Washington is best known for its vast output of well-made and affordable red and white wines. But it has also been building a reputation for complex reds that rival top California bottlings, often at half the price. The industry is growing, too: In the past decade, Washington has more than tripled its number of wineries and approved six new AVAs (American Viticultural Areas).
Winemaker Chris Camarda is renowned for his site-specific, Bordeaux-style red blends from some of Washington’s greatest vineyards, like Ciel du Cheval (Red Mountain) and Champoux (Horse Heaven Hills). Their tiny quantities and high prices make them inaccessible to most. Fortunately, Camarda also makes a series of excellent, affordable wines that give a taste of his impressive talent.
Superstar consultant Zelma Long is a mentor to Buty Winery’s Caleb Foster and Nina Buty Foster, which helps explain how they achieved fame in so short a time. The couple founded their small Walla Walla winery in 2000, buying grapes from top vineyards while planting their own organically farmed site, Rockgarden. Look for their outstanding bottlings under both Buty and Beast labels.
Gaye McNutt and Ben Smith make Cadence’s stellar Bordeaux-style reds in a warehouse in a less-than-charming industrial Seattle business park. Their grapes, though, come from the Red Mountain region, including famous sites such as Ciel du Cheval, Tapteil and Klipsun, plus their own Cara Mia vineyard.
Chateau Ste. Michelle
Few wineries combine scale and quality as successfully as Chateau Ste. Michelle. Head winemaker Bob Bertheau oversees the two-million- case annual production, which includes some of the most reliably high-quality value wines in the U.S. as well as top offerings such as the Eroica, Ethos and single-vineyard cuvées.
Winemaker Ray Einberger worked at Napa’s famous Opus One winery and at Bordeaux’s Château Mouton Rothschild before joining this value-oriented producer in 1993. His luxury-wine experience set high standards for Columbia Crest, which he officially passed on to protégé Juan Muñoz Oca in 2011.
This smallish Woodinville-based winery raised the bar in Washington in the late 1990s with head-turning, ripe and ageworthy Bordeaux-style blends. Francophile winemaker Chris Upchurch has headed DeLille’s cellar for 20 years, producing impeccably crafted Rhône- and Bordeaux-inspired wines under the Doyenne, Chaleur Estate, D2 and younger Grand Ciel labels.
A FOOD & WINE American Wine Award winner in 2010 for Best New Winery, Gramercy Cellars caused a sensation with its first 2007 Syrahs. Co-founder (along with his wife) and master sommelier Greg Harrington makes the kinds of wines he likes to drink: savory, refined reds that boast modest alcohol, bright acidity and subtle oak.
Hedges Family Estate
The Hedges family has long promoted the Red Mountain district, where Tom and Anne-Marie Hedges broke ground in 1989. Cabernet and Merlot shine in the winery’s two estate-grown reds. Prime grapes sourced from farther afield go into quirky CMS blends and minimalist Independent Producers offerings.
The Hogue Cellars
Started in 1979 with fewer than six acres of Riesling vines planted on the Hogue family’s Columbia Valley farm, Hogue was one of the state’s largest producers by the time brothers Mike and Gary Hogue sold it to wine giant Constellation in 2001. The brand specializes in affordable, aromatic whites (with Riesling still the star), plus well-made Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah.
K Vintners/Charles Smith Wines
Rock-band manager turned vintner Charles Smith (FOOD & WINE’s Winemaker of the Year in 2009) earned instant fame with his Syrah-based K reds. Those high-scoring wines are hard to find and expensive, so fans have been jubilant over Smith’s introduction of affordable labels like Kung Fu Girl Riesling, Boom Boom! Syrah and the Charles & Charles red and rosé.
Brothers Butch and Jerry Milbrandt sell 90 percent of the grapes they grow on their huge Columbia Valley farm; winemaker Josh Maloney uses the remaining 10 percent to make Milbrandt’s wines. His incredible fruit selection, combined with Maloney’s talent, mean that Milbrandt wines succeed at every level—from everyday bottlings to the ambitious Sentinel red.
The internationally known Central Coast vintner Randall Grahm designed this Riesling-focused Columbia Valley brand to complement Asian cuisine. He also helped prove Washington State’s tremendous potential for the grape. Winemaker Nicolas Quillé stayed on when the Mariani family bought Pacific Rim in 2011 and continues to turn out tasty, value-priced Rieslings that range from dry to sweet.
Greg Powers helped his dad plant Badger Mountain Vineyard, the state’s first certified organic wine grape vineyard, before starting his own Powers label. Powers makes a handful of affordably priced wines with grapes sourced from all over the Columbia Valley, but it’s his stellar single-vineyard reds that stand out.
Spring Valley Vineyard
In a state that produces an outsize number of stunning Merlots, Spring Valley’s Uriah Merlot blend is among the best. In 1993 Dean and Shari Derby planted their first vines amid wheat fields on the family’s Walla Walla farm; these south-southwest-facing slopes turned out to be ideally suited to red Bordeaux grapes. All of Spring Valley’s pricey, prestigious reds are estate-grown.
Guitarist Jamie Brown moved to Seattle for the grunge scene but found himself loving good wine as much as great music. Today he’s one of Washington’s rising stars, thanks to his graceful Rhône- and Bordeaux-style Waters reds. Wines of Substance and 21 Grams—Brown’s side projects with another up-and-coming talent, Greg Harrington—have been hits, too.