2019 Washington Wine Awards: The Winners
Our annual blind taste test of Washington wines reveals the best reds, whites and rosés at every price point
By Written by Paul Zitarelli; Produced by Yashar Shayan
July 24, 2019
In the 14 years we’ve been conducting our annual Washington Wine Awards, we’ve seen various themes emerge. But this year, there was no strict formula for success among the winners: The white wine of the year comes from industry vets; the red from a winemaker in that transition period from ingénue to established star; the rosé from a winery not even 5 years old. The winning wines come from vineyards located in just about every grape-growing region in Washington, from Red Mountain to the Columbia Gorge. It’s proof of the strength of Washington’s current wine scene, where award-winning wines can come from all corners.
PLANT POWER: Much of the best wine made by Mike Sharon (left) and Marty Clubb of L’Ecole No. 41 comes from this special Ferguson Vineyard, planted in fractured basalt and overlooking the Walla Walla Valley
WINEMAKERS OF THE YEAR
Marty Clubb and Mike Sharon
L’Ecole No. 41
At Walla Walla stalwart L’Ecole No. 41, Marty Clubb’s title (in addition to owner) is managing winemaker. Mike Sharon’s title? Winemaker. So, who does what? Clubb explains: “I take the viticulture lead and manage all our vineyards and grape growing. I also take the lead on coordinating which wines are produced and in what quantities. Mike is responsible for the management of all winemaking, cellar work, laboratory and bottling activities. We coordinate at harvest time, with me taking the lead in the field, Mike is in charge of the grapes once they arrive at the winery.”
This dual-winemaker model has been growing in popularity among Washington wineries in recent years, but L’Ecole has been at it for some time, with Clubb (who has been with the winery since 1989) and Sharon (since 1996) assuming their current roles back in 2006. The flexibility of the model has been a prominent factor in the winery’s growth, allowing Clubb to carefully manage the development of L’Ecole’s new estate Ferguson Vineyard, which was planted in 2008 and yielded near-immediate acclaim, taking home the International Trophy for Best Bordeaux Blend in the World from Decanter (a prestigious Europe-based wine publication) for the 2011 vintage of L’Ecole’s Ferguson Vineyard blend, among the highest honors ever bestowed on a Washington winery. “Mike and I collaborate on nearly all aspects of winemaking,” says Clubb. What a fruitful collaboration it has been.
MINDFUL MAKER: Head winemaker Ali Mayfield, of Walla Walla-based The Walls, has built a reputation on her excellent whites, including four currently available Chardonnays
WINEMAKER TO WATCH
The way Ali Mayfield describes her state of mind during harvest season—“To be present and think each decision through with respect to the fruit; one change will have a ripple effect on each step to follow”—is equally applicable to her winemaking career in the Walla Walla Valley. After an influential 2005 meeting with the late Stan Clarke (longtime associate director of Walla Walla Community College’s Institute for Enology and Viticulture and a legendary mentor), Mayfield enrolled in that school’s enology and viticulture program, and parlayed it into harvest internships at a pair of highly regarded Walla Walla wineries, Corliss Estates and Long Shadows Vintners, followed by a full-time winemaking position with Corliss.
Mayfield is head winemaker for Walla Walla–based The Walls, a position she has held since the winery’s founding in 2014. She has built a reputation for producing thrilling white wines (no easy feat, considering white winemaking is more technically challenging than red), and sure enough, the current Walls lineup includes four different Chardonnays. But Mayfield’s reds have also been on the receiving end of acclaim in the past few years, including a win in our 2018 wine awards for Stanley Groovy, her Portuguese-inspired blend.
