SUNNYSIDE, Wash. — Third-generation winegrower Marcus Miller knew the style of Sauvignon Blanc he wanted for his family’s customers at Airfield Estates Winery, and it would need to start with growing grapes that evoked memories of his time in the famed region of Marlborough.
“Making Sauvignon Blanc has been a passion of mine ever since the vintage I spent working harvest in New Zealand in 2005,” Miller says. “Tasting it on the vine in New Zealand was a revolutionary experience for me. The grapes in the vineyards of Cloudy Bay were so zesty and full of flavor that it tasted like a different grape from the ones my dad was growing in our own vineyard.”
In 2017, he hired Travis Maple to replace him as the hands-on winemaker, which gave Miller more time to focus on vineyard adjustments he wanted to make in his family’s historic 830-acre Airport Ranch. Soon after, the Sauvignon Blanc from Airfield Estates began to smell and taste the way Miller believed was possible in the Yakima Valley.
“We’ve matured into our style of SB into wines that are zesty, and we’ve gone from 1,500 cases annually to last year 10,500 cases — the largest single bottling in the history of Airfield Estates Winery,” Miller says. “Combined with what Travis is doing in the winery, I feel like we’ve figured things out. And the sales have backed that up.”
Maple adds, “People don’t think of Sauvignon Blanc from Washington. We can make a Sauvignon Blanc that’s really expressive, and I think ours really stands out.”
Airfield Estates tops tasting of Sauvignon Blanc
Indeed, none scored higher than the Airfield Estates release from the 2022 vintage during this summer’s tasting of Sauvignon Blanc staged by Great Northwest Wine.
“We’ve been having double-digit growth in SB for six years,” says Miller, who worked with that storied Marlborough fruit after graduating from Walla Walla Community College’s vaunted winemaking program. “I occasionally will have someone who tells me they liked the style of Sauv Blanc that we used to make, and I tell them, ‘I appreciate that, but our sales tell me the majority of people prefer the direction we’re taking it.’ And it’s now our flagship white wine.”
The growing thirst for Sauvignon Blanc among U.S. consumers has coincided with the efforts of Maple, Miller and his family’s longtime farming partners — the Neimeyer family. This spring, Wine Business Monthly magazine shared U.S. market data compiled by NielsenIQ. The only variety with any substantial increase in sales was Sauvignon Blanc at nearly 5%.
It’s no coincidence that sales of wine from New Zealand — which has earned a cult- like following for its distinctive Sauvignon Blanc since the 1980s — were up about 4%. No other major wine-producing country exporting to the U.S. could boast any growth.
In light of that market data, a growing number of producers in the Pacific Northwest are bullish on Sauvignon Blanc, including Steven Sinkler, wine merchant of The Wine Shack in Cannon Beach, Ore. His own Puffin Wines 2022 Sauvignon Blanc also received 94 points in our tasting.
“With the recent demand increase in Sauvignon Blanc, I would expect to see more Pacific Northwest wineries adding it to their lineups,” Sinkler predicts.
In addition to Airfield Estates, there’s also a strong connection to New Zealand for the Puffin Sauvignon Blanc program. That’s because Sinkler works closely on that wine with Ray Walsh, the Kiwi winemaker behind Capitello Wines in Eugene.
“Sauv Blanc has increased in popularity over the past couple of years,” Sinkler says. “My thought is that the citrus, apple and peach notes are pleasing to most palates. Plus, the wine pairs amazingly well with shellfish — crab, clams, shrimp and scallops — a big part of our local diets. It also is great with cheese boards, or by itself.”
And in hindsight, it was no surprise for the 2022 vintages from Airfield Estates and Puffin to grade out so highly in our tasting. Earlier this year, the Puffin 2022 Sauvignon Blanc merited a gold medal at the Savor NW Wine Awards near iconic Haystack Rock. One of the fascinating features to that wine is the pixie dust provided by the advent of concrete egg fermentation Walsh helped to pioneer in Oregon.
