In Vino Veritas LVII: Cascade Wines

The New World, and North America have come a long way in the past few decades. Since the Judgment of Paris in 1976, vintners beyond of the hallowed soils of the northern Mediterranean have sought to grow their stocks as far more than jug wine. It is the knowledge and passion for the process of winemaking that gives live to the end product, not just where you are on a map.

Some 40 years later and exceptional viticulture flourishes in every corner of the continent where vines will grow, especially California where it all began. But just north of the Golden State, in Oregon and in Washington, they are doing incredible things as well, and for a fraction of the cost to consumers when compared to the some of the outrageous price tags on renowned Californian labels. While the appellations vary wildly across these two territories when it comes to climate, soil and varietals cultivated, the dominant influence is the Cascade Mountains – the spine that runs up the middle of the Northwest and hence the naming of this article. (You might also include British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley in this discussion, but for simplicity let’s focus only on the United States.)

First of note is the Willamette Valley, Oregon straddling the westward side of the Cascades and sheltered from Pacific tempests by two other minor ranges. Through a combination of ideally suited terroir and dedicated winemaking, this region now produces decent pinot gris as well as some of the world’s best pinot noir – bottles that can go toe-to-toe with anything produced in Burgundy or New Zealand.

Further up the coast it becomes a bit too frigid and stormy for proper grapevine maturation. And so the production migrates to the leeward side of the Cascades in the rain-shadowed Columbia Valley where the high latitude – that is, vastly extended daylight hours – allow for such colder climate varietals as cabernet franc, chardonnay, gewürztraminer, Riesling and sauvignon blanc to thrive. Given its dry summers, however, many vintners have successfully stabilized the production of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah – traditionally hot climate varietals – so much so that they represent the dominant share of the annual red grape crush.

Circling back to the point about these wines having on average lower price tags than their southern neighbors, this is not a result of poor quality but rather a lack of recognition. Bringing these wines to the forefront, however, can elicit a positive reaction from your restaurant patrons through delightful surprise and education. To accomplish this and thereby boost meal satisfaction, you must train your staff accordingly as well as allow these wines to ‘breathe’ through what may ostensibly be called a varietal non-compete clause.

To help explain this last point, consider a scenario where you are planning to put Willamette’s raison d’être – pinot noir – on the menu. Assume that your average guest is familiar with Burgundy, California and New Zealand but not with the hidden gems of the Northwest. If you also list pinot noir from those three other better-known regions, then the Willamette bottle won’t stand a chance of garnering significant sales because most patrons will default to what they already know. Instead, if you were to only offer pinot noir from Oregon – giving them a choice of, say, two or three wineries – then those guests in search of such a flavor spectrum would have no choice but to try one or at the very least ask their server to describe it in more detail.

While such a clear non-compete cannot be stated for Washington which has yet to refine its identity down to a single grape or blending style, syrah represents the best bet. The state’s production for this grape is remarkable, with unique characteristics that differentiate the drop from its Australian shiraz and Côte du Rhône counterparts. As most people are still unacquainted with the pleasures of sampling a syrah from the Northwest, by putting one on the wine list and not drowning it in a sea of other similarly full-bodied, inky palates, you may find that your customers will be amazed by your recommendation.

In any case, wines from the Cascades are yours to discover, and I hope you do before everyone else does and the prices become unaffordable!

(Article by Larry Mogelonsky, originally published in Hotels Magazine on April 25, 2017