SOMETHING TO DRINK? Seattle’s preeminent steakhouse Metropolitan Grill may be best known for the meat, but sommelier Aaron Wood-Snyderman makes sure Washington wine gets the table space it deserves
SOMMELIER OF THE YEAR
Metropolitan Grill, downtown Seattle
“I have been incredibly fortunate to have found amazing people to learn from,” says Aaron Wood-Snyderman when asked about his career arc, “and I’ve been smart enough to shut my mouth and open my ears and learn as much as I can.” One of the most influential of those “amazing people” is master sommelier Thomas Price, who first nudged Wood-Snyderman toward wine back when Wood-Snyderman was employed at old Pioneer Square haunt F.X. McRory’s (1997–2004) and much more focused on bourbon; Price eventually hired him to work at Metropolitan Grill in 2011. Another of those influential people is Cyril Frechier, who mentored Wood-Snyderman during his time at Campagne (2004–2011).
While Wood-Snyderman’s wine list at the Met is broad, covering every important wine-producing region in the world, there is a real emphasis on Washington wines, and that is no accident. “If we were going to hang our hat on something,” he says, “it would be Washington wine.” This focus culminated in a Wine Spectator Grand Award in 2018, and Wood-Snyderman takes a little extra pride in the title of the article: “Metropolitan Grill: A steak house that highlights Washington reds.” “I can’t tell you how happy I was to bring Washington wine a Grand Award–winning wine list that unequivocally proclaims that the wines from this state deserve the same sort of attention that the wines from all other great growing regions deserve.”
ART ATTACK: It may be uncouth to buy wine based on label alone, but this is one you can bet is backed by exceptional wine in the bottle
The Secret Squirrel Project—a sister label of Corliss Estates and Tranche Cellars—launched in 2016 with a 2012 vintage and has taken Seattle by storm in the few years since. Certainly some of the winery’s success can be attributed to the quality of the juice inside; after all, Secret Squirrel has had a winning wine in three of our past four wine awards (2016, 2018 and again this year with its 2015 Bordeaux Red, which took home top honors in the Everyday Bordeaux Red Blend category). But the clever label that prominently features the eponymous rodent staring intensely at the consumer through a wine-red masquerade mask probably hasn’t hurt sales either.
The Corliss/Tranche team spent more than two years developing the design, engaging Gauge Branding, a Napa- and Chicago-based design firm. “It took a long time,” recalls winemaker Andrew Trio, “but we’re really happy with the results.” As Trio notes, a thoughtfully designed label is not only important because it looks great; it also “reflects the underlying quality and attention to detail that we show through our entire grape-growing and winemaking process.”
FAMILY AFFAIR: This stunning Red Mountain vineyard is owned by Vicky (left) and Scott Williams; Scott’s father planted the first grapes there, and their son JJ is now the third generation to run the vineyard
VINEYARD OF THE YEAR
Kiona Vinedyards’ Heart of the Hill Vineyard
The accumulated wisdom of three decades of farming on Red Mountain went into Kiona’s Heart of the Hill Vineyard. The site is owned by Scott and Vicky Williams, and it was Scott’s father, John Williams (along with Jim Holmes), who planted the original Kiona estate vineyard in 1975, back when Red Mountain was an unassuming sagebrush slope. In 2006, the Williamses began planting Heart of the Hill, a process that continued piecemeal until its completion in 2014. There are now 148.5 acres under vine, on a site that JJ Williams (Scott and Vicky’s son, and the third generation of Williamses to work on Red Mountain) calls “ideally situated on the slope.”
The family has bet big on Bordeaux varieties (they represent 94% of total planted acreage), and especially on Cabernet Sauvignon (81%), which has proven itself perfectly suited to this part of the Red Mountain slope, located just downslope from Col Solare Vineyard and just upslope from Ciel du Cheval Vineyard. And that bet is already paying dividends, with luminaries such as Betz Family Winery, Abeja and Long Shadows happily purchasing fruit from this young, exceedingly promising site right in the heart of Red Mountain.
BOSS OF THE BOTTLE: Erin Lyman and her partner have only owned Champion Wine Cellars for the last two years, but it’s already a Greenwood claim to fame