Miller family history with Sauvignon Blanc begins in ’78
As for the Miller family and Airport Ranch, they can take a measure of pride from the 2023 Cascadia International Wine Competition. That’s where Seattle-area negoçiant Matt Frazier and his Drum Roll Wine label turned a blend of Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc — from Airport Ranch — into the Best White Wine of the judging. That acclaim also reflects the often unappreciated work in the Yakima Valley — the cradle of the Washington wine industry.
“Not only are we an estate-grown and estate-bottled winery, but we also go back to the very start of the vinifera age in Washington state — 1967 — the first vintage,” Miller points out. “We planted in ‘68. So much of our fruit has always gone to Ste. Michelle, so frankly ours is a story we haven’t told very well.”
Some of the family’s Sauvignon Blanc vines reach back to 1978, and those grapes have become the third leg in Airfield Estates’s new small-lot Old Vines program with Chardonnay (1968) and Cabernet Sauvignon (1989).
Maple graduated from Washington State University’s winemaking program, and his résumé includes Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and J. Bookwalter. One of the key adjustments he and Miller credit for the success with Sauvignon Blanc is maintaining a temperature of 62 degrees Fahrenheit during fermentation. However, their efforts and rewards go beyond that.
“We have the ability to craft amazing wine, and we don’t have to deal with the farm manager/winemaker relationship because It’s all here in-house,” Maple says.
Dobbes saw Croft Vineyard as spot for Sauv Blanc
Another trend that’s no surprise harkens back to the bromide “site matters.” A look under the hood of the Puffin Sauvignon Blanc leads back to one of Oregon’s most historically delicious examples of Sauvignon Blanc — organically farmed Croft Vineyard near Salem in the recently established Mount Pisgah, Polk County American Viticultural Area.
Among experienced Oregon winemakers, Croft Vineyard is a garden spot for Sauvignon Blanc. King Estate’s recent launch of Sauvignon Blanc proved to be an immediate success in the marketplace — thanks in part to sourcing from Croft Vineyard. And Joe Dobbes, who has reinvented himself with his young Iterum Wines project, will always have a fondness of Croft Vineyard.
“Back in 1990, I made one that got a ton of attention, which showed you don’t need hot temperatures to make Sauvignon Blanc,” Dobbes says. “In fact, if it gets too hot where you grow it, then you make wines that have no balance. I’m a fruit freak, and Sauvignon Blanc from the Willamette Valley can be gorgeous.
“Before I started Dobbes Family Estate, I got ahold of some Croft Sauvignon Blanc for a couple of years, and it was gorgeous,” Dobbes says, “but I couldn’t get back to Sauvignon Blanc because I was already making so many varietals. At the time, I thought, ‘If I couldn’t get Sauvignon Blanc from Croft, to hell with it.’ ”
The Slow Wine Guide USA, an annual publication dedicated to organic producers and spearheaded by journalist/educator Deborah Parker Wong, has picked up on that reputation, noting in its 2021 edition, “The Crofts grow Oregon’s traditional grapes — Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir — but are renowned for their Sauvignon Blanc.”
For Iterum — Great Northwest Wine’s 2023 Oregon Winery to Watch — Dobbes sources from the Huggins family’s Oak Grove Vineyard in addition to his own young planting in the Eola-Amity Hills called Orchard House Vineyard. Oak Grove was responsible for that buzzworthy Sauvignon Blanc more than 30 years ago.
“One of my goals with Iterum is to show that Sauvignon Blanc from the Willamette Valley can be world-class, just like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from here,” Dobbes says.
Our summer tasting displayed a variety of styles with Sauvignon Blanc, which is to be expected because examples came from Washington, Oregon, Idaho and British Columbia. For a bit of context, we included a 2022 bottling from Marlborough by “The Queen of Sauvignon Blanc” — Jules Taylor. And her expression from New Zealand’s South Island finished rather high.