Washington makes more Pinot Gris than Oregon. Where are all the wines?

In this month’s Five Wines Under $15, we take a look at Washington Pinot Gris with a cyber special 2:1 wine list. Read previous Five Under $15s here.

Scan the wine and grocery store shelves and you will find a good selection of Oregon Pinot Gris. You might be surprised then to hear that Washington makes more Pinot Gris than Oregon. In fact, Pinot Gris is Washington’s third most planted white grape at over 1,500 acres. The obvious question then is, where are all the wines?

Pinot Gris plantings have been on an astronomical rise in Washington in the last several years. According to the USDA, there were a mere 488 acres of Pinot Gris in Washington in 2006. By 2011, total plantings were 1,576 acres, meaning they have more than tripled in the last five years. No other grape in Washington has shown such a large percentage increase over this time. Nothing is even close.

As one would expect, production has increased dramatically as well. In 2006 Pinot Gris was fifth behind Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and even Gewurztraminer. By 2010 it had vaulted to third with 6,100 tons produced.

Meanwhile, Oregon produced 5,312 tons of Pinot Gris in 2010 from 2,747 acres. That’s right, Washington is currently making more Pinot Gris than Oregon - one of the state’s mainstay grapes.

Does something seem strange about this picture? Where is all of that Washington Pinot Gris?

Let’s look for it.

Yakima Valley is home to more than half of the state’s plantings at 855 acres. Columbia Valley is second at 248 acres and Horse Heaven Hills third at 138. After that there are a smattering of plantings in the Columbia Gorge, Rattlesnake Hills, Lake Chelan, and (gulp) Puget Sound.

But where are the wines? Again, in 2010 Washington produced 6,100 tons of Pinot Gris. Assuming a conservative 50 cases of wine per ton of grapes, one would expect to see over 300,000 cases of Pinot Gris produced in Washington in 2010. Recent production numbers don’t look remotely close to this.

In 2009, the last year for which good data are available, major wineries account for less than 200,000 cases of Pinot Gris (see table at bottom of post). This would leave a gap of more than 100,000 cases.

Where is all of this Pinot Gris going?

There would seem to be two possibilities. The first is that a wave of Washington Pinot Gris is about to come our way. Given the large acreage increase in the last five years, many of these vines are just coming on line. If this is true, we can expect to see an increasing amount of Washington Pinot Gris on the shelves in the coming years. Still, this doesn’t account for what happened to the 6,100 tons of Pinot Gris in 2010.

A second possibility is that a large amount of Washington Pinot Gris is being blended into other varietal and non-varietally labeled white wines to stretch them out. The most likely candidate for varietal wines would be Chardonnay and then, perhaps, Sauvignon Blanc. At $765 per ton, Pinot Gris is considerably less expensive than Chardonnay ($899) and Sauvignon Blanc ($843) in Washington. Outside of comparably priced Semillon ($761), only the lowly Chenin Blanc at $688 per ton is less expensive in the state (NB: The only reason there is so much old vine Chenin Blanc in Washington is because it is used to stretch out other white wines).

It is also possible that Pinot Gris is making its way into large production, generic white blends. But what wines?

Regardless of where it’s all going and whether wineries are looking to stretch out their white wines or not, why would Washington vineyards be planting so much Pinot Gris in recent years?

Nationally, Pinot Gris is on the rise. The Wine Market Council recently noted that Pinot Gris consumption has increased steadily in the last five years with 39% of wine drinkers drinking the wine in 2010 up from 27% in 2006. According to Nielsen, Pinot Gris has had one of the largest volume increases in sales for white wines in the past year behind Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc. So there do appear to be reasons for planting the grape.

Is Pinot Gris poised to become a hallmark white wine for Washington? It doesn’t seem likely. While many of the wines reviewed below were enjoyable, none gave particular cause for excitement. Unlike other grapes that have been on the rise recently in Washington – think Malbec, Grenache, and Tempranillo – Pinot Gris’ ascent seems to be caused more by market dynamics than by high quality wines that have captured consumer or critical attention.

Is there a common thread to Washington Pinot Gris? Looking at releases from the 2009 and 2010 vintages below, it is difficult to say. Washington’s Pinot Gris are all light in color. Most are lightly aromatic with spice, straw, and apple notes, occasionally veering into a more tropical realm. The wines are medium to medium-plus bodied, separating them from many of their white wine peers. Most are 100% varietal and fermented and aged in stainless steel. But there the story ends, without something truly distinguishing or distinctive.

Ultimately, while Washington Pinot Gris is still in its early days, it’s hard to see why one would drink these wines over say Chardonnay (light to medium bodied, often with more acidity), Sauvignon Blanc (more acidity), or Riesling (more aromatic, more acidity, and considerably more diverse). Still, with all of this Pinot Gris planted, some Washington winemakers are sure to create wines that capture the imagination. Could a Pinot Gris gold rush follow? Only time will tell.

