When I read James Laube advising in a recent Wine Spectator column that "Many Washington reds . . . make for good alternatives to their counterparts from California," I could almost feel the heat of Paul Gregutt's blood boiling.
Gregutt is a well-known wine writer and authority in the Pacific Northwest and the author of the just published Washington Wines & Wineries: The Essential Guide. Gregutt is a partisan of Washington wine quality. I could easily imagine he might have claimed that many Washington reds would make good replacements for their California counterparts!
Frankly, he'd be right. Washington's wine industry is second only to California (albeit a distant second) in the number of wineries and amount of wine produced, yet many otherwise worldly wine lovers are still unacquainted with the high quality and consistency of wine being made there. The overwhelming market presence of California has left many consumers only vaguely aware that they make wine in Washington at all.
That's kind of okay for many of us in the Northwest who don't relish more competition when trying to snatch up those special lots of fine boutique bottlings from Washington's mostly small-scale producers. Yet at the same time, we realize the state's wines are owed more respect than they often get and are glad to see a book that helps in that cause. As Gregutt writes in his introduction, ". . .it is long past time for a critical appraisal of the state as a world-class winemaking region . . ."
Washington Wines & Wineries: The Essential Guide goes a long way toward fixing that.
For those who need the appropriate grounding, the book begins with a cogent history of Washington as a winemaking region, followed by a chapter on appellations, with some very nice maps. A look at Gregutt's "Top Ten Vineyards" is useful for consumers unfamiliar with the state's prime grape sources, helping characterize bottles with those vineyard names.
In such a "get acquainted" set of chapters, though, one might have hoped for more discussion of terroir in the AVAs. The importance of blends in Washington wines—in my experience they tend to outshine the single-vineyard wines—could have gotten more coverage as well. And for a state whose wine industry tagline is "Washington: The Perfect Climate for Wine," a deeper look at the climate itself—rainfall, temperature, growing degree days—and its effects on the vineyards and wines would have been welcome.
Still, Gregutt's well well-written examinations of Washington's wine basics will greatly help readers trying to put the state's wines into context. But the heart of the book for many consumers will be in the listing of winery profiles. Here, Gregutt presents his personal picks (which, for what it's worth, I think are exactly correct) of wineries using a vaguely sporting analogy: The Leaders, The Specialists, The Bench, The Rookies.
In selecting his chosen subset from among the state's 500-plus wineries, Gregutt has applied his own unique 100-point scale to each winery (not individual wines), allotting 30 points each for his scores on a winery's style, consistency, and value, with an additional 10 points for a winery's contribution "to the development and improvement of the Washington wine industry."
It is an intriguing concept that works well. "Style" would seem to be difficult since it is so subject to interpretation, as is the "industry contribution" category. But "Value" is an excellent—and too little discussed—variable for rating wineries, while "Consistency" is vital to any evaluation of a winery's overall character. Gregutt's well-explained approach is superb and more importantly, reliable and accurate.
One would wish, though, for a bit more. There are no vintage descriptions (is every Washington vintage perfect?), and there is no specific buying advice (which would seem to be needed for a wine book to be "essential"). This is not the book to take into the wine ship to compare the 2004 Andrew Will Ciel Du Cheval with the 2004 Andrew Will Champoux.
The book is also visually less than alluring once you get past the attractive cover. Black and white label shots are all the graphics you get, so readers gain no visual appreciation for the place or the people. The text—though extremely well written and full of Gregutt's not-shy personality—is dense and a tad imposing for the non-specialist. This is, rather than a quick read, a book to study, take notes on, and savor over time in order to absorb its considerable value.
For those who want to gain an education on the country's second largest wine region (as well as become infected by the author's enthusiasm for it), this is a seminal book. There is nothing else available today that explains from a local expert's point of view just why American wine buyers should look beyond California for great wine.
Paul Gregutt, Washington Wines & Wineries: The Essential Guide, University of California Press, 2007, $23.87 (hardback).
Cole Danehower is the co-publisher and wine editor of Northwest Palate magazine, a consumer publication covering the wine, food, and culinary travel bounty of Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and Idaho. He received a James Beard Journalism Award for his previous publication, the Oregon Wine Report; writes frequently about Northwest wines for several publications; and blogs as the Inspired Imbiber.
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