Top Northwest wine stories of 2015: Nos. 10-1

By on December 24, 2015
A worker operates a mechanical harvest at Hilltop Vineyard near the Yakima Valley town of Zillah, Wash. Chardonnay grapes were brought in Aug. 7 for Treveri Cellars in the Wapato, Wash., making this one of the earliest harvests in state history. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

A worker operates a mechanical harvest at Hilltop Vineyard near the Yakima Valley town of Zillah, Wash. Chardonnay grapes were brought in Aug. 7 for Treveri Cellars in the Wapato, Wash., making this one of the earliest harvests in state history. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

On Wednesday, we took at look at 10 of the top 20 stories in Northwest wine country in 2015. Today, we count down through the top 10 stories. As expected, the year’s historically warm season was a big deal. But it wasn’t the only thing that happened in Northwest wine country.

Here are our top 10 stories of 2015:

10. Deaths: Fred Artz, Jack Jones, Cole Danehower

Cole Danehower

Longtime wine journalist Cole Danehower, a regular panelist at the Great Northwest Wine Competition, died in August. He was 61. (Photo by Eric Degerman/Great Northwest Wine)

The Northwest wine industry lost three family members in 2015:

Fred Artz, a longtime grape grower on Red Mountain, died in February. He was 64. Artz was the longtime manager at Klipsun Vineyards and planted nearby Artz Vineyard in 1996. In 2009, he was honored by the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers with its Lifetime Achievement Award.

Eastern Washington agriculturist and grape grower Jack Jones died in March. Jones owned several vineyards on the Wahluke Slope and Ancient Lakes of Columbia Valley. He was co-owner of J&S Crushing in Mattawa and owner of Jones of Washington winery, which has tasting rooms in Othello and Wenatchee. He was 73.

Cole Danehower, a Portland-based wine writer and author, died in August. He was 61. Danehower was a James Beard Award winner who owned Oregon Wine Report newsletter and Northwest Palate magazine. He also was the author of Essential Wines and Wineries of the Pacific Northwest, which published in 2010.

Read more.

9. Controversy over adjacent-state AVA usage

Christophe Baron stands amid his cobbles at The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater American Viticultural Area.

Christophe Baron, vigneron for Cayuse Vineyards in Milton-Freewater, Ore., stands amid the famous cobblestones at his vineyard. The region now is officially the Rocks District of Milton-Freewater, Oregon’s newest American Viticultural Area. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

With the February approval of the Rocks District of Milton-Freewater came a fair bit of controversy.

The Rocks District is within the Walla Walla Valley but also is entirely within Oregon. This makes it one of the most controversial AVAs in the Northwest because of a quirk in federal law. Because it’s in Oregon, wineries in Washington may not use the new AVA on their labels unless the wine is finished in Oregon. So even wineries such as Dusted Valley Vintners and Saviah Cellars, which are Washington producers that own vineyards in the Rocks District, may not use the new name.

The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) tried to rectify the oddity with a rule change that would allow adjacent states to use AVA names if the grapes came from there. Thus, for example, an Oregon or Nevada winery could put “Napa Valley” on a label if the grapes were purchased from that area of California. Several entities, including the Oregon Wine Board and the Washington State Wine Commission opposed the proposed rule change.

In addition to this, the man primarily responsible for the interest in the Rocks District – Christophe Baron of Cayuse Vineyards – said he has no plans to use the new AVA on his label, even though he is one of the few wineries who legally could because his vineyards and winery are in the Rocks District. The Frenchman said he believes the TTB rules are obsolete and restrictive, plus he doesn’t like the AVA’s name.

Read more.

8. Willamette Valley Vineyards invests in SeVein

Betz Family Winery is buying and planting a vineyard on the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Valley at SeVein.

SeVein is a 2,700-acre vineyard development in the southern Walla Walla Valley near Milton-Freewater, Ore. Willamette Valley Vineyards has purchased land to plant its first estate vineyard there. (Photo courtesy of SeVein)

Not far from the Rocks District of Milton-Freewater is one of the most exciting new vineyard projects in the Pacific Northwest, and a large Oregon winery now has invested in its future.

In June, Willamette Valley Vineyards in Turner, Ore., announced it had purchased 42 acres of land in SeVein, a north-facing area on the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Valley. Jim Bernau, CEO of Willamette Valley Vineyards, has an option to purchase another 45 acres. He is creating a new brand called Pambrun that will use grapes exclusively from SeVein.

Other wineries that already have invested in the intriguing 2,700-acre development are L’Ecole No. 41, Leonetti Cellar, Betz Family Winery, Doubleback, Pepper Bridge Winery, Cadaretta and JM Cellars.

Read more.

7. Lots of vineyard plantings on Red Mountain

Dick Boushey on Red Mountain at Fidelitas Vineyard.

Grape grower Dick Boushey carries greenhouse grape vines to be planted at Fidelitas on Red Mountain. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

It was a busy year for planting new vines on Red Mountain, considered the top wine grape region in Washington. Thanks to the arrival of more water from the Kennewick Irrigation District, vineyards were going in fast on Red Mountain.

Leading the way was Aquilini, a British Columbia company that purchased more than 600 acres of land in and adjacent to the Red Mountain AVA. This year, it worked to plant 545 acres of vineyards on Red Mountain – mostly Cabernet Sauvignon.

Also planting vines on Red Mountain included Fidelitas Wines, Gamache Vintners and Force Majeure. As a result, about 2,000 acres of vines are now planted within Red Mountain’s 4,040 acres.

This year also marked the 40th anniversary of the first vines planted on Red Mountain by John Williams and Jim Holmes at Kiona Vineyards & Winery.

Read more.

6. Charles Smith opens Jet City winery

Charles Smith is one of the largest wine producers in Washington state.

