If you live in California, as I do, you likely don’t see many Washington state wines on restaurant lists, and even fewer on retail shelves, except for the widely distributed brands, among them Chateau Ste. Michelle’s basic line, Columbia Crest, Columbia Winery, Covey Run, Hogue Cellars, Pacific Rim Riesling, Domaine Ste. Michelle sparkling wine and the like -- value-priced wines sold largely in grocery and drug stores.
A check this week of the website at Beverages & More, a major retailer with 112 stores in California and Arizona, showed just nine Washington wines for sale at that time, although one of them, the 2008 Leonetti Walla Walla Valley Merlot -- as iconic as an Evergreen State wine can be -- was surprisingly available, for $90 (this speaks volumes for how the economy has made prized, previously hard-to-find wines more accessible to consumers).
BevMo is only a rough barometer for the presence of Washington wines in California (and Arizona) and indeed, some specialist wine shops carry select high-end Washington wines made by the state’s 700 wineries. Yet its producers have largely steered clear of California as a sales target, believing that the market is far too competitive for Washington, which excels at many of the same grape varieties as does California, including Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah.
And who could blame Washington vintners? There are more than 3,300 wineries in California, nearly half of the total in the United States -- a challenging reality to anyone hoping to place their wines in the Golden State. Historically, most Washington winemakers have sold the majority of their wines in-state, and to stores and restaurants in states other than California. Over the last two decades, Washington wine quality vs. California has been on par, across all price points; Washington’s true barrier to the California market has been its own hesitancy to enter it, and the relative ease at which it has been able to sell its wines elsewhere.
Thus, I was excited to learn that a top-notch Walla Walla, Wash., producer, Buty Winery, has jumped into the California wine lake. Starting in September, Caleb Foster and Nina Buty Foster (he’s the winemaker, she’s the general manager, and together they are husband-and-wife owners) are making their wines available in my home state plus 14 others, Washington, D.C. and British Columbia.
With their serious winemaking bent, outstanding grape sources and points of differentiation within Washington, the Fosters are aiming for placements at out-of-state restaurants, wine bars and fine-wine shops. They’re also happy to send their wines to consumers in states which allow such shipments. Yet the salient point here is that Buty is tackling California, and should do extremely well, if Caleb and Nina can get potential clients to simply taste the wines.
Some Washington vintners are still fond of saying that their wines have crisper acidities and more elegance than those grown in California, based on Washington’s higher latitude, between 45 and 46 degrees -- similar to Burgundy and Bordeaux. Yet such generalities no longer work in the world of wine; the “true” Sonoma Coast west of the Russian River Valley is just one example of a California region so cool that it can’t help but produce wines with refreshing acidity and restrained fruit. Some of Washington’s warmest growing areas produce wines that are indistinguishable from those made in similar conditions in California.
Wine character and style are determined by specific growing sites and the climate, soils, elevations, exposures, clones, rootstocks and viticultural practices within them -- plus winemaker decisions -- and not platitudes that X region produces a Y type of wine.
What the Buty wines bring to the market is so much more than just “Washington wine.” Caleb and Nina Foster produce unusual yet well-thought-out, harmonious blends, such as their Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc-Muscadelle from Columbia Valley, their version of Bordeaux blanc. The mix for the 2009 vintage is 65% Semillon, 27% Sauvignon Blanc and 8% Muscadelle; rather than give the wine a proprietary name, the Fosters simply list the blend amounts on the label. That they were able to find Muscadelle in Columbia Valley is a marvel, and it adds a lovely floral aroma to the wine. Who else but Buty would seek out Muscadelle?
Then there is the Buty tandem of Columbia Rediviva and Rediviva of the Stones -- the former a Cabernet Sauvignon-centric wine with 40% Syrah, from the Horse Heaven Hills appellation in Columbia Valley, the latter a Syrah-dominated wine with 21% Cabernet Sauvignon, from Walla Walla Valley. Same varieties, different growing areas and reverse varietal makeup equals two very different wines, each outstanding and with a reason for being.
Caleb Foster is an experienced Washington winemaker, having worked for Woodward Canyon for eight years, as well as Chateau Ste. Michelle, Leonetti Cellars and Bookwalter. He and Nina toiled for producers in New Zealand and South Africa before returning to Washington to found Buty (pronounced “beauty”) in 2000 in Walla Walla.
To go with Buty, they also created the Beast, an alter-ego label that allows them to experiment with and explore new vineyards, varieties and blends. The first Beast to hit California is the 2010 Beast Sphinx Riesling; it’s bone-dry, assertive and structured.
Caleb and Nina own the Rockgarden Estate vineyard in Walla Walla Valley, on land they acquired in 2006 in Milton-Freewater, just on the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Valley appellation. Certified organic in 2010, Rockgarden is planted largely to Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre and Cabernet Sauvignon, and is named for the heat-retaining cobblestones that litter the vineyard.
California-based viticulture and winemaking consultants (and husband and wife) Phil Freese and Zelma Long work with the Fosters on their vines and wines. Much of their effort has gone into Phinny Hill Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills appellation, owned by Dick Beightol yet managed by Buty. Phinny Hill, the source for the Buty Columbia Redivia wine, is expected to complete its three-year organic certification process in 2012.
Even Cabernet Sauvignon is not a straightforward affair in the Buty pageant. Its Champoux Vineyard wine from the Horse Heaven Hills is labeled as 86% Cabernet Sauvignon and 14% Cabernet Franc; while it could easily be marked simply as Cabernet Sauvignon, the Fosters choose to pay homage to both grapes in the blend.
Buty wines are not inexpensive ($19-$55), although they deliver fine value for the money, particularly when compared to the competition in and outside of Washington. For those looking for something different, yet still familiar, look for the beauty of Buty Wines, coming to a wine shop near you.