The Wines of Washington

(folk music, fiddle)>>(narrator)
Eastern Washington State has a rich
agricultural heritage. While famous for the quality
of its apples and sweet onions, Washington is also a major
grower of wheat and hops. But increasingly, the world is
taking notice of the quality of its fine wines.>>Washington’s wine
industry has gone through a tremendous, tremendously
rapid evolution. And the reasons were,
we finally realized what we have here.
Our physical conditions– the soil, the geography,
the climate, the position on the globe–
are really the things that combine to let us
know we can make wine here in Washington. (folk music, fiddle)>>(narrator)
There are striking differences between the eastern and the
western sides of the state.>>Most people, when they
hear Washington State, they probably think about
the west side, Seattle, and the coastline
of Puget Sound, which is a very wet place
for most of the year. But then, right on
the West Coast is the Cascade Mountain Range
that runs north-south, and that basically blocks
almost all the rains going east. The eastern three-quarters
of the state, of Washington State, is actually–
it’s a semi-desert.>>And this desert actually
starts in Mexico. It’s called the
Sonoran Desert. This is just the last little
fingernail of it right here. It’s very dry,
very warm, very unlike the
heavily wooded areas you’d find over
on our coast.>>(narrator)
The challenges in
growing grapes here are different than many
regions around the world. Unlike Napa, there is
no risk from phylloxera and relatively low disease
pressure on the vine. The major issues
for the industry are winter freeze,
spring and fall frosts, and the lack of
precipitation. Water rights for irrigation
are difficult to acquire.>>It gets on average
about seven inches of rain a year. And that is actually one
of the unique advantages that Washington State has,
because we can give water to the plant
when it needs it.>>You add to that weak soils
that have low fertility, lots of sunshine, lots of heat,
and we’re able to ripen a wide range of classic
European grape types.>>(narrator)
Varieties in Washington range from common
to experimental. While the state made its
reputation on Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, attention
is turning toward Syrah and other
Rhône varieties. Additionally, producers
are increasingly willing to take risks working
with lesser known grapes.>>Fortunately, land
prices are low enough here that there’s still a lot of
experimentation going on. That’s not bound–
like, let’s say you go to Napa and you pay $300,000
for an acre. You almost have
to plant Cabernet and charge a hundred bucks
to possibly ever have some expectation of a
profitable business model. Whereas here, you
can still take an acre and put in Aglianico, or throw in a half acre
of Riesling, and see how
it works out. And so, I think there’s still a
really adventurous spirit here.>>(narrator)
Accompanying the
state’s red varieties, Riesling, Chardonnay,
Pinot Gris, and Sauvignon Blanc are widely produced. The region’s rock and
soil profile is unique, the result of past
volcanic activity and the Missoula Floods.>>The Missoula Floods,
as these floods are known, are the largest documented
catastrophic floods in Earth history.>>(narrator)
A vast lake stretching across parts of present day
Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana had formed
behind a series of glaciers at the end of
the last Ice Age.>>So when it broke through,
it swept away the glacier, and it would have carried
icebergs embedded in it the size of
large buildings. And this whole mass
came roaring down across eastern
Washington, and then it all had to
fit through a narrow gap called Wallula Gap. At one point, the water
moving through Wallula Gap would have been approximately
2 or 3 miles wide, 900 feet deep and moving
at about 45 miles an hour for about a
week or so. And that’s a volume
of water equivalent to 10 times the combined flow
of all the world’s rivers. When the flood
waters came down, they would have been
full of sediment. The salt-derived sediment,
granite-derived sediment that was just being
swirled around and ground into a
fine powder and sand.>>(narrator)
The topography of
eastern Washington is littered with rocks and
boulders brought by the floods, adding geologic diversity
to its volcanic past.>>This is a really
great outcrop, because it shows the two
fundamental components of most Columbia Basin
vineyards. One is the
basalt bedrock, which is this really
hard lava material that was erupted
15 million years ago and formed this solid,
dense rock we call basalt that’s really rich
in iron and magnesium. And then, overlying it is
this really soft material that was blown in here
by strong winds after the
Missoula Floods. And the silt has,
actually, a chemistry that’s quite a bit
different from the chemistry of the underlying
basalt, because it has a healthy
component of granite derived from far to the north
and carried in here by the glacier floods.>>(narrator)
When European settlers
arrived in the region, they planted grapes in eastern
Washington’s volcanic loess and alluvial soils. Wine grapes were in the
ground before Washington achieved statehood. But the state’s wine
