot for red fruit flavors and Cabernet Sauvignon for structure and balance; and the 2012 Chaleur Estate, a triumvirate of red varietals with a plush, elegant quality that has been known to leave wine enthusiasts swooning.
Visitors to DeLille’s Carriage House Tasting Room will find an unassuming rambler-style house with a tasting area for guests and a private deck for wine club members. Although both areas are primarily undercover, an open-air feature with optional side enclosures gives the facility an “outdoor feel” that most Northwesterners should enjoy.
Despite the recent heavy growth among Woodinville-area wineries, Gorski doesn’t foresee any saturation problems. “I don’t think we’re oversaturated. We consider (other wineries) as a peer group, not a competitive groupand that’s good for Washington wines,” he says.
EAST GOES WEST
Bookwalter Winery was established by Jerry Bookwalter in Richland in the early 1980’s, and among the earliest Washington wineries to produce blended wines under a “Lot No.” label series that continues to this day.
Jerry’s son John joined the business in 1997 and purchased it outright in 2008. During his tenure with the winery, John has revamped the Richland tasting room into a stylish, contemporary venue, given the wine label a repackaging facelift, and opened a second location in Woodinville in 2007, one of the first Eastern Washington wineries to do so.
The Woodinville tasting studio carries an upscale, yet relaxed atmosphere that has made it a favorite with locals and out-of-town visitors alike. The warm interior includes a tasting bar with ample seating, while a separate area with large leather sofas provides more of a private setting. For those who like to do their wine tasting al fresco, patio seating is also available.
Although the competition in Woodinville has gotten a bit fierce as of late, J Bookwalter Tasting Studio Manager Kevin Brendt notes, “There are some great new winemakers coming on to the scene producing incredible wines. This has given us even greater exposure (at our second location).”
Bookwalter Winery has a long history of producing excellent blends, and its current releases – all of which carry labels with a literary reference – are no exception.
The tasting menu includes the 2014 Couplet, a Chardonnay/Viognier combination that Brendt suggests serving with halibut or raw oysters; the 2014 Notebook, an aromatic pairing of Riesling and Muscat; the five-red varietal 2013 Subplot No. 30; and the 2013 Suspense, a Merlot/Cabernet Franc, Conner Lee Vineyard-sourced blend that “drinks like a right bank Bordeaux blend,” says Brendt.
NEW ADDITIONS TO THE MIX
Originally from New Orleans, Bob Harris of Robert Ramsay Cellars grew up in Bellingham and had an epiphany with Rhone varietals at an early age.
“I fell in love with a bottle of Côte-Rôtie that really ‘messed me up’ when I was 19. I thought, somebody made that and I have to try to make something that wonderful,” Harris recalls.
He went on to help launch Coeur d’Alene Cellars in Idaho in 2002 before selling his interest and establishing Robert Ramsey Cellars in the Woodinville Warehouse District in 2005. At that time, he estimates there were fewer than 15 wineries in a part of town that is now home to a densely-packed 40-plus wineries.
“Wineries succeed in groups and we wanted to be there,” says Harris. “There’s also an open and sharing atmosphereand a lot of camaraderie involved.”
Harris shares winemaking duties with Casey Cobble, an Eastern Washington native who joined Robert Ramsey Cellars in 2014. Even though space is at premium at the cozy tasting and barrel room, the wines they produce here – nearly all as Rhone stand-alone varietals or blends – are truly remarkable.
The list of current blends includes the nicely-priced 2014 Mason’s White, a combination of Roussanne and Grenache Blanc with understated stone fruit flavors; the 2012 Le Mien, a silky, spicy red primarily consisting of Grenache and Mourvèdre that Cobble has been told, “is phenomenal with duck”; and the impeccably balanced 2012 La Previa, a seductive, unconventional blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, and Counoise from the Snipes Mountain AVA.
“When I was getting started, everyone was making Cabernet, Merlot and Chardonnay,” Harris recounts with a grin. “And I don’t like to do what everyone else does. It’s not nearly as fun.”
This story was originally published December 14, 2015 3:31 PM.