Woodinville’s Columbia Winery: Their goal is to make wine you won’t find anywhere else
The combination of a winemaker who pushes the envelope and a wine educator who takes the mystery out of the wine making/wine tasting experience, makes this winery a one-of-a-kind destination.
By Viki Eierdam
The wine world is made up of well-worn paths and roads less traveled. Along these routes are explorers traveling the viniferous globe to visit a tried-and-true varietal or discover something yet untasted.
It is the promise of the familiar or the excitement of the quest that determines each person’s course. Located in Woodinville, WA., Columbia Winery straddles its reputation in both worlds.
At its Woodinville tasting room, the winery offers guests a unique opportunity to sample a selection of small lot wines. These wines, which are found in the winery’s “Blend” series and “AVA” series, are crafted with extended barrel aging, vineyard selection and multiple grape varietals. The small lot production of these wines is less than 10,000 cases annually and showcases winemaker Sean Hails’ artistic style.
The Blend series consists of three wines – the 2016 Vision Red Blend, the 2015 Legacy Red Blend and the 2016 Element Red Blend. Grapes used to make the 2016 Vision Red Blend (the newest release in the winery’s Blend series) were sourced entirely from Six Prong Vineyard in Washington State’s Horse Heaven Hills AVA. The wine is a blend of Syrah, Mourvedre and Grenache.
The 2015 Legacy Red Blend is a classic Bordeaux blend made from grapes sourced from vineyards in the Horse Heaven Hills. It’s a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Frank and Malbec.
And finally, the 2015 Element Red Blend is a blend of 95% Merlot and 5% Petit Verdot. This wine was aged for 18 months in a combination of French and American oak barrels, 49% of which were new.
Columbia’s AVA series consists of nine wines – from Cabernet Sauvignon to Tempranillo. Grapes for all nine wines are sourced from vineyards in Washington State’s Columbia Valley AVA, which encompasses Red Mountain, Horse Heaven Hills, Ancient Lakes, Yakima Valley the Wahluke Slope. The newest releases in the AVA series are the 2017 Riesling and 2016 Malbec.
Wine enthusiast can purchase all of Columbia’s wines directly from the winery’s online store at: www.columbiawinery.com/columbia-valley-wines. The online store includes detailed information about each wine, plus tasting notes.
Columbia Winery also produces a collection of nationally available wines with an annual production of 80,000 cases. These wines are found in restaurants and retail stores throughout the United States. The National series consists of just four wines – a Columbia Valley Chardonnay, a Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, a Columbia Valley Merlot and a Columbia Valley Red Blend.
Located 14 miles from downtown Seattle, Woodinville has been home to Columbia Winery since 1988. In the midst of the critical mass of more than 115 wineries found within Woodinville Wine Country’s 5.62 square mile radius, the Columbia Winery campus is an oasis of tended outdoor spaces, inviting patio seating and an indoor tasting room remodel barely more than a year old. New furnishings, countertops, paint and flooring are designed to encourage the social nature of wine and offer guests a comfortable home-away-from-home experience.
The passion for wine education is evident when you speak to general manager John Sportelli and on-site wine educator Shelly Fitzgerald. Their desire to connect the growing region of Eastern Washington to their tasting room in Western Washington shows in their interactive educational tools.
Soil samples from several Eastern Washington AVAs are on display, a scent station is set up to help guests discover and differentiate between unique aromas found in wines, and a 42-year-old Cabernet Sauvignon vine and root from Sagemoor Vineyards holds a place of honor in their outdoor patio. One of the most impressive features of the tasting room is a wall display of Columbia’s wines that spans their more than 50-year history.
Shelly Fitzgerald, CS, CSW,AWE and WSET Level 3,Columbia’s own in-house sommelier, heads up the education department for both consumers and trade and industry members. Offering a series of customizable classes that can be tailored depending on education level and group size, Shelly has spent the last three years making Columbia Winery the go-to-spot for wine education west of the Cascade Mountains.
And don’t let the letters behind her name scare you. Shelly is one of the most approachable wine educators around. She also has served as a judge at many wine competitions throughout the western U.S., most recently at the 2018 Tri-Cities Wine Festival at Three Rivers Convention Center in Kennewick, WA.
“I think our wines consistently over-deliver in comparison to other parts of the world,” Sportelli explained” “There’s a reason we source from so many AVAs. It expresses the diversity that’s available to us. Our Tempranillo won’t taste like others. We’re learning how to grow Tempranillo well here, not try to duplicate how it’s grown elsewhere.”
With roots going back to 1962, Columbia Winery was originally known as Associated Vintners. Even then the 10 friends who banded together with the shared vision to put Washington wine on the map were pioneers. Now consider that the initial idea began to ferment in a single barrel as early as 1951.
To say that the journey has been anything short of an odyssey would be an understatement. From the early musings of University of Washington professor, Lloyd S. Woodburne, to the first planting of grapes in 1963 and the hiring of esteemed winemaker, David Lake, in 1979, highs were met with inevitable lows, change and key players embracing progress for the good of the legacy.
Today, Columbia Winery is part of the mega-brand E. & J. Gallo, but with a great deal of local control, Sportelli still describes it as a family-run feel. After enjoying one dynamic and innovative winemaker for 27 years, Columbia Winery brought Sean Hails on board in 2012. Despite the fact that Hails never met Lake, his deep regard for his celebrated predecessor is direct and genuine and his bold approach to winemaking is a kinship.
“I’ve progressively tried to push the envelope of fruit expression and structure and the wines I make are generally full of flavor and tannin and color,” Hails said, “He (Lake) pushed the envelope more than anybody, bringing Syrah and Cab Franc into the equation and doing things first.”
Specifically, Lake was the first winemaker in Washington to craft vineyard-designated wines and he is credited for the first plantings of Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Pinot Gris in collaboration with Red Willow and Otis vineyards.
A Canadian citizen like Lake, Hails brought Canadian influence from the Okanagan Valley and the Niagara Peninsula. His winemaking background also includes Australia and,
most recently, California’s Central Valley, where he worked at Gallo.
Collaboratively, Hails is the artist who crafts the collection of wines for Columbia, and Fitzgerald is on hand to educate visitors with a series of classes such as Wine Foundations, Exploring What’s in a Glass and Wine & Cheese Pairing. She is also responsible for passing her breadth of expertise on to the tasting room staff which translates to a team ready to provide as much — or as little — information as guests want to absorb with every pour.
Columbia Winery offers an authentic Northwest wine country experience with multiple settings for events, including both indoor and outdoor locations, in addition to its iconic barrel room. Combined, the winery’s multiple event spaces can accommodate up to 225 guests.
“Who we really are at Columbia Winery is a very comfortable, approachable, and educational team that loves to tell the Columbia story and give our guests an experience they will remember for a long time.,” Fitzgerald said.
Columbia Winery is located at 14030 NE 145th Street, Woodinville, WA 98072. For tasting room hours, call (425) 482-7490 or visit: www.columbiawinery.com.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Viki Eierdam is a freelance writer who lives in Battle Ground, WA. Connect with her at: www.savorsipandsojourn.com.