Washington vs. California wine? A Seattleite in San Francisco gives his thoughts
Former Seattleite and wine writer Jon Bonné will be in town this weekend for Taste Washington—find out what he’s most excited about in Washington wines. (Image: Jon Bonne)

Washington vs. California wine? A Seattleite in San Francisco gives his thoughts

It’s been almost a decade since wine writer Jon Bonné left Seattle to become the San Francisco Chronicle’s Wine Editor. He returns to the Northwest this weekend to celebrate the charms of his former homestate’s wines as part of Taste Washington. During this weekend’s festivities, he’ll be a busy guy, hosting a wine tasting/talk at Picnic, at a Book Larder event, and participating on the panel of “An Old Vine’s Tale,” a seminar on Saturday morning. We asked him to tell us a little more about his thoughts on Washington wine, California wine (on which he quite literally wrote the book, wine pairings for seasonal local foods, and what to look for this weekend at Taste Washington.

Seattle Refined: Seattle's attitude has always veered away from spending large amounts of money on things that are seen as excessive or luxurious. That means the city lacks the kind of high-end restaurants you see in SF, NY, and LA. How do you think that affects the wine industry—both in terms of not having the Meadowoods, the Manresas, the Per Ses serving more expensive wines, and in the bottle-purchasing habits of people here?

Jon Bonné: I think the way Seattle views both spending and wine is exactly where the rest of the country is headed. That's not to say there's no place for expensive wines, or expensive restaurants. But one thing that became a part of my wine DNA when I lived in Seattle was that it was seamlessly integrated into culinary life. People were excited by and proud of Northwest wines. And those wines were priced to drink any night of the week. As wine culture has matured in the rest of the country, I think we'll begin to see other markets behave that way.

SR: What other differences do you see in wine attitudes between Washington and California?

JB: If anything, where California is right now -- or the subset that I'm defining as "the new California" -- is growing ever closer to the aesthetics of Seattle and the Northwest. People aren't interested in $200 Cabernet. They're interested in $25 Cabernet Franc that's meant to enjoy in the moment; they're interested in local wines on tap.

California, or at least San Francisco, has been accused of not supporting local wines. I don't think that's true; I think the market is embracing California wines that speak to them. It's ironic that Seattle was accused of the same behavior a few years ago, because I always adored how Seattleites could gracefully transition between local wine and imported wine without making a fuss. That's happening in California now, too.

If there's any difference, it is in that price resistance. I think the California industry had, and largely still has, an expectation that it can make expensive wine and that someone will buy it. Washington hasn't yet experienced that; I hope the industry there manages to skip that particular set of growing pains.

SRWhat Washington varietal and California varietal do you think are poised to make the biggest difference in the next few years, respectively, and why?

JB: Who can say? I mean, who would have thought Moscato would become the new Pinot Grigio? I still think Grenache has great potential in both states. For California, there's also a great growth in fresh whites, from Albariño to Vermentino. And Chardonnay is coming back big time. And I do still think Franc is Washington's secret weapon.

SRCalifornia was the original upstart, up against old world wines, followed by Washington--with a very different style of arriving on the scene, smaller, scrappier, even less respected. Now Washington is maturing rapidly. What opportunity do you see for Washington and what do winemakers need to do to establish (or cement) Washington as a top wine region?

JB: Washington had a very different upbringing. Its early industry relied far more on a handful of large wineries, making not a Gallo sort of wine but an affordable, everyday sort of wine. That created a reputation for quality, but not necessarily one for distinction.

What we've seen in every wine region is that a handful of small, obsessive producers push quality forward until it's world-class. I think Washington has that. But it also has some challenges -- including an even bigger barrier than California between many growers and producers. Some of that is literal: the Cascades make it a challenge for small producers to work next to the land.

I think California, at first, wanted to be Bordeaux. Now, at least in part, it wants to be Burgundy -- small, elite. Washington should aim for something different. Its charm has always been the accessibility and small scale of its wineries.

SRYou’ve talked a lot about how the money and the quest for more hurt the California wine industry, how do you see that playing out in Washington? Will they hit the same struggles? Or perhaps different ones?

JB: Well, that could be an inevitable part of growing pains. All regions face tough questions about ambitions and growth. When I left Washington in 2005, people were already worried about land costs in Red Mountain becoming unsustainable.

What I think will make a difference is how much the focus remains on the wine. Napa made a choice during the 1990s that it wanted to be about luxury, not specifically wine. Now it's returning to focus on wine and artisanship, but the built-in costs make that difficult. The more focus there is on wine that people can actually drink, the more likely Washington is to avoid the economic traps that California has faced.

SROkay, enough rivalry. Let's talk getting along: food and wine! Specifically, the foods of Seattle. Right now we’re coming into bountiful spring: seafood, spring greens, wild mushrooms. What are some of your favorite wines for this season here in Washington?

JB: Semillon! There's no better time than when green garlic and asparagus and favas hit the markets.

SRWhat other local foods in Washington do you love to pair with local wines?

JB: When spring lamb arrives, it's definitely time for Franc and for Syrah. The acidity that's available in Washington reds really commends them to that meat.

SRWhat do you look for in a wine to choose it as great for pairing with food? And which Washington winemakers do the best job of capturing those attributes?

JB: It needs to have depth, of course, but it needs freshness. Nothing's more important. Naming names is always a tricky business, but I will say I've long been entranced with Cadence's wines, and of course Gramercy Cellars as well. I've lately been obsessed with wines from the Gorge; a bottle from Domaine Pouillon that I had a couple years ago still haunts me. And the Analemma wines shot right into my Top 100 last year. But there are many, many others.

SR: Finally, what wines are you most looking forward to tasting at the Taste Washington event this weekend?

JB: A gentleman never tells! But I will be looking forward to checking on the status of things from the Gorge, as well as what's new from Chelan and western Yakima. There are a lot of wines we don't see down in California as often as I'd like, so this is a chance to revisit some terroir that I'm very fond of.

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