Jason LaBarge grew up in Kennewick, Wash., attended the Western Culinary Institute in Portland, Ore., and returned to the Tri-Cities as a chef. His passion for creating spice blends and rubs as executive chef for Meadow Springs Country Club in Richland, Wash., has developed into the launch of LaBarge Gourmet Spices. His wine-friendly product line is available at Badger Mountain/Powers Winery, Barnard Griffin Winery, Yoke’s Fresh Market in Kennewick, The Northwest Regional Food Hub in Richland, Wash., ShopTheNorthwest.com and through Facebook at LaBarge Gourmet Spices.
It was a busy and exciting year for Northwest wineries as they battled Mother Nature as well as political and economic winds. The industry lost some giants to death, and the heads of Washington’s and Oregon’s industries left their positions.
Here are the top wine stories of 2011.
1. Washington voters pass Initiative 1183. In November, voters did away with Washington’s state liquor stores by passing the Costco-backed Initiative 1183. Many wineries, wine shops and groceries are still trying to sort out the full effect of the new law, but the bottom line is that Washington’s largest wine retailer — liquor stores — are going away.
2. Dean of Northwest wine writers dies. Bob Woehler began covering the industry in 1976, and he never stopped. He was the Tri-City Herald’s wine columnist from 1978 to 2010 and was Wine Press Northwest’s tasting editor from 1998 until his death in August, just a few days after he turned 78. While he focused his efforts on Washington, where he lived, he also covered the Oregon wine industry in its early days and greatly enjoyed writing about British Columbia and Idaho.
When it comes to celebrating, few wines in the Northwest are more affordable, available and worthy than the sparklers from Domaine Ste. Michelle.
This summer, Rick Casqueiro observed his 15th anniversary as winemaker of Ste. Michelle’s sparkling wine house in Paterson, Wash.
Remarkably, perhaps the turning point for Domaine Ste. Michelle came during Casqueiro’s third vintage with Ste. Michelle, just before the 1998 harvest. Each summer, then-CEO Allen Shoup and then-marketing executive Ted Baseler would gather their winemakers in Yakima for a weekend of golf, dining, relaxation and meetings.
Today, I was chatting with someone about Naches Heights, Washington’s newest American Viticultural Area.
"When does Washington have enough appellations?" my friend asked. "Twelve seems like a lot."
While 12 might seem like quite a few for just one state, consider this: Napa Valley - an area that is about three miles wide and 27 miles long - has 16 AVAs. That’s right. An area much more compact than the Yakima Valley has more appellations than the entire state of Washington.
Wild Horse Valley
Stags Leap District
Spring Mountain District
Diamond Mountain District
Oak Knoll District
Other comparisons between tiny Napa Valley and the entire state of Washingto
Napa Valley has 43,000 acres of wine grapes, while Washington has a bit more than 40,000 acres.
Napa Valley has about 300 wineries, while Washington has more than 750.
As Washington’s wine industry grows in size and stature, grape growers and winemakers continue to define the best places to plant vines. The newest federally recognized viticultural area is near Yakima.
On Wednesday, the U.S. government announced it has approved the Naches Heights American Viticultural Area, a region near the city of Yakima that encompasses 13,254 acres.
Just 37.3 acres of wine grapes are planted in the new AVA, making it the smallest planted wine region in Washington.
Phil Cline, owner of Naches Heights Vineyard, said another 80 acres of plantings are planned but have been on hold because of the recession.
Cline has the oldest vines in Naches Heights, having planted Pinot Gris and Syrah there in 2002. He said the grape-growing history goes back more than 40 years, however. A home winemaker in the early ’70s planted a quarter-acre of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Those grapes were damaged in the late ’70s during a particularly harsh winter and were not replanted.
Naches Heights is in the Columbia Valley AVA, though its soils and conditions differ significantly from other areas of Washington wine country.
Paul Beveridge, owner of Wilridge Winery in Seattle, said the Naches Heights was unaffected by the ice age floods 15,000 years ago because of its location and elevation. That means its wind-blown soils are much older. He described the Naches Heights as one of the few grape-growing spots in the state that actually gain soil each year.
"It just keeps blowing in," he said.
The region also tends to be higher in elevation than many areas of Washington wine country, ranging from 1,200 feet at its lowest point to 2,100 feet. It also receives plenty of heat and little rainfall.
Beveridge, who started his winery in 1988, began planting grapes in Naches Heights five years ago and appreciates the shorter commute as well as the quality of grapes.
"It’s 2 1/2 hours door to door," he said.
It takes twice as long to get to Walla Walla, where he went to college and has bought grapes for many years.
Beveridge runs the only tasting room in the new AVA, though wines from three producers — Wilridge, Naches Heights and Harlequin Wine Cellars — are featured. Cline plans to open his own tasting room by April. The tasting room is a 10-minute drive from Interstate 82.
Cline said about 10,000 acres in the AVA are suitable for wine grapes, though apple and cherry orchards take up much of the land. He said the region has no issues with water availability from the Yakima River.
Beveridge, a lawyer by trade, wrote the petition for the AVA, though he and Cline worked closely together on it, and they were assisted by two students at Yakima Valley Community College. They began the process four years ago.
The Naches Heights AVA will become official Jan. 13 and will be Washington’s 12th AVA. Washington is the second-largest wine-producing state in the country, second to California, making about 12 million cases annually from 40,000 acres of vines.
Hedges was the first grand winery on Red Mountain. It paved the way, if you will, for the likes of Terra Blanca, Col Solare and Kiona to build beautiful wineries on Washington’s smallest appellation. Took this photo Friday morning amid frosty, foggy conditions.