The sheer mass of Washington state vineyards and wineries that now exist---with more springing up all the time---is staggering.
Some of the newcomers---Rotie, Buty, Maison Bleue---are brilliant. Some of them will fade away. That's the way it is, and always will be in this business.
But with all the understandable excitement of the trendy newcomers and the explosion of talent across the state, it's important to look back at the 'old timers', the pioneers that started up many years ago, when Washington state was still a very big and essentially untested wine region.
It may be hard to believe now, especially for the younger acolytes of wine, that there was a time not long ago when few people knew what you were speaking of when you extolled the wines of the Pacific Northwest, and when the words "Washington wine" would usually generate the same response: "Really? Washington makes wine?!?! Is it any good?"
Yes, Washington did make wine, and it was frequently pretty good. Good enough that Washington is now one of the largest wine producers in the country, and ranks right up there amongst the best.
But those brilliant newcomers wouldn't have found such fertile growth if not for the perseverance of the early growers and winemakers breaking the ground. After all, if you know your history, you know there probably wouldn't have been a Buty if there hadn't been a Woodward Canyon.
So in the spirit of "dancin' with the one what brung ya", I thought it was time to take a look, not at the newcomers of Washington state, but some of the veteran producers, the wineries and vineyards that helped start the trend and are still out there faithfully producing wines according to their initial vision.
Hyatt Winery and Vineyards
Leland and Lynda Hyatt started up the original estate vineyard in 1983, not far from the town of Zillah in Eastern Washington, and the fruit established its quality reputation pretty quickly. The Hyatt label debuted in 1987, and the success of their wines enabled them to expand steadily to a total of 180 acres, including the original Estate Vineyard plot, Cherry Hills, Three Rocks, and Roza Ridge. In part due to Hyatt's efforts, the new AVA of Rattlesnake Ridge was recently declared. And in 2002, the new Roza Ridge label debuted to carry the blended wines from the four vineyards.
Hyatt Pinot Gris, Rattlesnake Ridge, 2009
I was quite impressed with the 2008 Hyatt Pinot Gris---but knew that was a unique vintage situation, with exceptionally cool weather resulting in especially crisp, high acid grapes relatively low in sugars. So I was eager to taste the results of 2009. Still relatively low in alcohol, and 100% estate grown Pinot Gris, this vintage lives up to its promise and continues the success.
I actually drink very little Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio, and even less of it from the U.S., as most of it is plonkish and featureless swill, little more than wetness in a glass with some faint winey taste. In a word, insipid.
The Hyatt is most certainly not insipid: It's crisp, bright, refreshing---all the things you would hope Pinot Gris would be---but it also has a pleasant grip of assertive mineral acidity and some weight to go along with it. It's a nicely made and well balanced wine, light enough for casual sipping or cocktailing, but still hefty enough to step up to food.
Hyatt "Zillah Gorilla" Zinfandel, Rattlesnake Hills 2007
It's obvious from the first impression that this is intended to be a fun take on Zinfandel---you know, hearkening back to the days when Zinfandel was still a "fun" wine and not to be taken too seriously? The faux-rattlesnake skin label was a nice touch, along with Kong Jr. scaling the windmill with snake in hand. Cute.
Despite the somewhat forbidding name that seems to betoken a monstrous bruiser of a wine, this Zin was actually very likable and not thuggish at all. A bit high in alcohol for my taste, and therefore a tad on the sweeter side, the raisins were at least in check, and the bright cherry-blackberry fruit showed through clearly, giving the wine a fresh, bright, zippy character without too much tannin. In fact, the wine was fairly soft---although that impression might have been due to the fact we were noshing some spicy pepper and garlic-laden grilled sausages at the time. And we weren't being bashful with the Dijon mustard either. Still, the wine held up nicely and the fruit came through, along with the spice.
And the Zillah Gorilla showed one trait that always shows how well a wine is appreciated: it got empty almost immediately, and left people looking at me to bring out another bottle. And that's just about the highest praise you can heap on a bottle of wine, isn't it?
It's good to know the traditions are alive, and the "early adapters" are still growing excellent fruit and making good wine. I think I'll try a few more of the Hyatt wines.