Essentially Excellent

Review by Kerry Newberry

Northwest wine devotees will immediately want to add this new tome to their collection of wine literature: “Essential Wines and Wineries of the Pacific Northwest: A Guide to the Wine Countries of Washington, Oregon, British Columbia, and Idaho” by Cole Danehower with photographs by Andrea Johnson.

The eloquently written wine book begins with a rich and comprehensive overview “Getting to Know the Pacific Northwest Wine Region,” detailing the economics, ecology, geography and history of the area’s wine appellations. Danehower delves into the environmental similarities that unify the Northwest AVAs and then explains what sets the region apart from other North American wine areas.

The overview of wine is thoughtfully organized into themes sparked by a formula Danehower created: Great Wine = (Place + Plant) x People. He explains that “the interplay between these three vital wine variables: place, plant and people” is essential for a deeper appreciation of what distinguishes the Pacific Northwest wine region from others. The three themes flow effortlessly taking the reader from The Importance of Place to Pacific Northwest Wine to The Importance of Plants and finishes with (my favorite) The Importance of People to Pacific Northwest Wine.

The first 40 pages are really the heart of the book, a mixture of fresh facts and intimate prose tracing the early beginnings of viticulture in the United States to the first vines planted in different parts of the Northwest. Read about pioneering horticulturist and artist Peter Britt who planted Southern Oregon’s first vineyard near Jacksonville in 1854, as well as the founding of Idaho’s wine industry, which can be traced back to vineyards as early as 1872.

Sprinkled throughout the book, Danehower includes extensive sidebars, nuggets of information that explain concepts such as terroir, the legend of the 45th parallel and timely topics like climate change’s possible effects on the area.

The next and largest section of the book, Pacific Northwest Wine Countries Gazetteer, is a well-researched and utterly thorough summary of every designated wine region in the Northwest; it is of particular value to wine aficionados and first-time visitors. Before delving into the four regions — Washington, Oregon, British Columbia, Idaho — Danehower succinctly explains the concept of appellations as well as his thought process behind his winery choices. 

Each region begins with a one-page snapshot of the area and includes vineyard acreage, the number of wineries, annual cases produced, the economic impact of wine for the state, the most important grape varieties and the region’s AVAs (or DVAs in Canada).

Danehower truly captures what defines one wine region from another. The following two lines can only describe one place: “Winemakers here wear jeans, not chinos; boots, not boat shoes. They speak more of sustainable farming than creative branding, of Biodynamics instead of market dynamics.” If you didn’t guess, that is the beginning of the Oregon narrative. A low-down on the geography, climate and the grapes and styles of each region follows — another invaluable resource of information.    

Each wine region’s section also includes a collection of winery profiles with a discussion of what makes each distinctive. The wineries range from landmark and legacy wineries to off-the-beaten-path artisan producers; in total, there are over 160 profiles. Danehower explains how he chose wineries based on “their history and impact on the appellation’s character or renown, the sustained quality of their wines and, in the case of new small wineries, the brightness of their promise.” Each winery vignette captures the spirit of the people behind the wine and also lists the winery’s signature, premium, value and estate wines.

Danehower explains how he and photographer Andrea Johnson met to work on ideas for images throughout the writing of the manuscript. The photographs in the book are striking and complement the narrative — but many tell their own story. A photo of an intense full moon rising over vineyards in Rattlesnake Hills (Washington) captures mesmerizing beauty, while a snapshot of a sign for Salt Springs Vineyards in British Columbia is fun and whimsical.

Johnson excels at enchanting portraits. Readers won’t forget the image of vigneron Christophe Baron working his Biodynamic vineyards with a draft horse instead of a tractor, his forehead furrowed in concentration. The stoic stance of vineyard manager Mark Gould, chiseled cheekbones and a broad-brimmed hat, resembling a cowboy from the Wild West, also exhibits Johnson’s expertise.

Danehower explains in the preface that this is not a typical wine book. It’s not a winery-by-winery tour guide or a best-wine-buys book. Despite the stunning images by the renowned Johnson, it’s not a coffee table book either.

Danehower writes, “I wrote this book for wine-curious consumers who want to understand what makes the Pacific Northwest one of the most exciting wine regions in the world. Wines come from, and reflect, specific places. To appreciate the character of Northwest wines, we need to understand the nature of the places — the wine countries — they come from.”

This is a book to savor from an exceptional wine journalist and a gifted storyteller. It’s a book wine writers, wine drinkers and Northwest wine lovers will turn to again and again — a testament to a young but exciting, exploratory and established wine region that has found a place on the world’s wine stage.

Cole Danehower has been a leading regional wine journalist for more than a decade, reporting on the wines, winemakers, and wine countries of the Pacific Northwest. A winner of the prestigious James Beard Foundation Journalism Award, he is also co-publisher of Northwest Palate.

Andrea Johnson is one of Oregon’s leading wine photographers, and is based in Portland. Her work is regularly published in Wine Spectator and Oregon Wine Press, among many other publications.

Kerry Newberry is a Pinot-sipping, vineyard-hopping wine and food writer. She resides in Portland.


Essential Wines and Wineries of the Pacific Northwest: A Guide to the Wine Countries of Washington, Oregon, British Columbia, and Idaho

Author: Cole Danhower
Photographer: Andrea Johnson
Pubilsher: Timber Press, Portland
Release Date: August 11, 2010
Price: $24.95 (paperback only)

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