Move over Napa: Exploring the best Washington State wineries

If the glitz, glamour and growing expense of Napa is losing its appeal, Washington State awaits as the unassuming alternative. Chris Losh investigates the state's wine scene, meeting the personalities and places behind the increasingly impressive wines

Words by Chris Losh

A vineyard in Washington State
Syncline Winery's Nelson Vineyard on the banks of the Columbia River, which is planted with Syrah and a small amount of Viognier

Ask people to name a wine destination in the US and the most common answer is likely to be ‘Napa’. An hour’s drive from San Francisco, its closely packed wineries, with multiple tasting options, slick tours, great restaurants and everything from art galleries to balloon rides, attract tourists by the coachload.

But none of that comes cheap. The San Francisco Chronicle reported earlier this year that the average cost of a standard tasting in Napa is $81. And not everyone likes the glitz; isn’t wine about soil and personalities rather than videos and branded candles?

If you want something slightly more down to earth and better value, consider heading to Washington State instead of California. As a wine region, the former has grown rapidly in the last 20 years, becoming the second biggest in the US by volume produced.

Its relative affordability means it’s the place that ‘ordinary’ people go when they decide to quit their jobs, pool their savings and follow the dream of setting up a winery. Visits to Washington State wineries won’t, for the most part, include dazzling presentations, and you are far more likely to find yourself talking to the people who make the wine you’re tasting.

A vineyard belonging to Gramercy Cellars, one of the outstanding Washing State wineries
A vineyard owned by Gramercy Cellars, a winery based in the town of Walla Walla, which is being likened to Napa in the 1980s

Getting there

Given the number of major cities located on the west coast of the US, most tourists are likely to be travelling east to explore Washington State. To experience the state’s vineyards, you must first traverse the Cascade mountains, making this a journey to somewhere considerably more remote than Napa. Admittedly, there are tasting rooms in Woodinville, 20 miles from downtown Seattle, but they are far from where the wine is made; Walla Walla – the hottest wine town in the state – is over 250 miles south-east of Seattle.

To make the most of the region and the travelling, it’s worth committing at least three or four days to a road trip that will allow time to luxuriate in the space and sheer grandeur of the landscape. Seattle is the obvious starting point but to avoid driving the same route there and back, a good option is to start in the far south of the state, perhaps even from Portland in Oregon, and then loop back to Seattle to finish.

The garden tasting room at Syncline Winery
The garden tasting space at Syncline Winery

Columbia River Gorge

The Colombia River Gorge marks the border between Washington State and neighbouring Oregon to the south. It’s an hour or so east of Portland and a popular destination for kayakers, kite surfers and white-water rafters. The water sports are what originally drew James Mantone to the area before he and his wife, Poppy, set up Syncline Winery, making excellent wines with varieties such as Gamay, Picpoul and Gruner Veltliner.

With his baseball cap and secateurs jammed in a sheath on his belt, Mantone looks like someone who would explode in a corporate tasting room. ‘There are bears, cougars and wolves out here,’ he tells me, in his outdoor tasting garden. ‘The wines should reflect a bit of that wildness.’

L'Ecole is one of the first Washington State wineries
Since L’Ecole opened in the early '80s, more than 100 wineries have opened in Walla Walla

Walla Walla

From there, it’s about a three-hour drive to Walla Walla, following the bright blue ribbon of the river north-east as it cuts through a landscape that becomes increasingly barren. Rainfall here is, more or less, absent for much of the year. Eastern Washington feels rather like Mendoza in Argentina; a desert-like place with guaranteed sun, hot days and cool nights.

It’s a climatic combination that is generating real excitement in the wine world, and Walla Walla (meaning ‘lots of water’) is at the heart of it. Ironically, many people are likening it to the Napa of the 1980s; a small country town that is exploding with vinous energy. When Marty Clubb of L’Ecole first set up here in 1983, there were only two other wineries – now there are more than 100. From his beginnings as a pioneer, Clubb is now an elder statesman, his wines sought-after throughout the state.