Columbia Crest Grand Estates Pinot Gris Columbia Valley 2010 $12

Rating: + (Good) Pale lemon yellow. Moderately aromatic with spice and pear. Palate is broad and medium bodied with a drawn out mouthfeel. Lingers on the finish. A pleasing, well made wine. 97.5% Pinot Gris, 2.5% Pinot Blanc. Fermented and aged in stainless steel. 13% alcohol. Recommended.

Dusted Valley Vintners Boomtown Pinot Gris Washington State 2010 $13
Rating: + (Good) Just the slightest tinge of color. A lightly aromatic wine with bananas and other tropical fruit and apple. The palate has a spritzy feel and is full of mango and banana flavors with a crisp finish. A very clean, enjoyable wine. 100% Pinot Gris. Evergreen Vineyard. Fermented and aged in stainless steel. 13.0% alcohol. Recommended. Reviewed November 18, 2011

Sockeye Pinot Grigio Columbia Valley 2010 $12

Rating: + (Good) Pale lemon yellow. Considerably more aromatic than the other wines sampled here with grass, lemon, hay, and bananas. The palate is medium bodied, full of banana flavors, with a rounded feel. 75% Pinot Gris, 16% Sauvignon Blanc, and 9% Roussanne. Canyon Ranch, Phil Church, A&R, and Willow Crest vineyards. 13.0% alcohol. 0.37% Residual Sugar. 1,542 cases produced. Recommended

Columbia Crest H3 Pinot Gris Horse Heaven Hills 2009 $15

Rating: + (Good) Pale lemon yellow. Very lightly aromatic with straw and a distinct aniseed note. Palate is medium bodied and broad with a textured feel, full of apple flavors with a spice filled finish. Despite the small percentage used, the oak plays a notable part in this show, broadening out the wine and contributing to spice flavors on the finish. 92% Pinot Gris, 8% Pinot Blanc. 92% fermented and aged in stainless steel. 8% fermented and aged in two-year-old American oak. 13.0% alcohol. 5,000 cases produced.

Chateau Ste Michelle Pinot Gris Columbia Valley 2009 $13

Rating: + (Good) Pale lemon yellow. A fairly aromatic wine with yellow apple, straw, and buttery spices. Palate is medium-plus bodied with an almost creamy feel accented by moderate acidity. 94% Pinot Gris, 6% Viognier. Fermented and aged in stainless steel. 13.5% alcohol.

Hogue Cellars Pinot Grigio Columbia Valley 2010 $11

Rating: + (Good) Pale lemon yellow. Very lightly aromatic with yellow apple, spice, and traces of tropical fruit. Palate is medium bodied with a broad feel. Appears to have just the slightest touch of Residual Sugar. A very enjoyable, well made wine. 50,000 cases produced. 13.4% alcohol.

Columbia Crest Two Vines Pinot Grigio Columbia Valley 2009 $8

Rating: ./+ (Decent/Good) Pale lemon yellow. Very lightly aromatic with yellow apple and spice notes. Palate is medium bodied and a bit more generous in texture than the other wines sampled here with a drawn out feel. Overall an enjoyable, easy drinker. 12.5% alcohol. 50,000 cases produced.

Waterbrook Winery Pinot Gris Columbia Valley 2010 $11

Rating: ./+ (Decent/Good) Considerably more aromatic than most of the wines sampled here with ripe yellow apple, pear, white grapefruit, and banana. The palate is tear dropped shaped, starting out broadly and then tapering off with abundant pear and floral notes. 100% Pinot Gris. 0.54% Residual Sugar. 12.3% alcohol. 2,000 cases produced.

Barnard Griffin Pinot Gris Columbia Valley 2009 $12

Rating: . (Decent) Very pale in color. Aromatically the wine has a distinct funk to it along with spice notes. The palate is medium bodied with a slightly tart finish. Caroway Vineyard (Columbia Valley), Gunkel Vineyard (Columbia Valley), and Freepons Vineyard (Yakima Valley). Fermented and aged in stainless steel. 12.01% alcohol. 0.2g/100ml Residual Sugar. 560 cases produced.

Columbia Winery Pinot Gris Columbia Valley 2009 $11

Rating: . (Decent) Pale lemon yellow. Very lightly aromatic with straw, spice, and apple. Shows some alcohol. Medium bodied, the wine comes off as somewhat short, tart, and bitter. On the low end of this section of the scale. 13.0% alcohol.

Table - 2009 Pinot Gris Production by Brand



Chateau Ste. Michelle Pinot Gris 2009


Columbia Crest Pinot Grigio Two Vines 2009


Hogue Pinot Grigio Columbia Valley 2009


Columbia Crest Grand Estates Pinot Grigio 2009


Columbia Crest H3 Pinot Gris 2009


Milbrandt Traditions Pinot Gris 2009


Mercer Pinot Gris Yakima Valley 2009


Waterbrook Pinot Gris Columbia Valley 2009


Dusted Valley Boomtown Pinot Gris Washington 2009


Ross Andrew Pinot Gris Columbia Gorge 2009


Hyatt Vineyards Pinot Gris Rattlesnake Hills 2009


Total Cases

169, 690

NB: Columbia Winery made 8,376 cases of Pinot Gris in 2008. 2009 numbers were not available.

