Volcanoes, floods and basalt make good wine. Grapes help too, of course, but where those grape vines take root affects their flavor and quality. The low elevation and aridity found in the Columbia Basin (caused by volcanoes and glacial floods) has fostered the development of regional vineyards since the 1800s, but not until the early 1980s did viticulturists truly embrace the region’s potential.
Thirty years later, Inland Northwesterners can reap the rewards of that embrace. The Columbia Gorge wine region alone is home to more than 40 wineries and the entire Northwest is starting to see the development of meaderies and cideries alongside craft breweries and distilleries. Events like Vintage Spokane help neophytes navigate this besotted terrain.
Vintage Spokane, a high-quality wine and food event being held at Northern Quest on Aug. 4, is a way for beginning wine drinkers, as well as the more experienced, to meet winemakers directly and develop what event organizer Kirk Tourtillotte calls “a finer understanding of how wines are made.”
Apparently, the winemaking process is not as easy as crushing grapes with your bare feet and then waiting a few years. According to Patit Creek Cellars winemaker Joe Forest, it can take more than a decade to introduce new grapes to the region.
Washington state was originally known for its Rieslings, but Syrahs have given them a run for their money, says Forest.
“Syrah became really popular about 10 years ago, even though it’s been around for hundreds and hundreds of years. [Back then] a lot of grape growers and winemakers were trying to plant as much Syrah as possible, so in the last couple of years it’s lost its luster a little bit,” says Forest. “Now you have other varieties like Malbec, Grenache and Tempranillo that are kind of gaining popularity.”
Forest believes that Malbec has staying power, but he emphasizes the length of time it takes for growers and winemakers to cultivate what popular trends decide are the “it” grape.
“It’s really hard to stay on top of those trends, because usually if a grape variety comes to the U.S., it has to be quarantined for nine or 10 years before it gets out to the commercial nurseries, and by the time you plant it, it’s three years before you get a crop,” he says.
These kinds of time constraints make blends (batches containing a balance of difference varieties) popular among winemakers. Blends allow grape growers to experiment with new grapes without investing heavily in one type. The result is a variety of tastes at a range of prices for the wine drinker.
Those volcanoes and floods are also responsible for the variety of wines found in the Northwest. The French term terroir refers to the sum of environmental factors that affect a grape, from the amount of rain, to the temperature and climate, to the soil type. Each vineyard has distinct qualities and each winemaker adds their own distinct cultural practices — choosing when to harvest the grape and how to age it. Attendees of Vintage Spokane can sample these differences with each glass from the 50 wineries exhibiting at the event.
But it’s not all about the grape. Fruit wines, ciders and mead are also available for sampling, and Stella Artois is one of the event’s sponsors. If you want to take anything home, there is a wine store on-site, with a portion of the proceeds benefitting the Spokane Youth Sports Association.
Last summer, when Northern Quest Resort & Casino hosted Vintage Spokane, more than 800 people arrived to sample wine, nosh on bites and meet with winemakers. Unfortunately, inclement weather forced the event indoors.
This year, event attendees will sip, sample, pair white wines with seafood at the white-wine bar, watch chef demos, and tour exhibits featuring wares as diverse as hand-crafted wine-barrel furniture from Walla Walla and purring luxury vehicles courtesy of Mercedes-Benz. Judging from this summer’s weather pattern, attendees will enjoy the event in the manner in which it was intended — outdoors, with flood basalt deep underfoot and a big, sunny West Plains sky overhead.
Vintage Spokane • Sun, Aug. 4 from 3-6 pm • Northern Quest Resort & Casino’s Outdoor Concert Venue • 100 N. Hayford Rd., Airway Heights • northernquest.com • $45/general admission, $60/VIP