Just returned from tasting in Columbia Valley AVA, Red Mountain AVA, and Walla Walla. First, I want to lay out some thoughts, and second, I'll attempt a first rough draft of a ranking of wineries, ala the "Growth" system in Bordeaux:
1. General thoughts:
a. Walla Walla is moving away from a big, jammy wine style, towards a leaner, more-acidic "European" style. Speaking personally, this saddens me, as the fruit character of W.W. wines was, and can be, truly marvelous.
b. Walla Walla is still RELATIVELY undiscovered by the rest of US WineWorld. But that anonymity is fast disappearing. As a result, prices continue to climb in Walla Walla, to obscene levels in some cases. But overall, Walla Walla wine quality is still superior to Napa's wines, and is far less expensive.
c. I am reluctantly retracting my earlier deep and enthusiastic love for Red Mountain wines. Red Mtn is still probably the hottest AVA in the country, but almost all the wines I tasted there are not as good as what the older, established good wineries are making in Walla Walla. Perhaps with more time, Red Mtn wines will become world-class, but they are not yet.
d. One example in Red Mtn is Frichette, a new winery where Shae (co-owner, who poured for us) is maybe the most-charismatic wine pourer in the country. Their operation is good despite their being so new to it. I think her charisma has something to do with the fact that she can sell her wines (some of which are quite good) at such high prices. There are always too many people who are too willing to overpay for wines, and this causes wineries to overprice their wines, in a vicious cycle.
e. This may be a rather cool summer, despite a rare early super-hot stretch a month ago.
2. My rough draft of a winery ranking (and no one can taste everyplace in WA, even after, say, 10 trips, so there are many wineries missing from my list, and their absence doesn't mean anything about whether they are great, or poor. As you know, 1st-5th Growth wineries are all Grand Crus--the best of all the wineries out there. Also, I am thinking only of wine quality, not of price, so the QPR for some of these may be terrible:
First Growths (2 wineries): Cayuse, and K Vintners. And I can't think of any other winery that is making wines at their level, unless perhaps it's Buty.
Super-Second Growths (4 wineries): Buty (the best of the Super-Seconds), Quilceda Creek (tempted to drop them to a 2nd, as only Parker raves about their wines, which are just too black for me, and I've heard they perform poorly on the resale market, but they are skilled winemakers; if they only changed their flavor profile they could be like Screaming Eagle), Barnard Griffin (for whites and roses only, and this is NOT a mistaken ranking), Pepper Bridge,
Second Growths (11 wineries): L'Ecole No. 41, Cougar Crest, Seven Hills, Tamarack, Five Star, Zerba, Saviah, Abeja, Charles Smith Wines. Owen Roe, Tyrus Evan
Third Growths (13 wineries): Leonetti (no way they deserve to be higher; they coast on fame; you spend a lot on their wines and years later when you open them they are a bit disappointing), Three Rivers, Woodward Canyon, Jacob Williams, Kiona, Terra Blanca, Maryhill (Proprietor Reserve wines), Walla Walla Vintners, Gramercy, Ch. St Michelle, Columbia Crest, Gouger, Novelty Hill,
Fourth Growth (10 wineries): Maryhill (primary wines), Adamant, Beresan, Dunham, Canoe Ridge, Northstar, Col Solare, Hogue, Syncline, Barnard Griffin (for reds only),
Fifth Growths (4 wineries): Basel (they have fallen very far in wine quality-I suspect they are focusing on making money by renting out their many gorgeous rooms in the mansion, and then selling wines primarily to their guests who probably don't know much about wine--and they have become unfriendly to the wine trade, but they are in one of the coolest winery buildings in the state), Sleight of Hand, 14 Hands, Cor,
Do not deserve to be ranked as Grand Crus; let's call them table wines (some of their wines would be fine with dinner, even though not remarkable, but some of their wines were undrinkable when I visited, though of course their wine quality may be much higher now): Isenhower, Forgeron, Glen Fiona, Blackwood Canyon. Tefft, Waving Tree,
1. Notice that the distribution is funky; there should be more wineries in each lower ranking. This may be because the average quality around Walla Walla is so high.
2. This list is based on my perception of winery quality; others' lists would of course be different.
3. As in Bordeaux, even a Fifth Growth winery can make a fantastic wine, if fruit and winery decisions come together happily.
4. It is very, very difficult to make a great wine. It is no disgrace not to make them.
5. My ranking is based on my perception of a winery's average quality across its entire lineup--so if they make two great wines and twenty below-par wines, they don't rank very high. (This describes a number of wineries.)
6. No one has visited every winery, and thus if a winery is not named here, it might deserve to be ranked, However, it seems likely to me that about 80% of the wineries not ranked above would probably be listed as table wines. And there is nothing wrong with table wines.
7. Even if you think this ranking is ridiculous, I nevertheless think it is helpful to give consumers, who want to choose a wine from Washington, an idea about general winery quality, because if they rely only upon advertising, or a pretty building, or a charismatic pourer, or favorable yelp reviews, they are unlikely to find most of the best places.
Two more examples why you should be VERY cautious before paying, say, $25 or more for a bottle of wine:
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