About 40 years ago, I was chatting with a then-young winemaker about why he remained in Washington state rather than returning to his native California.
“Washington is the Wild West of winemaking,” he told me.
He stayed because he wanted to be part of a frontier spirit that was looking ahead to see what could be done here, find out what wine grapes would grow here and discover and develop the winemaking techniques required to make high-quality wines.
He and many other winemakers, grape growers and winery owners — sometimes all the same person in small operations — have achieved that. Now second and third generations of those families are gradually taking their places, adding their own ideas, innovations and skills while working to discover new grape varietals suited to the Pacific Northwest’s soils, microclimates and other variables that go into making the great wines of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and British Columbia.
On Red Mountain at Ciel du Cheval Vineyard, Richard Holmes, son of Jim Holmes, long recognized as one of Washington’s premier grape growers, is working to exploit his family’s 48 years of growing grapes there, plus a gradual program to rehabilitate vines and replace some of the 35 blocks of vines.
Some additions are no surprise — more Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, for example, though in newer clones. The subtractions — Chardonnay and Riesling — are easily understandable when one considers the per-ton price compared with red wine grapes. The innovations — 20.5 acres of Nebbiolo, Charbono and Counoise plus small plots of Albariño and Arneis — prove that pioneering spirit persists, even across a site where a banker might rather see more Cabernet.
The Arneis (pronounced ahr-NASE), planted in 2017 and now on mature vines, underlines that the pioneering spirit remains. Arneis is an Italian white wine grape commonly grown in the Piedmont region that was little known outside Italy until rather recently. There, it can qualify as a DOCG wine (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita), the highest ranking granted.
In 1971, when I first toured Italy, Arneis — which translated to “little rascal” — was out of favor, had almost disappeared in the vineyards and was viewed as a cheap white table wine. Since rehabilitated and up to about 1,500 acres, it was popular, common in several wine shops my wife and I visited in 2016 and no longer selling at table wine prices.
“We think it’s Washington’s first Arneis,” Richard Holmes said of his family’s planting, “and definitely the first on Red Mountain.”
In the Pacific Northwest, it’s rare, with small amounts grown in Oregon — namely by the famed Ponzi family — and Idaho’s Snake River Valley. Par Terre Winery, selected as the 2019 Idaho Winery to Watch by the Great Northwest Wine editorial team, is offering its 2021 Arneis for $18. Owner/winemaker Travis Walker purchased the Arenis from historic Arena Valley Vineyard, the picturesque estate planting of Snake River Winery owner/winemaker Scott DeSeelhorst.
Holmes is proud of its aromatics (“Don’t drink it refrigerator-cold,” he warns), its body, its Red Mountain minerality and the rather broad range of fruit it shows on the palate. He credits some of that to cold-soaking the fruit on the skins.
And he says Red Mountain may be especially suited to the grape because it shares many similarities to the Piedmont. The Red Mountain American Viticultural Area is underlain by volcanic bedrock overlain by flood-borne and wind-blown soils, much like the Piedmont. The two areas’ spring bud break times are similar, both have hot summer days and a south to southwest orientation to the late afternoon sun, followed by cool nights, plus calcium carbonate in their wind-blown soils.
Holmes noted he’s been studying the concepts of Dr. Ernst Loosen, the famed German winemaker who helped create Chateau Ste. Michelle’s highly acclaimed Eroica Riesling. Loosen believes grape growers and winemakers must work to get their vines and thus their wines “in tune” with the terroir where the vines grow.
A big part of that is tracking the variations in calcium on Red Mountain, Holmes said, where variations in calcium density in the soil can easily differ by as much as 5% in a short distance. That can mean a major difference in vine health as tracked by aerial imaging.
He’s proud that his dad still keeps an eye on the vineyards and reports his findings to Washington State University’s grape research program.
It’s only been in the past 10 years that a small amount of the grapes have gone into the vineyard’s winery, named Côtes de Ciel, which has its tasting room in Walla Walla, Wash. By then, Jim Holmes had spent 38 years growing grapes for other wineries, with Richard often at his side, before the launch of Côtes de Ciel in 2012 under the aegis of Holmes Family Winery. Richard doubles as the winemaker, but much prefers the title of winegrower, a bit of evidence he’s taken Dr. Loosen’s ideas to heart.
The 2021 Red Mountain Arneis offers plenty of evidence of that. It’s beautifully “in tune,” with 13.5% alcohol despite Red Mountain’s legendary warmth. It displays aromas and flavors of pear, lime, melon and stone fruit, offers nice viscosity and takes on a fleshy melon-like texture in the mouth. The finish shows its minerality and a bit of pear-skin tannin. It paired beautifully with seared, then roasted, chicken thighs and diced onions – topped with sauce made from simmering garlic, tarragon, dry white wine and heavy cream sauce – and served on pappardelle pasta.
Pair it also with shellfish, any white fish or a warm summer evening. The wine is available on CotesdeCiel.com and in the Walla Walla tasting room at 18 N. Second Ave., for $25.
Wine word: Cépage
The French never seem to run out of words to apply to wine. Cépage is, rather simply, the French term for grape variety, and on a French label you may encounter it in tandem with the grape variety.
In the U.S., I’ve seen it used on a label to tell a potential buyer that a tony red blend from Sonoma is Bordeaux-styled, as “Cinq Cépage.”