Definitions of outlier:
1) a person, thing, or part situated away from a main or related body
2) a point in a sample widely separated from the main cluster
The outlier AVA in Washington state – Puget Sound – fits perfectly. It is no criticism whatsoever to point to its outlier status, but it may offer a place to begin understanding how and why it exists.
Officially sanctioned in 1995, it includes the Puget Sound and its many islands (the red part of the map), along with parts of the Olympic Peninsula, and a wide swath of the mainland’s western edge. It is the home of the state’s first known vineyard, planted at Fort Vancouver around 1825. Today 14 wineries and a dozen growers are members of the Puget Sound Wine Growers Association but that membership does not include everyone who is growing grapes on the west side. As recently as yesterday, an article in the Seattle Times, describing a Bainbridge Island Winery Alliance, noted that pioneering winemaker Gerard Bentryn (Bainbridge Island Vineyards & Winery) has opted out “because he believes other winemakers compromise the integrity of the craft by not using island grapes.”
This is not just a local spat – it points to the crux of the marketing challenges surrounding the Puget Sound wineries. Should they focus exclusively on estate-grown grapes? I see Bentryn’s point, and he’s walked the walk for decades. Do what you can do right here, and do it well, and establish the AVA as focused and unique. But I can also understand the business advantages of mixing in wines from eastern Washington grapes.
The SWGA website proclaims that “because of the great climate in the Puget Sound basin, we have an abundance of choices for high quality grapes to choose from. Many of the grapes are well known, but some are not widely planted. Research continues to uncover new earlier ripening grape varieties and new areas west of the Cascades to grow grapes. With time and more growers planting every year, we'll uncover the optimal grapes and locations to grow grapes in the Puget Sound AVA. ”
Washington State University is an important player in this research, and operates a Mount Vernon Research Station with grape trials and solid information for those intending to plant vineyards on the west side.
Much data is tossed out to prove that “a good comparison in Europe to the Puget Sound might be the Loire valley, near Nantes (Muscadet), the Northern Rhine valley in Germany, Champagne or Chablis.” Though statistically correct, there is no correlation in terms of soils to any of these European regions, and I would not expect the Puget Sound to be producing comparable wines. Nor should it.
The grapes that have been shown to do quite well at a number of island vineyard sites are cool climate white wine grapes such as Madeleine Angevine, siegerrebe, Muller-Thurgau, and Chasselas. Some smaller plots of chardonnay, pinot gris and pinot noir show potential. Some excellent berry wines are also produced.
It is a foregone conclusion that most Puget Sound wineries will continue to choose to augment their home-grown varietals with wines made from eastern Washington grapes. The leading island-based winery – Andrew Will – uses only eastern Washington grapes, proving that mountain passes, bridges and ferries need not preclude the ability to make world-class wines. But fair or unfair, and despite all the statistics, the climate, soils and western Washington location of this unique AVA will always keep it quite separate from the rest of the state.
A focus on what can be done well within the region, rather than efforts to draw comparisons with foreign wine regions, would, I believe, be more beneficial to generating tourism and interest in the wines.
Definitions of outlier: