It was an extraordinarily busy year in Pacific Northwest wine country.
Wineries were launched, wineries burned down, vineyards were planted, and American Viticultural Areas were approved by the federal government.
Throughout 2015, we kept our finger on the pulse of the wine news in our region, and today and Thursday, we will recap the year’s 20 most important stories and developments.
Here are Nos. 20 through 11:
20. Ste. Michelle launches Tenet Wines with French winemakers
Through the years, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates has strategically worked with Old World winemakers to launch projects and heighten awareness of Washington wine.
It started in 1994 with Col Solare, a joint operation with the Antinori family, a company that began making Italian wine in the 1380s. That resulted in the opening of a new winemaking facility near the top of Red Mountain and the annual release of a ultra-premium red blend.
In 1999, Ste. Michelle teamed up with renowned German winemaker Ernst Loosen to create Eroica, a wine that revitalized the American Riesling industry.
And in 2015, Ste. Michelle launched Tenet Wines, a Syrah project with Rhône Valley winemakers Michel Gassier and Philippe Cambie. Together, they created three wines: a Washington Syrah, a Washington GSM and a Southern Rhône Syrah.
19. Pike & Western turns 40
It is one of the oldest wine shops in Washington, and it got its start when a group of entrepreneurs who helped save the Pike Place Market decided to get into the wine retail business.
Though it’s no longer at Pike & Western (it hasn’t for a long time; it’s near the original Starbucks), it’s still going strong and is an ambassador to international tourists for Washington wines. The store has been owned for decades by Michael Teer.
18. Auction of Washington Wines raises record $2.5 million
The Auction of Washington Wines is in its 28th year, and this year it raised a record $2.5 million. The auction, held on the grounds of Chateau Ste. Michelle in Woodinville, benefits Children’s Hospital in Seattle and education and research at Washington State University.
The auction is a multi-day event that encompasses both sides of the state, and its highlight is the gala auction in August.
17. Reustle-Prayer Rock best New World Syrah
Stephen Reustle has been on a roll since planting his vineyards in Southern Oregon’s Umpqua Valley. This year, it all came together for him, particularly in October, when the Reustle-Prayer Rock Vineyards 2012 Masada Bloc Syrah won best New World Syrah at the prestigious Six Nations Wine Challenge.
Reustle’s Syrah finished first out of 52 Syrahs and Shirazes handpicked by wine experts from Australia, California, Chile, South Africa, New Zealand and Argentina.
16. Walla Walla Valley’s surprising vineyard acreage
The Walla Walla Valley’s reputation for producing world-class red wines is well earned. Now a new study reveals one reason why: Of the 2,836 acres of grapes grown in the valley, 95 percent are red varieties, led by 1,036.8 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, followed by Syrah and Merlot.
The study, commissioned by the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance, revealed many surprises, not the least of which that more than half the acreage in the valley is on the Washington side. Most wine experts in the valley were under the assumption that the Oregon side of the valley was the dominant area for vineyard growth.
Rick Small, owner of Woodward Canyon Winery – the second-oldest winery in the valley – said one reason for the dominance of red grapes probably has to do with the fact that the region developed in the 1980s and ‘90s – much later than the Yakima Valley to the west. Because the region earned its early reputation with red varieties, they were then planted as a result.
15. Winemaker changes
Each year sees winemaking changes throughout the Pacific Northwest. Three of the most significant in 2015 were:
Wendy Stuckey left her position as white winemaker for Chateau Ste. Michelle to take over the new job as director of winemaking for Constellation New Zealand. Taking the position of white winemaker for the Woodinville winery is David Rosenthal, who began working for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates in 2001. Read more.
Paula Eakin has been elevated to head winemaker for Michelle Sparkling Wine, the bubble house for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. She took over for Rick Casqueiro, who retired from Michelle in April after being on the job since 1996. Read more.
John Simes stepped aside as head winemaker for Mission Hill Family Estate in West Kelowna, British Columbia. He now oversees vineyard operations for the iconic Okanagan Valley winery. Simes had been head winemaker at Mission Hill since 1992. Taking over for him is Darryl Brooker. Read more.
14. Eagle Foothills AVA approved
In November, Idaho’s second American Viticultural Area was approved by the federal government. The Eagle Foothills AVA is north of Boise and entirely within the Snake River Valley, which was approved in 2007.
It’s a 49,815-acre area that is home to one winery – 3 Horse Ranch Vineyards – and 69 acres of vines. The wines for 3 Horse Ranch are made by Greg Koenig. Eagle Foothills is a high-elevation AVA, rising to more than 2,900 feet above sea level.
Eagle Foothills also is the first Idaho AVA to be entirely within the state’s borders, as the Snake River Valley dips into Oregon, and the proposed Lewis-Clark Valley would be shared with Washington.
13. Wildfire destroys Lake Chelan winery
Wildfires that ravaged many areas of Eastern Washington destroyed a winery near Lake Chelan. Ventimiglia Cellars was razed by a fire in mid-August just hours after owner Ron Ventimiglia and his customers were told to evacuate.
Ventimiglia got out with just a few cases of wines. He lost his winery building, 250 cases of finished wines and 40 barrels filled with wine from the 2014 vintage. The fire consumed more than 200,000 acres and dozens of buildings and homes before it was finally contained.
Ventimiglia plans to rebuild his winery and made arrangements to produce his 2015 vintage at another facility.
12. Rocks District of Milton-Freewater approved
In early February, the federal government approved the Rocks District of Milton-Freewater, which became the Oregon’s 18th American Viticultural Area.
While the Rocks District is most famous for its Syrahs, the area is surprisingly diverse, with 18 grape varieties planted amid its 279.2 acres. Syrah makes up 126.7 acres, followed by Cabernet Sauvignon with 66.3 acres and Grenache with 20.9 acres planted.
More than a fourth of the Syrah planted in the Walla Walla Valley comes from the Rocks District.
11. Washington State Wine Commission goes big at U.S. Open
When the 2015 U.S. Open came to Chambers Bay, a golf course near Tacoma, the Washington State Wine Commission decided to go all in, sponsoring a corporate tent and pouring more than 100 Washington wines during the week of the tournament.
The wine commission teamed up with Delta Air Lines and Visit Seattle to pay $120,000 for the right to represent Washington wines at the international tournament, which was the largest sporting event ever staged in Washington state.