Over the years the occasional bottle of Washington-grown pinot noir has surfaced. Linc and Joan Wolverton had some early success at their Salishan winery and vineyard, planted in 1971 just outside La Center (which might more aptly be named La Middle of Nowhere) in southwest Washington.
At the same time, on the other side of the Cascades, in the Columbia Gorge, Charles Henderson (at Mont Elise winery) was also planting pinot noir, as were Margaret and Dr. William McAndrew, at Celilo. These early pioneers were perhaps inspired by the words of chronicler Leon Adams. Adams authored "The Wines of America," which first appeared around that time. Though Washington and Oregon get few pages in the book, the timing of Adams' research was spot on. He was an eyewitness to the birth of the modern era of wine-grape growing and wine production in both states.
"In 1966," he writes, "I visited the Yakima Valley and saw several vineyards of such pedigreed varieties as cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir. I was amazed to find the wineries were wasting these costly grapes, mixing them with concord in nondescript port and burgundy blends."
It was Adams who suggested that Beaulieu's legendary enologist, Andre Tchelistcheff (the uncle of Quilceda Creek founder Alex Golitzin), come to Washington to taste and consult. In September 1967, Adams reports, Tchelistcheff "selected perfect batches of cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, semillon and grenache, and had them fermented at controlled temperatures. He had the cabernet stored in American white-oak barrels, and the pinot noir in new Limousin oak from France."
Going back even further, you find that the founders of Associated Vintners (now Columbia winery) had planted pinot noir in the Yakima Valley as early as 1961. In fact, a pinot noir was among the first commercial releases from the AV in 1967.
Woodward Canyon's Rick Small made small amounts of pinot noir for a number of years, from a vineyard tucked into the foothills of the Blue Mountains, just east of Milton-Freewater. In recent years, pinot has been making a small comeback in new vineyards scattered throughout Washington, but generally outside of the mainstream -- small plots in Western Washington (including one at Hollywood Hill Vineyards in Woodinville), around Lake Chelan, up in the Okanogan and on the Royal Slope.
Despite a rich history and more than a few dedicated attempts, pinot noir has persistently resisted all efforts to wrangle it into some identifiable Washington style. In fact, it has acquired a reputation as the one grape that Washington can't grow, a sort of reverse mirror image of Oregon's reputation for being a pinot-only state. Neither is correct.
Any lingering doubts I may have had regarding the possibilities for excellent Washington pinot noir were put to rest by a tasting orchestrated by Syncline's James Mantone. He has been making pinot noir from the original Celilo vines since 1999. We tasted eight vintages in all: 1999, 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2005 through 2008. All were still in fine form, with a distinctive style that was different from any Oregon pinots I've tasted.
When I posted the tasting notes on my website, a number of readers chimed in with information about other pinot experiments. The consensus: The main reasons that early attempts were largely doomed were that the clones planted were inferior. One was the so-called Martini clone (a California transplant of dubious heritage); some may not have been pinot at all. But today, with far better clones and more appropriate locations, it seems we are on the cusp of finally taming the last outrider in Washington's wine-grape pantheon.
Back in the day, Salishan sold T-shirts that read "Washington's answer to Oregon Pinot Noir." They weren't wrong -- just about 30 years early.
Paul Gregutt is the author of "Washington Wines & Wineries." Find him at www.paulgregutt.com or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.