In search of…Washington State Pinot Noir

Among the accomplishments of Washington as a wine region has not just been the ability to produce world-class wine but also the ability to grow a wide variety of grapes very well. The list of grapes that have succeeded in Washington includes Merlot, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Cabernet Franc to name just a few. These grapes all grow well and, in some cases, distinctively in the state. The Washington Wine Commission has even utilized the state's success in growing different grapes in its branding, calling Washington ‘The Perfect Climate for Wine.’

Despite this success, one grape in particular has remained largely elusive in Washington - Pinot Noir. While Pinot Noir has flourished to the south in Oregon, it has failed to gain a foothold in Washington. Recently, growers in the Lake Chelan area have expressed optimism about the grape’s prospects there. Indeed, I have had an intriguing bottle from Chelan Estate Winery and a barrel sample that showed great promise from Hard Row to Hoe which utilized Chelan Estate grapes.

However, much of the Pinot I have had from Washington comes off as citrusy and lacks many of the compelling varietal aromas and flavors associated with Pinot. As the movie Sideways taught the world, Pinot is a thin-skinned grape and finding the right microclimate for it – not too hot and not too cold – is essential to its success.

Two wines I have tried recently show progress for Pinot in Washington. The first comes from Syncline Wine Cellars. Syncline Wine Cellars is located in the Columbia Gorge in Lyle, Washington. The winery – which largely focuses on Rhone varieties - gets its Pinot Noir from Celilo Vineyard and Underwood Mountain. While Celilo is best known for its Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer, Celilo also has a two-acre Pinot Noir block that was planted in 1972. The vines are located on a bluff above the Columbia Gorge, which provides both warm temperatures and a moderating influence from the river. Underwood Mountain, where the remainder of the fruit for the winery's 2008 offering comes from, is adjacent to Celilo. The Syncline 2008 Pinot Noir is bright and fruit-filled with pleasing acidity and extremely restrained oak.

The second wine comes from Kyra Wines. Kyra is located in Moses Lake, Washington. Kyra Baerlocher serves as winemaker. Kyra offers a distinctive lineup of red wines that includes Dolcetto, Sangiovese, Merlot, and Pinot Noir. Kyra also makes a number of white wines, including a winery favorite Chenin Blanc. Kyra gets its Pinot from several vineyards throughout the state, including Evergreen (Ancient Lakes), Bergh (Okanagan), Blue Lake (Okanagan), and Underwood Mountain (Gorge). The Kyra Pinot Noir is a very enjoyable, clean wine that definitely identifies itself as Pinot Noir and is extremely well priced.

While both of these bottles show promise, it still seems difficult to imagine that Pinot Noir will make significant inroads in Washington any time soon. With vintners focusing on so many other grapes and Oregon having laid such a strong claim to Pinot Noir, bottlings in Washington will most likely remain reasonably rare. However, Washington growers and winemakers love experimenting, so I wouldn’t count this thin-skinned grape out.

Syncline Wine Cellars Pinot Noir Celilo Vineyard Columbia Gorge 2008 $28
Rating: + (Good) A moderately aromatic nose that shows fresh raspberries, strawberries, and a hint of mushroom. A bright, fruit filled wine with a pleasing zing of acidity and extremely restrained oak. Celilo and Underwood Mountain vineyards. Aged in French oak (20% new). 258 cases produced.

Kyra Wines Pinot Noir Washington State 2008 $18
Rating: + (Good) Nose is marked by strawberry and raspberry aromas along with light candied fruit. Light, clean, and crisp on the palate on a very enjoyable wine. One of the more promising examples I have had from Washington. 100% Pinot Noir. Evergreen Vineyard (Ancient Lakes), Bergh Vineyard (Okanagan), Blue Lake Vineyard (Okanagan), and Underwood Mountain (Columbia Gorge). Aged in French oak (30% new). 14.1% alcohol. 420 cases produced.

Sean P. Sullivan


  1. Hey, Dont forget that famous Skagit Valley winery! Challenger Ridge, a pinot Noir from Concrete , not bad. Wazzu says it can be done up there?

  2. Anonymous - there's a least 3 pinot vineyards on the Oregon side of the Walla Walla AVA - Alderbanks and Couse Creek are on Couse Creek a tributary to the Walla Walla River and the Dewitt vineyard is just 2 miles south of the border in the Blue Mtn. foothills. Firesteed uses Alderbanks, Bergevin Lane has made a pinot from Couse Creek. Rick Small (Woodward Canyon) made magnificent pinot from Couse Creek in the late 90's - truly impressive stuff. There is great potential, in my opinion, for pinot at higher elevations 2000-3000 ft. in the Blue Mountains above Walla2.

  3. Bean, thanks for the heads up about Bainbridge Island. Have never tried their Pinot but will seek it out.

    Ed, the upcoming #PinotNoir tasting wasn't on my radar screen so thanks for mentioning it.

    Anon 10:24am, thanks for the heads up on the Okanogan Estate Pinot. Have never tried it but will seek it out.

    Anon 11:33am, will be interesting to see what happens in the Skagit. Tough environment there I fear.

    Clive, indeed, our mind meld appears to be complete!

    Anon, 12:36pm and Terroirist, thanks for the info regarding the WWV plantings. Terroirist, please make sure to put 'Oregon side' of WWV AVA in quotes in all subsequent comments regarding this region less they actually start thinking it belongs to them!

    Appreciate the comments all!

  4. I just visited White Heron yesterday, and they have the biggest Pinot Noir I have ever had from Washington (not that P. Noir should be big!) And it retails at $15.00!

  5. Vineyardgurl, very interesting! I haven't tried the Pinot from White Heron but will look around for it. Thanks for the heads up.

  6. We also love the Chelan Estates Pinot Noir & are proud to serve it by teh glass @ Cypress Wine Bar @ the Westin Bellevue.

  7. I'm also enjoy a good pinot noir. A lot of our customers enjoy them from the Niagara region.