In search of Washington Pinot Noir

By on January 5, 2013

On occasion, we are asked about Washington Pinot Noir. It’s a question that is becoming easier to answer, though examples remain scarce.

Salishan Vineyards

More than a decade ago, we would have had just a couple of choices, the best of which was the now-defunct Salishan Vineyards near the town of La Center.

On a visit there around 2002, Joan Wolverton (a former Seattle newspaper reporter) told tales of nearby Mount St. Helens erupting in 1980. She also described the area she and husband Linc turned to vineyards as basically being a northern extension of the Willamette Valley (without the river, of course). Sadly, the winery simply was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It couldn’t get traction with Oregon Pinot Noir followers, nor could it attract Washington wine lovers who gravitated toward the warm Columbia Valley. It finally closed in 2006, 30 years after its first vintage.

Finding Washington Pinot Noir

Today, the largest-production Washington Pinot Noir is not labeled as such. Domaine Ste. Michelle‘s sparkling rosé uses Pinot Noir primarily from the cooler Yakima Valley. On an annual basis, winemaker Rick Casqueiro makes the equivalent of 27,000 cases of Washington Pinot Noir into beautiful bubbly.

Two of the most obvious places to look for Washington Pinot Noir are the Columbia Gorge and Puget Sound AVAs – the only Washington appellations not in the Columbia Valley. Delicious cool-climate Pinot Noir has been grown in the Gorge for decades, particularly at Celilo Vineyards.

Fewer than 100 acres of wine grapes are grown in the Puget Sound AVA, but some are Pinot Noir. Bainbridge Island Winery is occasionally able to ripen Pinot Noir, as does Hollywood Hills Vineyards in Woodinville. In the Skagit Valley town of Concrete, Challenger Ridge also makes Pinot Noir.

Some solid Washington Pinot Noir is being grown in Okanogan County just south of the Canadian border (in fact, Chateau Ste. Michelle made a small bottling of Pinot Noir from those grapes in 2006 and 2007 as part of its limited-release “Fringes” series).

A small amount of Washington Pinot Noir is grown at Evergreen Vineyard in the new Ancient Lakes of Columbia Valley AVA near the town of Quincy. Domaine Ste Michelle gets some of these grapes.

And we are seeing some delicious examples of Washington Pinot Noir from the Lake Chelan region, which tends to be fairly moderate.

A bit of Washington Pinot Noir is even grown in the eastern Walla Walla Valley, up the slopes of the lower Blue Mountains. Many years ago, Rick Small at Woodward Canyon made Pinot Noir from these grapes.

Washington Pinot Noir

Ginkgo Forest Winery on Washington’s Wahluke Slope makes a small amount of Washington Pinot Noir.

Where we don’t expect to find Washington Pinot Noir are the warm areas: Red Mountain, Horse Heaven Hills and Wahluke Slope. Yet the folks at Ginkgo Forest Winery, one of the few wineries in the AVA, inexplicably grow Pinot Noir (Dijon clone 777) amid big reds such as Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon – and it’s pretty darned tasty. Here’s our review:

Ginkgo Forest Winery 2008 Estate Pinot Noir, Wahluke Slope, $24
Recommended: Because of its natural ripeness, this example shows off rich purple aromas that are Syrah-like with notes of plum pie with mincemeat, along with notes of graphite, cherries and sage. On the palate, it reveals flavors of plums, raspberries, cola, spice and dried cherries. This is not a prototypical Pinot Noir, yet it is a delicious example of a warm-climate wine. (94 cases, 13.6% alc.)

About Andy Perdue

Andy Perdue is the editor and publisher of Great Northwest Wine. He is a third-generation journalist who has worked at newspapers since the mid-1980s and has been writing about wine since 1998. He co-founded Wine Press Northwest magazine with Eric Degerman and served as its editor-in-chief for 15 years. He is a frequent judge at international wine competitions. He is the author of "The Northwest Wine Guide: A Buyer's Handbook" (Sasquatch, 2003) and has contributed to four other books. He writes about wine for The Seattle Times. You can find him on Twitter and .

2 Comments

  1. Stanley Thompsen

    January 22, 2013 at 12:09 pm

    Very interesting topic, Andy. Thank you. A few other comments:

    ** I believe there is plenty of opportunity to grow high-quality pinot noir in Washington, at least to the quality level exhibited by Oregon and California. In addition to the marketing challenge you mention, a huge problem has been the right/best vineyard sites for pinot noir have yet to be identified and planted.

    ** Washington may have the opportunity to make pinot noir in the style of Burgundy–more so than Oregon and California–due to the greater similarity of climate.

    ** Chelan Estate makes a nice pinot noir–check out their 2006 vintage, available at retail.

    ** The Woodward Canyon pinot noir you mentioned was very, very good. I wish they still made it.

    Stanley T

  2. Andy Perdue

    January 22, 2013 at 7:40 pm

    Stanley,

    Thank you for the thoughtful comments.

    You are correct that perception and marketing are the two biggest barriers to Washington Pinot Noir being successful.

    That said, the allure of the grape keeps the passion turning, and I think there are opportunities for small-lot producers to make a strong statement with Pinot Noir in Washington state.

    Yes, Lake Chelan has tons of possibilities. So does the Ancient Lakes AVA, as the Milbrandts already are proving. And we’ve seen a fair bit of success in the Oroville/Tonasket area. The latter, of course, is close to the Okanagan Valley, where many superb Pinot Noirs are being crafted – somewhat in stealth mode.

    And I don’t want to rule out the Puget Sound AVA, but it might just be too chilly most years.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>