ANYTHING GROWS: THE STORY OF WINE IN WASHINGTON STATE
I checked. There is nearly 34 inches of rain in Britain every year, on average. No wonder we talk about weather so much. In the vineyard region of Red Mountain in Washington state, they're lucky to get seven.
In Red Mountain, they talk about dust.
It's a misnomer though, because much of the land there is green with vines, suckled up from the barren earth by irrigation.
Come to think of it, there's no mountain either.
The native scrub is ligneous and herbaceous, a thirstless plant for these rolling deserts. Everything at ground level is blanched pebble grey, not red - everything except the vineyards, which appear incongruously verdant, their lush leaf canopy defying the dust from which they sprout.
Jim Holmes sifts it through his fingers. It's a kind of sandy loam, infertile and unpromising. When he bought land here in the 1970s, nobody else wanted it. His first idea was to build a shopping mall. But then he got water rights, and from his desert sprang an oasis.
But Red Mountain isn’t the first vineyard you encounter in Washington State, when driving east from Seattle.
CHAPTER ONE: AWASH WITH VINES
California may be known as America's fruit basket, but Washington is thebiggest producer of apples, cherries, pears, peas, carrots and hops in the United States, and nowadays wine grapes are increasingly important too. Vines grow alongside other crops in a way that contradicts the traditional European wisdom that the best site for viticulture is where nothing else will grow. But that was before modern irrigation systems were invented.
The main American Viticultural Area (AVA) in Washington State is called Columbia Valley, and it encompasses 99% of the vineyard area. There are 10 sub-AVAs inside its boundaries - including Red Mountain - and two others outside.
Columbia Valley is therefore what you're most likely to see on a bottle of Washington state wine. And in a land where anything grows, winemakers are able to use pretty much whichever grape variety takes their fancy. That means all the ones most people have probably heard of - Merlot, Syrah, Riesling, Chardonnay - and plenty they probably haven't - Dolcetto, Mourvèdre, Albariño and Roussanne.
What's remarkable is that they are able to make good wines from all these different varieties. Most vineyard regions specialise - Oregon is known for Pinot Noir, Bordeaux is famed for Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, Rioja is all about Tempranillo - whereas Washington state is faced with an embarrassment of riches, and that is as much of a curse as it is a blessing.
"Wine in Washington state came out of dumb luck, and that's the way it continues" - Sarah Linnemeyer, Wine Education Ambassador at Columbia Winery
The first problem is how to promote wine when it varies so widely. That lack of coherence is a marketing minefield. It's much easier to be a specialist than a generalist because your message can be so much more focused. The problem is confounded by the fact that millions of bottles say Columbia Valley on the label instead of Washington, meaning that people drinking it probably aren't aware of the association.
The second is that it undermines the credibility of terroir, the concept that underpins wine quality around the world. Soil makes a difference to wine quality - that's one of the few things that everyone in the wine world agrees on. When irrigation facilitates the production of virtually anything, the importance of soil is necessarily upstaged.
CHAPTER TWO: SOILED GOODS
Back at Red Mountain, we have a tasting at Hedges winery. The wines are spectacular. Their AVA is emblazoned proudly across their labels, and the reds display the sort of profoundness and purity which is normally credited to the vineyard.
Is this the flavour of the dust that lies in Red Mountain, then? That doesn't mean that the wine should literally taste like particles of earth, rather that there should be something unique about these wines. Something that can't be repeated elsewhere. Something to reflect that distinctive terroir.
Or is drip irrigation a more influential factor, giving the vines an easy life, distorting the true imprint of the land with its on-demand nipple of nourishment?
"The diversity of soil means there is no single Red Mountain style" - Jim Holmes, pioneer of the Red Mountain AVA
Perhaps, when the wines are this good, reasons shouldn't matter. Yet wine is prized above all as a product of place, a liquid incarnation of its origin. For Red Mountain to justify its existence, it needs something more compelling than a story about having nearly become a shopping mall.
The same goes for the rest of the wine of Washington state. Without a crucial point of difference, it is difficult to capture the imagination of the wine drinker amid the profusion of vinous stories from all around the world, all clamouring for attention.
It may be unfair, but being good at everything simply isn't enough.
CHAPTER THREE: FINDING FOCUS
So how should Washington present itself to the rest of the wine-drinking world?
Following the tactic of other regions and focusing on on one or two key varieties doesn't seem likely. There are too many contenders, and too little agreement between producers as to which should be chosen.
Promoting the 13 state AVAs is something of a non-starter too. Columbia Valley has limited cachet, whereas the sub-appellations suffer from the same benefit as the entire state: a profusion of styles makes the message too mixed. To make matters worse, two of the appellations cross the state boundary, so if you were have a bottle labelled Columbia Gorge (which is already too easily confusable with Columbia Valley) or Walla Walla Valley you couldn't be sure if it came from Washington or Oregon.
Some producers prefer to emphasise particular vineyards as their USP. W.T. Vintners, for example, favour vineyard over AVA on their front labels. The top wines of the Andrew Will winery are also known primarily from their vineyard designation - Champoux, Ciel du Cheval, Two Blondes.
These could become brands in their own right, thereby adding value to any wine carrying the name, and there might be many different producers making wines from such sites.
Or perhaps personalities should become the calling card of Washington wine. Charles Smith is one of the state's best known individuals (and wine brands), although his uncompromising rock star attitude can upset as many as it impresses - and indeed, that's the point. He is an ambassador for the region by sheer force of character.
Wines of interest should evince those that made it, whether they are austere and introverted or flamboyant and expressive, because human stories are integral to the story of wine. In Washington state, you can meet winemakers who are nuclear research scientists, sommeliers, farming tycoons, recording engineers, reclusive enigmas and smarmy marketeers. All these disparate individuals are brought together by wine. It's a compelling angle, but decanting such a contrary bunch into one coherent message is virtually impossible by definition.
In that way, Washington state's problems are no different to dozens of other regions round the world who are aiming to establish themselves in the hearts, minds and glasses of wine drinkers.
In the meantime, they await discovery, a treasury of excellence offering something to suit every palate - if only people knew.
And now you do.
My trip to Washington state was funded by the Washington State Wine Commission, whom I thank.
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All images, video and text in this article are © Richard Hemming 2016.