Washington State, the farthest northwest of the 48 contiguous United States, has a population of nearly 7 million, nearly half of which reside in the Seattle metropolitan area. Its original residents, Native American tribes who thrived on the salmon and wildlife that inhabited the diverse landscape, live on more than 30 reservations throughout the state. The Europeans discovered this diverse region in the 1770s, and were the first to plant wine grapes in the fertile valleys and hillsides.
The title “Evergreen State” is somewhat of a fallacy, as more than half the state is relatively devoid of the firs and hemlocks that dominate the landscape west of the Cascades. Within its 71,000 square miles of geographic diversity are rainforests, deserts, mountains and plateaus in relatively close proximity, creating a multitude of agricultural opportunities and outdoor activities. The same glaciers that form the topography of the region are also responsible for the incredibly successful production of vinifera, primarily east of the Cascades, where a relatively dry climate with large areas of semiarid steppe and arid deserts create a vast rain shadow. Whereas the western side of the Olympic Peninsula receives as much as 160 inches of precipitation annually (the wettest area in the 48 conterminous states), as little as 6 inches of rain falls in the semi-arid climate east of the Cascades.
In the mid-1800s, immigrant settlers planted grapes in the upper Yakima Valley; nearly 150 years later, this area would be home to more than one-third of Washington’s vineyards (16,000+ acres) producing nearly 50 varietals. What makes this area so special? Winemakers and drinkers alike can thank the Missoula floods, a massive event created from giant ice dams that swept through the area at the end of the last ice age that deposited silt, sand, and gravel that today, rest gently below most of Eastern Washington’s vines. Adding to the soil complexity were volcanic eruptions that spewed forth vast quartz and mica deposits; prime ingredients of the sandy sediment that gives Washington wines their discernible mineral overtones.
The state’s first commercial vineyards were planted in an effort to diversify farms – in fact, many fruit farms have given way to viticultural pursuits. Among the first successful wineries putting Washington on the map in the 1970s and early 1980s were Chateau St. Michelle, Associated Vintners (now Columbia Winery), Leonetti Cellars, Kiona Vineyards, Hogue Cellars, Chinook Wines, Barnard Griffin Wines, and L'Ecole No. 41.
The popularity of wine tasting in Washington State has grown exponentially in the past two decades. The most visited areas for wine tourists are the Woodinville Wine Country and Walla Walla. While Woodinville is less than 30 minutes from downtown Seattle, Walla Walla is in a somewhat more remote area of the state (approximately four hours west of Portland), with an AVA that extends into the state of Oregon. The Lake Chelan AVA, one of the state’s newest AVAs, is also a fast-growing tasting region. Located approximately 4 hours northeast of Seattle, it boasts the beauty of the glacially-formed 1,500-foot deep Lake Chelan. Immensely popular for outdoor activities, it is also developing a reputation for scenic tasting rooms and respectable wines.