CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Washington is a geographically schizophrenic state, a land of extremes with two distinct personalities. Seattle, situated along Puget Sound with the Cascade Mountains to the east and the Olympic range to the west, is more known for its annual precipitation than its well-deserved reputation as one of the most livable cities in the world.
The other Washington begins once you cross Snoqualmie Pass in the Cascade Mountains, just 54 miles east of Seattle. The lush, green alpine landscape suddenly gives way to beige and brown hues as you travel east away from the Cascades along Interstate 90.
Actually, the metamorphosis is shocking. From rainforest conditions in Seattle, you enter a sun-baked, high dessert terrain where sagebrush and sand predominate, and where hot summers and bone-chilling winters are the norm. The area also has one of the lowest annual rainfalls in the U.S.
Welcome to eastern Washington: one of the most promising and exciting viticultural areas on this planet. It's a place where little-known wineries such as Leonetti Cellars, Quilceda Creek, DeLille Cellars and L'Ecole 41 are making some of the finest wines anywhere.
So how can you grow grapes, or anything for that matter, in a desert area with an average annual rainfall of only 8 inches? Well, that problem was solved with an amazing series of canals fed by a giant reservoir on the eastern slopes of the Cascades. The reservoir, replenished each year with rainwater and melting snow, feeds the canals and has transformed the valleys of eastern Washington into a fertile growing plain.
Until very recently, this vast region was best known for producing cherries, asparagus, hops, lentils, apricots and - the atomic bomb. Yes, it was near the town of Richland where much of the research and testing was done in the early 1940s for the first atom bomb.
Now the wine industry is exploding! The three principal grape growing regions are the Yakima Valley, the Walla Walla Valley and the Columbia River Basin. These American Viticultural Areas and the sub-regions within are beginning to produce world-class cabernet sauvignon, merlot and chardonnay.
I toured the vineyards of the Yakima Valley and the Columbia River Basin several years ago and came away convinced of the tremendous potential this area possesses to produce among the finest wines anywhere.
The Washington wine industry has grown from 19 wineries in 1981 to nearly 500 today. The overwhelming majority of wineries and vineyards are in eastern Washington.