For the last two decades, Washington wineries have emerged in force. At the start of the millennium, there were a few hundred scattered about the state. Today, there are nearly one thousand, a quarter of which have been crowding into Walla Walla in the eastern Washington, where many of the vineyards grow, and into Woodinville, just thirty minutes from Seattle. Both regions are bucolic and feel like they should have tasting rooms. Seattle, on the other hand, is grungy and feels like it should have needle exchanges on every corner. In short, wine tasting in Seattle would be antithetical to wine. And yet it is Washington state’s emerging wine region.
O S Winery and Wilridge were pioneers for Seattle’s tasting rooms, but in the last few years nearly three dozen wineries have joined them in the city, many of which have collaborated to form the new association, Seattle Urban Wineries. Most interesting to me, however, was the independent collective of urban tasting rooms at SoDo Urban Works, just south of downtown.
I was in Seattle for a quick visit and didn’t have time to hop around the city, commuting from one winery to the next, as that, in and of itself, is often the most consuming part of wine tasting. So the one-time, horseshoe-shaped warehouse, where nine wineries have established tasting rooms, seemed like it would offer that quick culture, like shooting a three-dollar espresso at the barista’s counter or listening to all your podcasts at 1.5-times speed.
The first to open shop at SoDo Urban Works was Ryan Crane, the owner and head winemaker of Kerloo Cellars. While Crane still has his original tasting room in Walla Walla, he moved production to the newer Seattle space in 2014, where barrel rings form chandeliers and deconstructed half barrels lead to fully formed ones on the wall.
It would have taken a certain winemaker to lead the way at SoDo, one who could see this defunct gray concrete horseshoe as a wine center. Seemingly, the tobacco-chewing-while-wine-sipping Crane had vision and brazenness.
“The money is here,” Crane told me. And unlike Walla Walla, Seattle does not shut down during the winter. “I didn’t want to go to Woodinville and open a winery because there are other wineries there.”
Unlike most winemakers, Crane described his vintages with profanity and labeled them with crude subtleties or gentle double entendres, like his “No Joke” merlot and “Wingman”, respectively. But his wines were no joke and they embodied Washington and Seattle all at once.
Same seemed true of Crane’s neighbor’s wines. Andrew Latta opened Latta wines in the space next door and had similar thoughts on Seattle’s wine region. “Woodinville is great for people who have been there a long time,” he said. “But it makes it hard for people to break through.”
Like Charles Smith, a former rock band manager turned winemaker, who opened his city tasting room in an old Dr. Pepper bottling plant before SoDo was even a dream, Crane and Latta have similar counterculture personalities that feel right at home at SoDo.
To be honest, I have sampled more than a hundred Washington wines, and it’s hard to find a bad grape in the state. So the factors that set these Washington wineries apart–the factors that someone in L.A. or New York can’t experience sipping at home–are the ambiance of a tasting room and the audacity of the winemakers. Thus, SoDo, where spaces sing urban pride and winemakers buck trends, stands out. For instance, a number of winemakers in this concrete horseshoe are foot-stomping more than fifty percent of their whole clusters, an uncommon, time consuming, and artisanal approach. And a few in the community have devoted their vintages to to the unsung heroes, focusing on grapes like Mourvèdre, Grenache, and Roussanne.
“Some of the only people that do anything similar [to me] are right next door and across the parking lot,” said Latta.
Bored with Cabernets–Washington’s icon–I sampled Latta’s Mourvèdre and loved it, like a tea drinker discovering kombucha.
After Latta’s, I received a text: time to attend to non-wine activities. I quickly followed the sidewalk, which stretched about a hundred feet around the horseshoe–skipping the brewery in SoDo, obviously–to the other five winemakers’ establishments. I popped into two more tasting rooms, falling behind schedule by only seven more minutes. I tried to taste notes, but only recognized that my gait had become unsteady; the consequences of tippling at the speed of a city. My car was parked in the center of the horseshoe. I pulled out my phone. Refreshingly, unlike the emptiness of wine country, Ubers populated the map.