Even though it is one of the youngest growing regions on the market, Washington state has quickly gained worldwide recognition with their wines, garnering high ratings from Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast, as well as spotlights in Food & Wine, Gourmet, and The New York Times. It isn't just hype — these winemakers can back it up.
One such winemaker happens to be a Memphian. Ron Bunnell, owner and winemaker of Bunnell Family winery and RiverAerie, was born and raised in Memphis, attended Kingsbury, and studied at the University of Memphis. Initially, Bunnell wasn't too impressed with Washington. "I got my second master's from the University of California-Davis in viticulture," he says. "I had friends from UC-Davis who had moved to Washington to pursue their career, so I had knowledge of what was going on up here as far back as 1982 — not much great red wine and lots of Riesling.
"It wasn't until I was considering taking the job of head red winemaker for Chateau Ste. Michelle in 1999 that I really started to survey the Columbia Valley wines extensively," Bunnell continues. "I was impressed by the overall wine quality but even more by the pioneering spirit of the winemakers and growers at the time. It reminded of the California wine industry 20 years prior."
It's that pioneering spirit that led some of the now-top wineries to create their own industry. Names such as Andrew Will, McCrea, and L'Ecole No. 41 are now among the top producers in the world. But it wasn't always so.
"Washington was very different back then — less than half the number of wineries as today," Bunnell says. "Red winemaking was still developing. There was less than 200 acres of Syrah in the state when I got here, very little Sangiovese in production, only one clone of Merlot, and one clone of Cabernet in production, very few secondary red varieties."
Today, the excitement is not only palpable but palatable.
"What makes Washington unique is the long day length in the middle of the growing season. We just so happen to be on the same latitude as Bordeaux," Bunnell says. "We have relatively poor soils, which generally make the best wines. There are enough heat units in the growing season to ripen almost any variety. Another factor is water. We enjoy fairly arid conditions, with only about 12 inches of rainfall per year. That means that we have to employ deficit irrigation to control berry size and plant vigor. All of this translates into a high degree of control and naturally favorable factors to produce world-class wines."
The future of Washington wine can be seen in the impressive Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon-based blends, and especially their Rhône varietals, such as Syrah.
"I believe that Syrah and other Rhône varieties are potentially the most important black grapes in Washington. My wife Susan and I love working with these varieties and love the wines made from them," Bunnell says. "In the end, it's all about following your passion."
Bunnell has had the pleasure of exploring both sides of his passion. His Bunnell Family Winery focuses on Rhône varietals, such as Grenache and Syrah, while his RiverAerie project allows him to explore the potential of other grape varieties.
"We like to say that RiverAerie is everything else we are interested in," Bunnell says. "As a winemaking consultant, I come across some excellent grapes and wines. We select small lots of outstanding wines for RiverAerie. The philosophy behind RiverAerie is to showcase the fruit from exceptional vineyards and offer a great value to the customer. I'm very excited about Malbec. I've seen some great results in the past few years, and I think its potential in Washington is great."
When asked about his favorite food and wine pairing, Bunnell had this to say: "I like to quote Piero Antinori, with whom I had the pleasure to work. Piero once said to an interviewer who had asked the same question, 'We really don't think about it that much ... we just eat what we like and drink what we like.'"
Bunnell Family Clifton Hill Vineyard Syrah 2005, $45.99
Bunnell Family "A Pic" Rhône Blend 2005, $30.99
L'Ecole No. 41 "Walla Voila" Chenin Blanc 2007, $17.99
L'Ecole No. 41 Merlot 2005, $35.99
Andrew Will Champoux Vineyard 2005, $60.99
Andrew Will Annie Camard Syrah 2003, $61.99
RiverAerie Riesling 2006, $17.99
RiverAerie Malbec 2006, $19.99
RiverAerie Barbera 2006, $22.99