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Washington’s viticultural history dates back to 1825, when the Hudson’s Bay Company planted the first wine grapes, and by the start of the 20th century every corner of the state was planted with vines. Prohibition put a stop to it, and for decades following the protectionist policies of the state liquor control board ensured that only cheap, sweet wines, punched up to 18 or 19 percent alcohol with bags of sugar, were made. The laws changed in the late 1960s, but as recently as the mid-1970s there were only a half dozen wineries in the state, and only two survive today. The first commercially available vinifera wines were made in 1967 by those same wineries, Ste. Michelle and Columbia (then called Associated Vintners).

Washington’s vineyards are almost entirely irrigated, as the state’s eastern half is mostly desert. Major rivers – the Yakima, the Columbia and the Snake – provide water and define most of the AVA borders. The sandy soils and cold winters have proven resistant to the plague of phylloxera, and Washington is unique in the country in that vines are not grafted onto different rootstock. Though initially it was believed that Washington’s winters were too cold for most vinifera grapes to survive, that has been proven wrong. Better clones, better vineyard management, the judicious use of irrigation and the ongoing exploration of favorable vineyard sites has opened the doors to world class grapes and wines of almost every conceivable variety.

Today, Washington has almost 450 wineries of all sizes. Among the state’s geographic advantages are extra sunlight hours during the growing season (on average, two more hours a day than in California), few if any problems with rain, mold, mildew or rot, and an extended autumn that allows grapes to hang well into October and even November. The fruit attains optimal ripening, while maintaining natural acidity. Washington, more than any other place in the U.S., bridges the gap between traditional Old World winemaking and the pumped-up, sweet and sappy wines of much of the New World.

~ Paul Gregutt

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