Columbia Valley: Too Big For Its Own Good?

Leslie Kelly explains the enduring power of Washington's largest wine region.

It’s mighty difficult to get your head around the massive Columbia Valley. While the newest American Viticultural Area wine-growing regions (AVAs) seem to effortlessly grab attention—get a load of the sexy sandy loam high up on Naches Heights!—Washington state’s largest grape-growing region often gets left out of the discussion of what’s hot. Some even contend that its identity is completely watered down.

“It’s too big to have any meaning,” says Michael Teer, owner of Pike & Western Wine Merchants and Soul Wine. “As an appellation, it just doesn’t have the unique characteristics you look for in a viticultural area, especially these days when more and more specific AVAs are being identified.”

Columbia Valley is huge, no doubt. It covers about 11 million acres, roughly one-third of the state’s entire landmass. Nearly 99 percent of the grapes grown in Washington come from Columbia Valley. And all those highly regarded subappellations, such as Red Mountain and Walla Walla? They are found within its vast borders.

Back in the 1980s, when there were just a handful of wineries in the state, Allen Shoup—then head of Chateau Ste. Michelle—advocated for branding Columbia Valley as the sole Washington state AVA before chunks splintered off into smaller growing regions. “We should have taken a lesson from Napa Valley, but that didn’t happen,” he says.

Many of the state’s most prestigious producers of Cabernets, Chardonnays and just about every other vinifera varietal in the state—Betz, Gramercy Cellars and L’Ecole No. 41, to name just a few—proudly identify the Columbia Valley on their labels. Yet the AVA is also becoming synonymous with bargain wines, because of the sheer volume of wine produced with Columbia Valley fruit, giving the AVA a bit of an identity crisis. “It can be confusing,” concedes Ryan Pennington from the Washington Wine Commission. Still, the champions of the Columbia Valley believe in the power of this rambling region to continue to define what’s unique about Washington state to the rest of the world.

“The best way to look at Columbia Valley is as a broad foundation that’s part of an emerging region,” says seasoned vintner Bob Betz, who began his wine industry career in the communications department at Chateau Ste. Michelle and whose Betz Family Winery 2009 Père de Famille Cabernet Sauvignon, from the Red Mountain region within Columbia Valley, just won Seattle magazine’s red wine of the year award for 2012. “Think of it as Bordeaux before people began talking about Saint-Julien [one of the famous subappellations in France]. It’s a way of helping create awareness for wine drinkers around the country and the world. Like Napa did for California.”

The appellation’s size is its strength for winemakers like Greg Harrington of Gramercy Cellars. “It’s really about making the best wine,” says Harrington, who labels many of his raved-about releases with “Columbia Valley,” taking full advantage of the AVA’s size and diversity of microclimates. “Having the ability to blend varietals from different parts of the AVA helps us achieve the balance we’re looking for in our wines.”

Greg Lipsker of Barrister Winery, in Spokane, believes the beauty of drawing on Columbia Valley is most apparent during blending. “It’s like conducting a symphony,” he says. “You can take the refined elegance of Walla Walla—the earthiness of Pepper Bridge and the softness of Seven Hills—and combine it with the big, structured fruit from Red Mountain and the bold flavors from hidden gems on the Wahluke Slope, and see how they work together.”

For Marcus Notaro, winemaker at Col Solare—part of Ste. Michelle Wine Estate’s fruitful partnership with Italian winemaking icon Antinori—Columbia Valley is almost another way of acknowledging the unique quality of eastern Washington. “Sure, it’s a large region, but there is a certain consistency in the soil. It’s got the long days of sunlight during the summer months and it cools off at night to create that great acid. Those conditions make it better for the grower to manage the grapes.”

Washington Wine Commission’s Pennington echoes that sentiment. “In a way, Columbia Valley has become synonymous with Washington wine. Just because it’s big doesn’t mean it lacks identity. Cabernet and Chardonnay might dominate the plantings, but there’s incredible diversity, too.”

As Pennington and others see it, it’s Columbia Valley’s consistency that makes the region unusually productive for so many varietals.

And isn’t that depth and diversity what make Washington wines so appealing to consumers?

Leslie Kelly’s Columbia Valley Wine Picks

Gramercy Cellars 2009 Third Man ($45)
This southern Rhône-inspired blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre just might win over the most ardent Bordeaux booster. It’s got the robust richness of a great Cab, but also lots of warm spice and a long finish. The Columbia Valley wine’s velvety character makes it a fine partner for a hearty Northwest bouillabaisse.

Barrister Winery NV Rough Justice ($21)
Since this Spokane winery’s debut release more than seven years ago, this non-vintage blend has been crazy popular. And why not? It includes fruit from some of the state’s most renowned vineyards (Pepperbridge, Bacchus, Weinbau, Seven Hills) to create a value-driven wine with a whole lot of character. The dark berry and plum flavors and muted tannins make it a versatile food partner; it really shines alongside Mediterranean-style lamb kabobs.

L’Ecole No. 41 2010 Semillon ($15)
Just my favorite white wine in the world. Sure, there are others bearing higher price tags that will occasionally contend, but over the decades, this Columbia Valley wine has become a go-to winner. Whether it’s sipped as an aperitif with some stinky cheese or poured with pasta, this wine’s got a lively, lean quality that brightens up all sorts of food. Sauvignon Blanc (14 percent in this vintage) adds to the crisp complexity; this wine is made with fruit from Klipsun, Rosebud, Fries, Stillwater Creek, Les Collines and L’Ecole’s estate vineyard, Seven Hills.

Col Solare 2008 ($75)
Yes, the price is a bit steep, but it’s still cheaper than flying to Italy. And, not surprisingly, that’s what this powerhouse blend of Cabernet, Merlot, Cab Franc and a touch of Syrah might suggest, because that super Tuscan-esque profile is what winemaker Marcus Notaro is aiming to achieve. Bingo! Dark berry and cherry flavors run deep, and the wine is smooth enough to stand alone, but is even better with osso buco.