A half-hour drive to the northeast of Seattle is the town of Woodinville, population 10,000 or so. It is home to about 70 wineries and tasting rooms.
Washington and wineries. Nothing unusual about that pairing. Except for the fact that Woodinville is not in a grape-growing region. Being located between the Pacific Ocean and the Cascade Mountains assures it is wet and cloudy, more suited to the growing of trees than grapes.
What Woodinville has going for it, though, is its close proximity to Seattle, population 620,000, a coastal seaport that has been quite a wealthy community since early entrepreneurs started turning trees into money.
Out visit started out just where the area’s connection to wine did, at Chateau Ste. Michelle. An estate built in the Columbia Valley in 1912 by lumber baron Frederick Stimpson would eventually become home to Washington’s first winery. The winery’s roots go back to the post-prohibition era, when the Pommerelle Wine Company and the National Wine Company were formed, eventually to merge to become American Wine Growers (AWG) in 1954. In 1967, AWG started a new label of wines made from premium vinifera grapes that it called Ste. Michelle Vintners.
In 1976, a French-style chateau was constructed in Woodinville and it became home to the newly named Chateau Ste. Michelle. In 37 years, it has become one of the country’s largest and most honoured producers and it now has 3,500 of vineyards in other parts of the state. Only white wines are made in the Woodinville winery.
We took a short, free tour that finished with a couple of wine samples, then went out onto the property to check out the huge stage that plays home to dozens of concerts each year. Performers this summer included the likes of Garrison Keillor, Steve Miller, Robert Plant, Pat Benatar, Chris Botti, David Byrne, Counting Crows, Gypsy Kings, Lyle Lovett, Gladys Knight, The O’Jays, Harry Connick Jr. and Chris Isaak. Not a bad lineup.
With Chateau Ste. Michelle acting as an anchor and drawing thousands of visitors to Woodinville, it eventually occurred to other wineries that they should capitalize on the opportunity. Now the area is dotted with tasting rooms. We pulled into one development that looked like nothing so much as a strip mall, and found five tasting rooms, a restaurant and a State Farm Insurance office. Across the street was an even longer strip mall, home to tasting rooms that include the fabulous Long Shadows, which we have enjoyed touring and tasting at the Walla Walla winery location.
We walked along the sidewalk, first rejecting a visit to a tasting room that charged $15 per tasting, and were drawn into another, because we liked the sign outside the door and the winery’s. The sign read, “Weekend Forecast: Stained Teeth And Good Times.” The winery was Dusted Valley. Inside we had a lovely visit, of the sort that made us wine tourists 25 years ago. The hostess was knowledgeable and enthusiastic and we learned much about the people and the wines of Dusted Valley. The tasting revealed impeccably made wines — Chardonnay, Cab Franc, Cab Sauv, Syrah, Petit Verdot, Grenache, Malbec, Mourvedre and blends — from some superb vineyards.
We enjoyed a very nice lunch at the Barking Frog and did another couple of tastings before heading back to Seattle. Had we stayed we could have visited the tasting rooms of some our Walla Walla favourites, like Pepperbridge and Forgeron, and Prosser treats like Kestrel, Alexandria Nicole and Airfield. Many of Washington’s most highly regarded wines are to be found in Woodinville tasting rooms and a number of the wineries represented are named in Wine Spectator’s top 100 wineries in the world list. And a visit allows for the tasting of wines made from grapes grown in all major Washington vineyard areas.
We won’t visit Seattle again without taking at least a day out in Woodinville.
Lorne Eckersley is publisher of the Creston Valley Advance. His website, www.lorneeckersley.com, features a collection of columns, stories and photographs about wine, beer and spirits, food, travel and arts.