Marty Clubb, who helped to inspire many more Washington State wineries
One of Walla Walla's longest-standing winemakers, Marty Clubb began work here in 1983

While L’Ecole is firmly about Bordeaux blends, new arrival Matt Austin at Grosgrain is more experimental. He’s doing great things with less common varieties such as Grenache, Carignan, Albariño and Italian grapes.

Formerly an attorney in LA, Austin fell in love with wine and retrained as a winemaker after seeing the film Sideways. Washington gave him the chance to live his dream, though he admits that owning his own winery came about sooner than expected, after a speculative bid at an online auction was surprisingly accepted.

‘I’d expected to work in wine a lot longer before buying our own place,’ he grins. ‘I was so busy with harvest [for two other wineries] that I didn’t even get to see the property in person before we bought it!’

Harrington and Moss of Gramercy Cellars aren't focused on expansion

He’s not the only recent arrival. The Incubator Project, near the airport, is home to five start-up wineries; the concept is proving to be both an effective way of helping fledgling businesses get off the ground and a great place for eager visitors to see a range of young wineries with ambitious winemakers.

In her cheerful, airy tasting room, Fiona Mak of Smak Wines serves multiple expressions of rosé intended to be consumed in different seasons. An ex-sommelier, her pink-focused project is a good example of the creativity driving Washington’s wine scene.

Walla Walla’s main street is home to numerous tasting rooms, wine bars and bottle shops, so you can get a good sense of what’s happening in the region by tasting round the centre of town. It’s also well worth visiting Gramercy Cellars. Master Sommelier, Greg Harrington, was just 26 when he bankrolled his winery dream by selling his New York apartment and moving west.

For eight years, Harrington and his co-founder Brandon Moss were the only employees, and they have expanded almost reluctantly. ‘We’ve been able to fund everything ourselves by what we are doing,’ says Moss. ‘We don’t want to be any bigger than we are now.’

Vineyards in the Red Mountain area of Washington State
The Red Mountain AVA of Washington State is home to soils with high alkaline and calcium carbonate content, capable of yielding wines with structure and longevity

Red Mountain

After an hour of driving west from Walla Walla, back towards Seattle, you reach Red Mountain. It’s perhaps the most famous AVA in Washington State. More a hill than a mountain, its densely planted slopes are home to some of the region’s best Cabernets and Bordeaux blends.

There are numerous great wineries to visit here and many of them are close together, which makes for a rewarding day’s tasting. Chris Upchurch (former founding winemaker at DeLille Cellars around 30 years ago) is making stunning wines at great prices since branching out on his own, including a recent Parker 100-pointer.

The Williams family is behind Kiona and has been growing grapes in the area long before it was fashionable. They have a beautiful tasting room that features a wide range of reasonably priced bottles and spectacular views, plus a fully functioning electric guitar crafted from old barrel staves.

Most Red Mountain wineries refund tasting fees if you buy a couple of bottles and since there’s real pedigree and value in the $30-80 range, the challenge may be in limiting yourself to just two.

Gaye McNutt and Benjamin Smith own Cadence in Seattle


The drive back to the Pacific Coast from Red Mountain takes around half a day. Dropping back down the other side of the Cascades after days out east, the verdant nature of the landscape is almost shocking.

There are no vineyards on this side of the mountains but there are tasting rooms. Woodinville – half an hour north of Seattle – has many. Shiny and welcoming, they lack some of the authenticity of the estates in vineyard country but they’re a way to connect with the state’s wineries if you’re in Seattle and can’t commit to the drive east.

Latta Wines is a great place to spend time without breaking the bank

Seattle itself boasts some ‘garagiste’ wineries. Cadence – located in an industrial estate near the sprawling Boeing factory (where one of its owners used to work!) – will take visits by prior arrangement and is making some of the best wine in the state.

Latta Wines makes small lot wines in the SODO Urbanworks, which it shares with other food and drink producers. A short cab ride from the city centre, it’s a great place to spend a relaxed few hours eating and drinking without breaking the bank.