Most wineries are boring places. Especially if you aren't super into wine. There's large steel tanks, little oak barrels, and a fancy tasting room to try a few wines. Then you awkwardly whisper about which wines you might purchase while the winery host looks on. Because Nicole and I are cork dorks, we actually get excited about these visits and seeing the variations between wineries. But we've seen over and over how, for most people, visiting a winery isn't very exciting. Indeed, for most people looking to hang out with friends and have fun, it seems to me that spending a day visiting wine bars and skipping the wineries would yield better results.
But Lake Roosevelt Wine Company, home of Whitestone Winery, flips this script on its head. In addition to delicious wines, there's Miller beer on draft, mind blowing views, and lightning fast Saluki dogs patrolling the grounds. The tasting room is a yurt. Oh, and it's geographic location is one of the most unique of any of Washington State's wineries. Boring it's not.
Nicole and I recently spent a week in Washington State during which my parents and I got the chance to visit Whitestone. Located an hour east of Spokane on the banks of the mighty Columbia River by Lake Roosevelt, the body of water formed after the construction of Grand Coulee Dam, the drive through endless rolling wheat fields is spectacular in and of itself. God's country, indeed.
For wine lovers, Whitestone is a great visit owing in large part to its geography and location. It's no secret that Washington State is putting out great wines today. Indeed, last month, Wine Folly declared the Columbia Valley AVA, Washington's largest wine appellation and Whitestone's home, "the place for great value reds from the United States." High praise. But there are hundreds of wineries within the Columbia Valley AVA. What makes Whitestone special is that it's the only winery in the northernmost part of the AVA. Indeed, by my calculations, one would have to drive approximately 75 miles to hit the nearest Columbia Valley wine producer.
So why doesn't Whitestone have wine producing neighbors? Three reasons (in my humble opinion): 1) Whitestone's vineyard sits within the small, isolated Jump Canyon (named after a Prohibition-era bootlegging family from the area; see also Moonshine Bay which borders the property) that is surrounded by water on three sides. These waters serve to regulate the vineyard's temperatures for optimal grape growing conditions (i.e., warming the vineyard in the spring/fall and cooling it during summer). Although nearby land would still receive some of this maritime benefit, potential vineyard sites merely sitting next to Lake Roosevelt would not fully enjoy Whitestone's encompassing geographic advantage. 2) Much of the surrounding land is owned by the Colville and Spokane Native American tribes who historically have not developed vineyards on their lands. 3) Starting a quality vineyard and winery isn't cheap (if it were, you wouldn't be reading this blog post inasmuch as Nicole and I would be in the middle of harvest at at our own vineyard). Even if it likely makes sense for more wineries to be situated nearby, Washington State is still a relatively new wine region and it takes time for the right people to find the right land. My bet is that Whitestone will have some wine producing neighbors before too long.
(For a deeper dive into Whitestone's unique geography, Good Fruit Grower, a regional agricultural magazine, recently published an excellent article.)
But geography is only part of Whitestone's story. There's other reasons to be a fan as well. Winemaker Michael Haig is a bit of a Renaissance Man who, in the traditional French style, manages both vineyard development and wine making at Whitestone. (Full disclosure: Michael and his wife Terra (who is my cousin) are close friends/family to Nicole and I) Burnishing his Renaissance Man bona fides, when my parents and I visited, Michael had just completed a Spartan Race the previous weekend. Along with our tour, he showed us the area where he practiced his spear throwing, in between wine-related responsibilities, in preparation for the event. In my opinion, it takes a bit of the Renaissance Man or Woman to be a high-level U.S. winemaker. Whereas in Old World wine countries, such as France or Italy, wine processes and techniques are refined and handed down over centuries, in New World countries like the U.S., winemakers must innovate and experiment. So I'll take the U.S. winemaker with diverse and varying interests any day.
Michael has created a distinctive environment at Whitestone focused on fun and enjoyment, along with quality wines. For starters, during warm weather months, it's possible to boat up to the winery from the Columbia River (an employee shuttles boaters from the lake shore to the tasting room in a 4x4 utility vehicle, awesome!). Next, as mentioned above, there's Miller on draft in the yurt. It's a fact that in most groups someone won't be a wine drinker. So it's the Champagne of Beers for them!
To make things even more interesting, in recent years the Haigs have started adopting Saluki dogs abandoned in Middle Eastern countries. For those unfamiliar with the breed, Salukis are lightning with fur. Having been clocked running at over 42 miles per hour, the Guinness Book of World Records once featured Salukis as the world's fastest dog breed. Moreover, because Salukis need lots of room to run, they are a perfect vineyard dog. As a bonus, the dogs also help keep pests away from the maturing fruit during the growing season. A win for both man and beast!
Finally, Whitestone's wines are delicious, too. Focusing on traditional Bordeaux varietals, namely Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc, Whitestone produces both single varietal wines and blends. (The wines are labeled as Lake Roosevelt Wine Company.) Nicole and I have been Wine Club members for years receiving regular shipments and have always enjoyed these wines. During our visit, Michael was kind enough to let us try a few of the not-yet-bottled wines from the barrels. Although all of the maturing wines tasted solid, the 2016 Merlot in particular jumped out at me as being silky smooth yet starting to develop nice, balancing barrel characteristics. I can't wait to try it again in a few years after it's bottled!
Overall, visiting Whitestone Winery was a blast. Despite having enjoyed these wines for years, I'd never actually been out to see the facilities first hand. The Lake Roosevelt Wine Company is truly a Washington wine to be on the lookout for.
Like this post? Want to read more about Travis and Nicole's travel adventures? Check out A crash course in the history, geography, and beautiful white wines of Alsace.
Then sign up for the Sunday Shoutout, our weekly email newsletter providing a link to that week's blog posts and a few other odds and ends we are interested in.