Taste Washington is back!

After a three-year hiatus, Taste Washington – the nation’s largest single-region wine and food festival made a successful return in 2023 with over 7,000 attendees including consumers, media, and trade.

Despite being the second largest wine producer in the U.S., Washington wine is still relatively unknown outside of the state. The event is a terrific opportunity to celebrate and promote Washington’s diversity and unique terroir of Washington.

To that effect, Taste Washington celebrated the state’s different wine regions, microclimates, grape varieties, and styles. It also reaffirmed the state’s position as a fine wine region on the global stage.

The Grand Tasting

At the core of Taste Washington is the Grand Tasting: a celebration of the best food and wine Washington has to offer. This year, over two hundred wineries and fifty of the state’s most renowned restaurants took part in the event at Lumen Field in downtown Seattle. For me, it was great to get reacquainted with old friends, taste the most recent vintages and discover new up-and-coming winemakers. Here is a list of a few of my favorites:

The Classics

Syncline. Led by James and Poppie Mantone and based on the Columbia River Gorge, Syncline is a Rhone blend specialist that farms sustainably and with as much care in the vineyard as in the winery. I was pleasantly surprised by the 2016 Scintillation Blanc de Noir, their new, traditional method sparkling wine that strikes the right balance between freshness and tertiary flavors from five years of lees aging.

James Mantone, Syncline

W.T. Vintners. The project of sommelier Jeff Lindsay-Thorsen, W.T. Vintners focused primarily on Syrah and Rhone varietals made in a low-intervention style. He sources his Syrah from some of the best vineyards in the state and aims for displaying the terroir of each plot in every bottling.  Favorites include the 2019 Syrah Destiny Ridge and the 2018 Boushey Syrah.

Jeff Lindsay-Thorsen, W.T. Vintners

JM Cellars. A family-run winery based in Woodinville, JM is the project that John and Peggy Bigelow began in the fall of 1998. Twenty-three harvests later, it has established itself as one of the leaders in Old World-inspired Bordeaux blends in the state. It was also great to meet Tommy, the next generation member of the family.

John and Tommy Bigelow, J&M Cellars

Saviah Cellars. If there was any doubt about the emergence of Syrah as Washington’s top variety, it was put to rest after revisiting the current vintage from Saviah. Both the 2020 The Stones Speak Estate Syrah and 2020 The Funk Estate Syrah are great expressions of the outstanding quality of Syrah grown in the cobbly soils of Walla Walla’s The Rocks District.

Richard Funk, Saviah Cellars

Cadence. A boutique urban Seattle winery that celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. Led by winemaker Benjamin Smith and Gaye McNutt, it focuses on crafting expressive, Bordeaux-style wines from exceptional vineyards on Red Mountain, known for their elegance, intense aromatics and longevity.

Ben Smith, Cadence

The new finds

JB Neufeld. Cabernet-specialist Justin Neufeld has built a reputation for premium, long aging wines sourced from some of the top sites in the state. I was particularly impressed with the classic Cabernet Sauvignon Yakima Valley 2020, and the intense Ciel du Cheval 2020 – a fleshy, floral wine with crisp acidity and powdery tannins and the elegant, dark-fruited Old Goat 2016.

Justin Neufeld, JB Neufeld

Covale Cellars. Founded by Quilceda Creek alum Marv Crum and his wife Susan in 2017, Covale focuses on Bordeaux blends and sources its fruit from the Quintessence Vineyard in Red Mountain. Noteworthy wines in their portfolio include the savory, black cherry-flavored 2020 Cabernet Franc and the aromatic 2020 Quintessence Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, made in a dense, concentrated, plush style.

The Seminars

For serious wine enthusiasts and members of the wine trade, a series of engaging, educational seminars took place at the Four Seasons hotel, providing a deeper dive into Washington wine. Hosted by well-known winemakers, growers, educators, and sommeliers, the seminars ranged in topics from “Understanding Greatness: The Common Thread of the World’s Finest Wines,” “Washington versus the World” and “Where the Future Begins: Introducing Washington’s Newly Minted Regions.”

Understanding Greatness

“What makes a wine truly great?

That was the question posed by Elaine Chukan-Brown, a staff writer at www.jancisrobinson.com, to kick off this blind tasting seminar of eight outstanding wines from Washington and the world.  The main objective of the seminar was to guide the attendees through the process when evaluating a wine to help us separate our subjective opinions and preferences from objective factors such as balance, elegance, and beauty.

The lineup included five Washington wines and one each from France, California, and New York state. It was a really interesting exercise to evaluate each wine individually to assess quality, while at the same time hearing the panelists’ descriptions of the wines and looking for the common thread of the entire flight (which happened to be the Merlot grape).

I particularly enjoyed the savory Baer Star Merlot, Stillwater Creek Vineyard, Columbia Valley 2018 ($38), the polished Chateau Belair-Monange, St. Emilion 2013 ($40), and the concentrated and elegant Ridge, Monte Bello Vineyard 2019 ($60) from the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Washington versus the World

On day two, I attended a seminar with an intriguing title – labeled ‘the ultimate blind tasting’ – which aimed at comparing and contrasting Washington wines with wines from other world-class regions and determining how far the state’s wines have progressed globally. The seminar was moderated by Doug Charles, owner of Compass Wines in Anacortes, WA with the participation of winemakers from leading Washington wineries such as DeLille, Matthews, and Valdemar Estates.

For this session, the lineup consisted of ten wines: seven from Washington, two from South Africa, and one from France – all tasted blind.

Highlights included a couple of familiar wines: The earthy Château La Fleur, Grand Cru, Saint-Émilion, 2019 ($146); the aromatic DeLille, Chaleur Blanc, Columbia Valley, 2021 ($42), as well as a couple of new finds: a savory Porseleinberg, Syrah, Swartland, 2016 ($102) and a long, concentrated JB Neufeld, Old Goat Cabernet Sauvignon, Yakima Valley 2016 ($55).

Overall, the tasting reinforced the fact that Washington wine belongs on the big stage of global wine, and many of them expressed a set of characteristics that expressed a common “Washington-ness” that made them stand apart from the rest. Bravo Washington!


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