I TRY TO BE NICE about Washington wines. But they’re so big, bold, and clumsy, giving off boozy heat like a barfly’s breath. In Walla Walla, I was drunk after visiting the second tasting room, bludgeoned by whites at nearly 15 percent ABV, let alone the reds. Or take those Bordeaux blends from Yakima: wholly unremarkable, simple wines even when aged a dozen years, with price tags that are completely nuts. Boorish, simplemindedly direct—it might be better not to go on. Sometimes it’s hard to be nice about Washington wines.
Of course, I generalize. The second largest wine producer in the union, Washington grows more than 40 grape varietals and turns out some 16 million cases a year. There are cooler regions—the Gorge and Puget Sound have milder climates, which helps to temper the alcohol levels—and there are winemakers dedicated to subtlety and finesse. You just have to find them. Here are a few to get started.
Bainbridge, Müller-Thurgau, 2012, $18
Puget Sound’s Bainbridge Island Vineyards was established in 1977; Müller-Thurgau is a grape that was developed in 1882 in Germany. It’s a varietal that can produce featureless wines, but fortunately this example is far from one dimensional, with fresh acid and a lemon bite matched by a buttery creaminess that brings to mind Girl Scout cookies. It’s surprisingly complex. bainbridgevineyards.com
Syncline, Carignan/Grenache, 2014, $30
Within driving distance of Portland, the small town of Lyle in the Columbia Gorge is home to a cluster of wineries—check out Memaloose, Domaine Pouillon, and Cor Cellars. Syncline biodynamically farms its fruit and produces thoughtful, European-style wines. This refined Mediterranean blend hitches candied blackberries to a savory spiciness and provides a long, juicy finish. It should age well or, if you can’t wait, try with barbecue or steak. synclinewine.com
Rocky Pond, Riesling, 2014, $19
Riesling was one of the first grape varieties grown in Washington—Chateau Ste. Michelle was onboard early, collaborating with famed German producer Dr. Loosen to launch its Eroica label in 1999. Rocky Pond is a family-owned winery with vineyards by Lake Chelan, which is known for its temperate climate. Dry, clean, and fresh, this Riesling is all tart green apple and lemon with plenty of acid, and finishes with a gentle minerality. In a nutshell: delicious. rockypondwinery.com
Buty, Rediviva of the Stones, 2012, $60
This is from Walla Walla, but it’s like a string quartet compared to the thrash metal of your typical Eastern Washington wine. Smooth, with a silky mouth feel, it’s complex, but also bright and fresh. A blend of organically farmed Syrah with some Cabernet Sauvignon and Mourvèdre, there’s blackberry, savory notes, a hint of peppery spice, and a long finish that evolves into something like milk chocolate. A substitute for that special occasion Pinot. butywinery.com, or locally, $68 from Zupan’s, 2340 W Burnside
Savage Grace, Cabernet Franc, 2015, $28
A cracking Cab Franc that has a subtle interplay of flavors: strong raspberry notes blend with the grape’s trademark earthiness, while soft, chalky tannins provide the backbone. The fruit is from Rattlesnake Hills in Yakima Valley, though winemaker Michael Savage is based in Woodinville. E&R Wine Shop, 6141 SW Macadam
San Juan Vineyards, Madeleine Angevine, 2014, $18
Madeleine Angevine is a pretty obscure French varietal that’s found a home throughout the Puget Sound. San Juan Vineyards (located on the island of the same name) grow their own fruit and produce a wine that works well on a summer’s day: dry and light, it has a refreshing acidity, featuring flavors of lemon and pear with just a touch of earthiness. sanjuanvineyards.com
B. Leighton, Gratitude, 2013, $42
Brennon Leighton is head winemaker at Charles Smith, whose Kung Fu Girl Riesling is a fantastic value for $12. His own label is more expressive and artisanal (and, yes, more expensive). With 14.5 percent alcohol it opens hot, and whoa—for a moment this Mourvèdre blend comes across like a typical high-octane Washington wine. But that blows off to reveal an elegantly balanced wine, with flavors of black cherry, white pepper, and a touch of tangerine sweetness. Even though it’s full bodied, it works for a picnic just slightly chilled. Vinopolis, 1610 NW Glisan