Sean P. Sullivan


  1. A lot of the fruit could be destined for sparkling wine production.

  2. Joel, very good point. I was wondering if that might be the case.

  3. Thanks for a very interesting posting on this vinous conundrum. While nationally PG sales have indeed been booming the last few years, it's a tough market from the supply side. Most of it is sold as Pinot Grigio at $10/bottle and under. California and Italy are locked in a fierce battle for market share. California's supply from the efficient and low-cost Central Valley region comprises 2/3 of their acreage and is still growing. It is a critical variety for Italy's exports; so more price and shelf space wars and promotional spending can be expected. Meanwhile the Pinot Gris market over $10 is still nascent and Oregon has a substantial share and a headstart in establishing a reputation. If there is demand for Washington Pinot Gris as a blender, it may be a useful safety net. That's been the fate of a lot of California Syrah.

  4. Anon, I'm actually in agreement with you in many respects. Most of the Washington Pinot Gris I sampled here were fairly one dimensional and not particularly aromatic or flavorful. Most were well made and reasonably enjoyable but were what I call JAW wines - Just Another White, innocuous and inoffensive. As I wrote above, I'm not sure why I would pick these wines above other whites.

    A couple of my favorite Pinot Gris from Washington have come from Tranche Cellars and PB wines. These wines have been as you described - higher in acid with a bit of residual sugar. Would this recipe work for all? No, but it might produce some wines with a bit more diversity and interest than what we are currently seeing.

  5. Come on now, that thing about the Chenin Blanc was a cheap shot. I sense some hostility. Show me the data.

  6. Anon 9:52pm, thanks for the heads up. I'll keep an eye out for it.

  7. Anon 12:32am, I looked in several spots for the Willow Crest PG but didn't find it unfortunately. I'll keep looking. I agree Washington PGs seem unlikely to give France or Italy a run for their money (or ours).

    I'm looking forward to trying the Pontin del Roza Chenin. I've heard good things. Washington could, and should, make more kick ass Chenin Blanc with all of the old vines we have. For many years, L'Ecole has done its part to carry the Chenin banner. It's time for others to step up. It only takes one man - or woman - with a mission.

  8. Did you stop and think about how much fruit/juice (especially pinot gris) doesn't get made into wine right off that bat but gets sold outright as juice to the "Wine Kit" manufacturers?

    All the Wine Kit manufacturers are located in Canada (just a hop skip and a jump away from WA).

    They are there because of the high sin taxes on alcohol (including wine) but not on grape juice. They sell most of it in Canada but lots of it as well to the home winemakers in the lower 48 (including myself).

    WA State has fantastic fruit/juice at an excellent price point compared to anything coming out of Napa.

    I would put my $$$ on the missing stuff being sold in a box on a store shelf as "kit wines" to the home winemakers Sean.

  9. The thing that always puzzles me is that we see so much Pinot Gris coming out of Washington/Oregon, but so little Pinot Blanc. I think Pinot Blanc is much more intrinsically interesting, and, well handled, can make very beautiful wine. Like Pinot Gris, it can be pretty insipid if not handled correctly though.

    Sean, it seems that your favorite wines were the most aromatic ones. That makes sense to me, since the wines themselves are relatively nondescript. I've noticed that you mention tropical/banana (or more accurately, ester) aromas in quite a few of the wines above. I'm pretty sure that doesn't come from the grapes directly, but is a byproduct of fermentation. A winemaker once told me that you can increase the aromatics of a white wine by keeping the fermentation cool, but if it was too cool, the aromas would turn all estery. I want to see what the grapes express in a finished wine, so when I taste a wine that has everything covered up with that heavy, generic tropical fruit thing, I consider it a flaw. I love a good aromatic wine, but I suspect it's a fine line to walk between getting the most aromatic content from the grape and letting the grape express it's own character.

  10. ibglowin, interesting hypothesis! Will have to do some digging.

    Dave E, I noticed as well that the wines that I preferred were a bit more aromatic than the others. However, these wines also brought more fruit expression on the palate as well better balance. Some of the wines were very, very lightly aromatic. If tasting these wines they had a bit more of a hook to hang a hat on - flavor, texture, acid, balance, etc, I would have found this less of an issue. Many though just seemed a bit like generic white wine with a bit more body and a bit less acid and little in the way of aromatics.

    In terms of the tropical/banana notes, some grapes can definitely produce a good deal of tropical aromas and flavors. As long as the wine is in balance, I have no issue with this, especially if these notes are typical for the varietal.

  11. Jeez Sean, STOP in Prosser sometime! Willow Crest and Pontin del Roza make some of the best varietals you are writing about in the state...

    They are NOT that hard to find, the big blue signs on the interstate point you to both.

  12. I will add that I thought the Columbia Crest H3 improved after a day of being open and based on this I would recommend it.