Changing perceptions of the state’s most-produced grape variety

“I see chardonnay at the crossroads,” said Seattle Times writer Andy Perdue at the 31st annual Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers conference. “Washington is becoming a red-dominated wine region.” The conference, which took place this week in Richland, Wash., had more than 2,200 attendees and 158 exhibitors.

Though it might come as a surprise to many, chardonnay is typically Washington State’s most-produced grape variety, occasionally giving up the top spot to riesling. However, cabernet sauvignon, which has more acreage in the state than either of those varieties, trailed chardonnay in production by a mere 1,000 tons in 2012. Some expect cabernet to take the top spot when 2013 production numbers are released later this month.

“I think there’s a perception question about where chardonnay sits (in Washington),” said Glenn Proctor, a global wine and grape broker at Ciatti Company in San Rafael, Calif. He noted that many already think of Washington as a cabernet sauvignon state despite chardonnay’s prominence.

Proctor said that having perceived quality and a well-defined style for chardonnay were critical to Washington’s long-term success, saying of California’s top regions, “All have an identity with consumers and recognized styles.”

As Washington seeks to establish an identity for its chardonnay, Kevin Mott of Woodward Canyon noted that style is not static. “Deciding which style as a winemaker is an evolution,” he said. “Our style has changed dramatically over time,” he said of Woodward Canyon, noting that the winery had moved toward using less new oak to make the wines more food friendly. “The market is ever changing. You have to make a style you’re happy with as a winery and go find people that like that style.”

In Washington, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, the parent company of Chateau Ste. Michelle as well as a number of other wineries and brands, dominates chardonnay production. David Rosenthal, assistant winemaker at Chateau Ste. Michelle, said that stylistically the structure of Washington chardonnay tends to be lighter than its California counterparts and subsequently required a more judicious use of new oak. “Washington can’t handle the same amount of oak as some other areas of the world,” he said.

Co Dinn, formerly of Hogue Cellars and now of Co Dinn Consulting, said he believes it is critical for Washington to identify and play to its strengths. “To me the question is really not whether we can or cannot make a certain style,” he said. “We can make any style out there. The key question is identifying our natural advantages, where they lie, and what styles we can make consistently well year in and year out.”

Despite chardonnay’s 50-year history in Washington, Dinn said he believes the exploration is truly just getting started. “I think we’ve just begun to scratch the surface of the sites that are appropriate for chardonnay in the wider areas of the state,” he said.

David Ramey of Ramey Wine Cellars in Healdsburg, Calif., suggested that the emphasis in Washington should be on identifying cooler vineyard locations. “It seems to me that there isn’t so much discrimination in terms of where chardonnay is grown (in Washington),” Ramey said. “The history of chardonnay in the last 20 years in Napa and Sonoma is a march toward the ocean. That’s where our cooling influence comes from. Chardonnay does better, up to a limit, in a cooler site.”

Ste. Michelle’s Rosenthal agreed. “I think one of the keys is going to be finding cooler vineyard sites for chardonnay,” he said. Rosenthal also noted the need for improved farming practices.

Ramey, who produces 40,000 cases of wine annually at his winery, 60% of it chardonnay, rejected the trend in the United States toward stainless steel chardonnays. “Stainless steel chardonnay is the wrong answer to excessively oaked chardonnay,” he said. “The answer to excessively oaked wines is to use less new oak. And then the answer to excessively buttery chardonnays is battonage, is lees contact.”

Ramey provided advice to Washington wineries about how to grow their brands nationally. “I believe brands are built on-premise,” he said. “If you want respect, you have to be at the fine restaurants.” He also noted the importance of getting in front of buyers, saying, “Marketing is shoe leather.”

Ultimately, however, Ramey said there was only one path to success for Washington chardonnay if it is to ever emerge from cabernet sauvignon’s shadow. “The best way to grow your brand and brand Washington is quality, quality, quality, quality,” he said.