Thursday, September 26, 2019

Going a Distance for Grapes

As a general rule, wineries and their vineyards are contiguous, or at most a few miles apart. Not so in Washington, where wineries in the western part of the state are separated by hundreds of miles from their grapes in the eastern part of the state. 

This long-distance reality came home to me in August when I spent two days traveling with my son, Sean, visiting four vineyards where he gets grapes from in the Columbia Valley of eastern Washington.  Sean is the co-owner and winemaker of Sightglass Cellars, in Woodinville. He and his wife Kristin jokingly say that Sean is the President of Sightglass Cellars and Kristin is the Chief Financial Officer. 

Each year, as harvest nears in Autumn, winemakers like to personally check the health and ripeness of the grapes they are going to get. For winemakers operating out of western Washington that means driving up to 300 miles, east across the Cascade Mountain Range and into the Columbia Valley where the state's numerous American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) are spread over a vast area. 

Our four-vineyard trip would cover hundreds of miles, which meant we had to get on the road by 5:30 am to beat the commuter traffic that crawled up and down the east side of the Puget Sound. In recent years, I had become used to sleeping in, so five-thirty seemed like the middle of the night to me. 

The morning was overcast, but by 7 am we were heading down the east side of the Cascades on I-90. As the sky began to clear, the sun was well above the horizon and the heavy dark clouds were now behind us. But we were still 35 miles to Ellensburg and a welcome pit stop and a cup of coffee.

About 30 miles past Ellensburg, we turned onto Highway 243, heading south to the town of Matawa, along the Columbia River. Last year, Sean got a couple of tons of Syrah from Stonetree Vineyard on the Wahluke Slope, outside Matawa. This year his Syrah will come from a vineyard in the Rocks, a sub-appellation of the Walla Walla AVA, in southeastern Washington. 

But, anxious to stretch our legs, we stopped briefly at Stonetree and then headed for Red Mountain and Artz Vineyard, owned by Kiona Vineyards and Winery.

Artz Sauvignon Blanc
It was mid-morning when Sean and I pulled into Artz Vineyard and we were ready to finally sample some Sauvignon Blanc. It was still cool, the reason perhaps why the grapes were still a little tart. Sean likes Artz Sauvignon Blanc because, as he says, "The canopy (leafy tendrils that shade the grape clusters) at Artz allows good shading of the fruit, helping to reduce sunburn and over ripeness." Sean estimated that harvest was still 10 days away. (He wasn't far off. The grapes were picked on Sept 3.)

Red Mountain has a reputation for red wine, but while we were at Kiona Vineyards, Scott Williams, his father John and sons J.J. and Tyler, set out a tasting of white wines for us that included: 2018 Sightglass Cellars Sauvignon Blanc, 2018 Fidelitas Semillon, 2016 L'Ecole No. 431 Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc blend, 2018 Kiona Chenin Blanc and 2016 Kiona Gewurztraminer.  

Except for the Gewurtz that was all soft and sweet lychee fruit and the floral Chenin Blanc with pineapple overtones, the other white wines provided a good contrast. Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon are often paired in dry and sweet blends, such as in Bordeaux blanc and Sauternes. The l'Ecole Sauvignon/Semillon was a seamless blend with good texture. Bracketing the l'Ecole was a deep gold figgy Fidelitas Semillon and a bright Sightglass Sauvignon Blanc showing hints of grapefruit rind. 

It had been a long day and while we would have liked to linger longer at the tasting, we headed to our hotel in Richland and a very nice Thai restaurant down by the river. 

The following day we were scheduled to check the grapes at Stillwater Creek Vineyard,  outside Royal City. But, as we headed out of Richland, Sean suggested a stop at the impressive Washington State University Wine Science Center. Opened in 2015, the center has a student winery, classrooms, laboratories and an extensive wine library. The Wine Science Center is a valuable resource for the growers and winemakers in eastern Washington as well as a learning center for those students entering the Washington wine industry. 

Next stop was the Conner Lee Vineyard, near the town of Othello. Conner Lee is a sprawling vineyard on a flatland, surrounded by acres of blueberries. The Chardonnay that Sean was getting from Conner Lee looked and tasted like it was ready to pick by mid-September.  Cabernet Franc, on the other hand, had not fully gone through veraison (the stage when grapes begin to change color and soften) and probably would not be ready for harvest until the middle of October. As we climbed back in to the car, I was tempted by the ripe plump blueberries, almost within reach, but they belonged to another grower. 

Our last stop was Stillwater Creek Vineyard, stretched along the Royal Slope, in the Frenchman Hills.  We were met there by vineyard manager Ed Kelly and his active Border Collie Sage, who stood by with a large grape vine in her mouth, eagerly waiting for someone to play toss-the-stick.  Sean couldn't resist.

Stillwater Creek Cabernet Franc
 Stillwater Creek is an important source of grapes for Sightglass Cellars. The vines are planted on a mix of fractured basalt and sand, an ideal medium for Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon. At the Release Party held recently at Sightglass Cellars in Woodinville, I found the 2017 Stillwater Cabernet Franc packed with  bright blueberry-like flavors, nicely integrated acidity and tannins and good length. 

The two-day tour of the vineyards was a good opportunity for me to connect the vineyards with the wines. For Sean it was another pre-harvest look at the grapes, one that would be repeated again next week.


Please contact me at for my policy on submitting wine samples. Unsolicited samples will be returned to sender. 

Next Blog: Pinot Noir Two Ways 


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