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Washington Wine Builds on Diverse Climates

Precept's vineyard purchase highlights popularity of sourcing from outside AVA

by Peter Mitham
Washington state AVAs
Less than half of all wineries in Washington state have a vineyard, according to WinesVinesDATA, leading many to source grapes from around the state, thereby diversifying wine style. Source: Washington Wine Commission.
Benton City, Wash.—A month ago Precept Wine Brands LLC acquired the 174-acre Skyfall vineyard near Benton City, the company’s latest deal in an expansion that promises to take sales to 1 million cases this year. Planted with just 32 acres of vineyard as well as 88 acres of sweet cherries and other fruit, Skyfall will see Precept replant more than 68 acres to grapes.

Coupled with the acquisition in May of Yamhela, a Pinot Noir vineyard in the Yamhill-Carlton AVA in Oregon, Precept now boasts approximately 4,200 acres of vineyard across the Northwest.

The purchase was emblematic of winemaking in Washington state, which is distinguished from regions such as neighboring Oregon to the south and British Columbia to the north, where the estate winery model has set the pace.

Washington, by contrast, likes to mix things up.

By the numbers
WinesVinesDATA lists 676 wineries in Washington state, but just 291 (or 43%) have a vineyard.

By contrast, nearly two thirds of the 3,579 wineries listed for California—2,235 (or 62.5%) have their own vineyard. The percentage increases to 72% of the 546 wineries listed in Oregon, and in British Columbia a staggering 192 of the 241 listed wineries (80%) have vineyards.

When fruit wineries are eliminated from each jurisdiction, the proportions increase: In B.C., for example, close to 90% of grape wineries have vineyards.

Washington state may have—as the tag line for the Washington Wine Commission puts it, “the perfect climate for wine”—but wineries have eschewed restrictions on vineyard sources.

Part of the reason lies in division created by the coastal mountain ranges.

Washington state wineries on the cool, wet west side of the Cascades have regularly acquired fruit from vineyards to the east, fuelling a cluster of wineries in the Puget Sound AVA and particularly in the Seattle suburb of Woodinville.

But there’s also significant movement of fruit within the Columbia Valley AVA on the east side.

While subappellations have given prominence to Red Mountain and the Horse Heaven Hills, it’s not uncommon to visit top-ranked wineries in the Walla Walla AVA and find them using fruit from elsewhere in the Columbia Valley.

“You’ve heard all the marketing promotion about Washington state, ‘the ideal climate for wine,’” said Marty Clubb, principal and winemaker at L’Ecole No. 41. “It really is an ideal climate, but periodically you get nipped by one of these Arctic blasts that will come through.”

This was the case in the winter 1996, when being able to draw on a variety of vineyard sites allowed L’Ecole No. 41 to make do despite a crop that was 40% smaller than in 1995.

“Being spread around really made the difference,” he said. “So for us, staying diversified is more important for Washington than for other wine regions. If we didn’t have that risk, then we might ultimately be an only-Walla Walla Valley brand.”

But even in a good year, being able to draw on a diversity of “perfect” microclimates throughout the state lends texture to wineries’ offerings. Within the Columbia Valley, winemakers can tap grapes that produce balanced expressions of particular varieties, or delve into particular viticultural areas and vineyards to draw out specific terroir.

Precept’s purchase of Skyfall is a case in point: It will provide fruit for the reserve tier of wines at Waterbrook Winery in Walla Walla, but contribute something of its own location that Waterbrook has been seeking.

Benefits of the site
David Minick, vice president of vineyard operations for Precept, said the acquisition of Skyfall gives the winery access to a wind-swept site yielding Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah with thicker skins and berries with slightly higher acid levels than from other properties.

“It’s a nice, really warm site (with) lots of down-draft-type winds,” he told Wines & Vines. “But it’s also still the Yakima Valley, so it has the cool, crisp nights so it retains acidity, has some good fruit flavors, but some really nice tannins.”

Steve Warner, president and CEO of the Washington Wine Commission, said the flexibility is something that serves the industry well.

“We would have difficulty working under French regulations and guidelines because we just have so much freedom of creativity,” he said. “(Winemakers) value the availability of a broad range of fruit so they have more to choose from when they’re making their style of wine, or putting their personality into the wine.”

While some might critique the use of fruit from across a range of AVAs by wineries in adjacent AVAs, Warner said the ultimate consolation for many people is in the bottle.

“Some people do really pay attention to where the fruit’s from, but I think there’s also a segment that have tried the wine and they like it regardless of where the fruit’s from,” he said.

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