Since arriving in Walla Walla in 1999, Charles Smith has kept his eye on the prize: making great wine. In 2015, he moved his operation to Seattle. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

Charles Smith, the enigmatic Walla Walla winemaker who has built a Washington wine empire, moved his operation to the Georgetown neighborhood of Seattle.

In July, Smith opened his Charles Smith Jet City facility at the northern end of Boeing Field in a 51-year-old former Dr Pepper bottling plant. The 32,000-square-foot facility can handle about 40,000 cases of production.

Smith and his team have moved the entire operation to Seattle, where they hope to tap into a new and vibrant wine scene. He still operates two tasting rooms in Walla Walla. Since launching K Vintners in 1999, Smith has built his operation into a 650,000-case wine empire, making Charles Smith Wines the third-largest wine producer in the state after Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and Precept Wine, both based in the Seattle area.

Read more.

5. Northwest wines dominate Wine Spectator top 100

Harvey Steiman is editor at large for Wine Spectator with a focus on Washington, Oregon and Idaho.

Harvey Steiman is editor at large for Wine Spectator with a focus on Washington, Oregon and Idaho. (Photo courtesy of Wine Spectator)

Through the years, wines from Washington and Oregon have traditionally fared well in Wine Spectator’s top 100 list. But 2015 was pretty special.

Of the top 50 wines on the list, Northwest wines dominated, holding 20 percent of the positions, including the Nos. 2 and 3 wines. Harvey Steiman, editor-at-large for Wine Spectator who covers Washington and Oregon for the world’s largest and most respected wine periodical, said the Quilceda Creek Vintners 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon was close to being the No. 1 wine in the world.

That is something that has happened only once: In 2009, the Columbia Crest 2005 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon was Spectator’s wine of the year.

Read more.

4. Washington, Oregon wines continue incredible growth

Randall Hopkins, co-owner of Corvus Cellars in Walla Walla, offers to share wine during the picnic portion at the 2013 Auction of Washington Wines in Woodinville, Wash.

Randall Hopkins, co-owner of Corvus Cellars in Walla Walla, offers to share wine during the picnic portion at the 2013 Auction of Washington Wines in Woodinville, Wash. (Photo by Richard Duval/Courtesy of Auction of Washington Wines)

Northwest wine regions are only growing stronger, according to new economic reports.

In September, a new economic impact study showed Washington’s wine industry has continued its success, growing to 4.78 billion per year and providing 26,900 jobs. Washington is the country’s No. 2 wine-producing state, with California a dominant No. 1. Read more.

And according to a similar study released in January, Oregon’s wine industry provides $3.3 billion to the state’s bottom line. Wine-related jobs in Oregon top 17,000. Oregon is the No. 4 wine-producing state, after New York. Read more.

3. Northwest wine countries survive drought

The WestWide Drought Tracker indicates the mean temperature during the winter months of 2014-15 and its departure from the 1981-2010 norm.

The WestWide Drought Tracker indicates the mean temperature during the winter months of 2014-15 and its departure from the 1981-2010 norm. (Map courtesy of University of Idaho/Desert Research Institute)

Water woes filled headlines up and down the West Coast, but the Northwest was able to weather the lack of water better than California. Most wine regions in the Pacific Northwest managed to make it through the historically hot year, with the Yakima Valley of Washington being the most-affected area by the state’s drought.

As the year comes to an end, snow accumulation in the Cascade Mountains of Washington and Oregon already are reportedly higher than they’ve been for the previous couple of years, providing potential relief to Northwest grape growers.

Read more.

2. Hot, early 2015 vintage across Northwest

Early harvest in the Yakima Valley

Workers pick Chardonnay grapes Aug. 7 at a vineyard near Zillah, Wash. This was one of the earliest harvests in the history of Washington’s wine industry. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

The 2015 vintage will be remembered as the warmest on record. And in Washington, it likely will be another record.

Across the Northwest, wine grapes matured quickly and were harvested at historically early times. In Washington, the first grapes were picked on Red Mountain on Aug. 6, nearly a month earlier than normal. This trend was seen in Oregon, British Columbia and Idaho, too.

Harvest also ended a couple of weeks earlier than usual, and British Columbia icewine producers also were able to get to work early, thanks to a November freeze that turned their remaining grapes into frozen marbles.

Early indications are that wineries are pleased with their young wines so far.

Read more.

1. Wine Science Center opens

Washington State University Tri-Cities unveils the Ste. Michelle Wine Estates Wine Science Center on Thursday, June 4, 2015 in Richland, Wash. (Photo by Eric Degerman/Great Northwest Wine)

Washington State University Tri-Cities unveils the Ste. Michelle Wine Estates Wine Science Center on Thursday, June 4, 2015 in Richland, Wash. (Photo by Eric Degerman/Great Northwest Wine)

In August, the Wine Science Center opened for business. This means 2015 will be remembered as the year of the Wine Science Center. The $23 million facility on the campus of Washington State University Tri-Cities in Richland ushers in a new era for the state wine industry.

When the completed facility was unveiled in June, a new name also was revealed: the Ste. Michelle Wine Estates WSU Wine Science Center, which honors the contributions of the state’s largest and oldest wine-producing company.

The 40,000-square-foot facility will not only educate the next generation of Washington winemakers, but it also provides the space and technology to conduct and provide research that will help grape growers and winemakers improve their crafts. The Wine Science Center is led by Thomas Henick-Kling, who arrived at WSU in 2009 with the goal of building the facility.

Read more.

About Great Northwest Wine

Articles authored by Great Northwest Wine are co-authored by Eric Degerman and Andy Perdue. In most cases, these are wine reviews that are judged blind by the Great Northwest Wine tasting panel.

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