industry did not really begin to take shape
until the 1970s.>>A lot of the early history
of Washington’s grape industry, wine industry, was built
on juice grapes, Concords.>>The industry got serious
when Professor Walter Clore started scratching
around eastern Washington to find the ideal places
for vinifera wine grapes.>>Chateau Ste. Michelle’s
1972 vintage Riesling beat all the other
competition from Australia, California, and Germany
in a classic taste-off by the Los Angeles Times. So people immediately thought,
“Well, Washington’s north, so it’s got to
grow Riesling.” Well, the truth is, as we
started playing with Chardonnay and Cabernet and Merlot, we
realized that by picking and choosing that right spot,
we could come up with expression and character. (smooth orchestral music) This dry eastern half
of Washington State, where our grapes grow,
is now defined by an overall
appellation. We call it the
Columbia Valley. The Columbia River drains
the entire appellation, so that gave its name to
this viticultural district. The total acreage
for this is huge, but what we’ve been
able to do is identify specific subregions,
sub-appellations within the Columbia Valley
that give us unique character. Yakima Valley is the oldest
of these appellations.>>The Yakima Valley
is reasonably close to the proximity of the
ancient Cascade Mountain Range. So a lot of the soils
are quite volcanic. We have a lot of
sandstone, volcanic pumice. Some of the vineyards
have a lot of gravel.>>It’s broad,
varying altitudes and a real
serious range of grape types that can
be grown successfully in the Yakima Valley.>>What a lot of
people recognize as Washington
State Riesling– that’s the Riesling
from the Yakima Valley.>>(narrator)
At lower elevations, Concord grapes
are common. On the hillsides
and plateaus above, where the risk of frost
and freeze is lessened, wine grapes thrive. Contained wholly
within Yakima Valley are several
smaller AVAs– Rattlesnake Hills,
Snipes Mountain, and Red Mountain.>>The hottest of these
regions is Red Mountain, right in the center. It’s a very
small appellation, but real high heat accumulation
during the growing season.>>Here on Red Mountain, we
kind of separate ourselves from the rest
of that plateau, the Columbia Valley
essentially. Largely because it is
exceptionally dry here. And that dryness actually
changes the character of our soil. And what it does, it allows
the calcium carbonate that blows around
the world– you’ll think of that as
limestone, only it’s dust, limestone dust– blows around the world
and, where it rains, it just dissolves
and goes away. Here, it doesn’t. Here, it forms
pieces of our soil.>>(narrator)
While many varieties can be grown on Red Mountain,
its signature is Cabernet. The grape easily achieves
high levels of tannin and deep color,
and the results are among Washington’s
most distinctive wines. The state’s most recognizable
growing region, however, is the Walla Walla Valley.>>Walla Walla’s unique
for a lot of reasons. One, it’s just a really
charming place, culturally. Walla Walla was like the
center of the Northwest for about 10 or 15 years
before Seattle and Portland really got established
as port cities. We’re a little bit
higher rainfall because of the
Blue Mountains, and so it’s a little greener,
a little lusher. So it’s just not that
really harsh sagebrush, arid desert climate
that you see in so much of eastern Washington,
but yet we’ve still got those really
dry growing seasons.>>Walla Walla is this
unique goulash of soil types and altitude ranges,
and we’re looking at some very specific
character for Merlot, for Syrah, and
Cabernet Sauvignon.>>(narrator)
Walla Walla has a number of individual subregions,
including The Rocks across the Oregon border, and the wetter eastern areas
near the Blue Mountains. Additionally, many
Walla Walla producers source grapes from vineyards
throughout Washington, including Yakima Valley,
Red Mountain, and the
Horse Heaven Hills.>>The Horse Heaven Hills,
where you have reds that focus on these wonderfully
long, elegant tannins. The Cabernet and
the Merlot, to me, are the real stars
from that area. They emerge with finesse
and elegance and length.>>(narrator)
From humble beginnings, Washington has emerged
in the recent decades as one of the United States’
leading producers of fine wine.>>Had you given me a
crystal ball 40 years ago and said that Washington
today would have had well over 800 wineries
and 50,000 acres of classic
grape varieties, I would have said you’re
smoking something funny, okay? But it’s a
reality today.>>(narrator)
There are limitations like water, winter,
and frost. But Washington is
overcoming its challenges. The state’s growers and
winemakers continue to refine their work
with classic grapes, explore new varieties, and
better match their vines to climate
and soil.>>The hero of our
story will always be the terroir
of Washington. It’s why we grow
these grapes. I don’t see a limit on
where we can go with this. There are literally hundreds
of thousands of acres that can be planted and
produce classically styled Washington character,
high quality wine. (elegant classical music)>>(narrator)
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