"I love my wine!" a participant in my blending class gushes, cradling her freshly-labelled bottle of red. Blushing with embarrassment, she adds, "Sorry, inner dialogue – I didn't mean to say that out loud. But I do love my wine, it's so delicious!"
I love my wine too, though I'm not gloating. Bearing my personally-scribbled label, my freshly-created Little Peppy Macho blend (named after my horse) is a delectable mix of 40 per cent malbec, 40 per cent cabernet sauvignon and 20 per cent cab franc – smooth, rich and perfectly designed to my palette.
The Blend: Winemaker for a Day experience is taking place at Washington state's largest winery, Chateau Ste. Michelle, based in the town of Woodinville, 30 minutes from Seattle. This fun session takes participants through the blending process, tasting five varietals from Chateau Ste. Michelle's Columbia Valley vineyards before refining your own personal combination. At the end, you are presented with your own bottled and labelled masterpiece, ready to be consumed on a special occasion (or back in your hotel room, depending on your willpower).
Dating back to 1934, Chateau Ste. Michelle is the founding winery of Washington, pioneering what is now the fastest growing agricultural sector, worth $4.8 billion and increasing 400 per cent in the past decade. Stretching east of the Cascade ranges and south to the Oregon border, this massive region, which includes 14 recognised viticultural areas, is now the second-largest premium wine producer in the US, with more than 80 grape varieties and 940 wineries.
The success story of Washington wines, however, is an unlikely one. Despite occupying the same latitude as the French wine regions of Bordeaux and Burgundy, the northern US state had a reputation for being too soggy for wine growing; indeed, the Olympic Peninsula on the Pacific Coast receives up to four metres of rainfall a year.
East of the Cascade Ranges in the Columbia River basin, however, it's a very different scenario. With 300 days of sunshine and as little as 50 centimetres of rain a year, it's technically high desert. The dry climate, combined with long hours of sunlight and rich volcanic soil invigorated by large-scale irrigation, has created prolific grape-growing conditions, particularly for full-bodied red varietals.
As a relative new industry, the region is rapidly evolving and with 40 per cent of the state's vineyards planted in the last 10 years, experimentation is an important part of the process. As a consequence, Washington State winemakers tend to be mavericks, taking risks, tackling unlikely terrain and employing innovative winemaking techniques.
"Washington has always been the final frontier of wine growing, the wild, wild west," says Keith Johnson of Sleight of Hand Cellars, speaking during a seminar on Extreme Viticulture presented during 2019's Taste Washington, the largest single-region food and wine festival in the United States, held annually during March in Seattle.
"One of our new vineyards is on a 45-degree slope, with rocky basalt soil. It's all farmed by hand and is labour intensive. Everything about this vineyard is a struggle, but that's the magic of it. You don't work with something like this is you don't believe it will happen."
Ryan Johnston, of WeatherEye Vineyard in the Red Mountain region, has a similar story about planting against the odds.
"When I started farming, I had hair," he jokes. "We are working with steep, hostile, marginal territories – but that inspires me.
"What we are doing is kind of stupid, pushing what was once thought was impossible, but as a result, we produce truly heroic wines that give a sense of place and tell a story. You can taste the site in the glass."
To showcase this concept, known to the French as terroir, 242 brave new winemakers, along with 71 of Washington State's hottest chefs, have gathered in Seattle's expansive CenturyLink Field Event Centre for the highlight of Taste Washington – the two-day Grand Tasting.
Sipping and grazing through the diverse bounty of the Pacific North, more than 8000 hungry, thirsty attendees have the opportunity not only to sample the wares, but also to meet the geniuses behind the finished products, with the vintners themselves on hand to explain the inspiration and technique behind their creations.
With the majority of Washington States' vineyards at least a four-hour drive from Seattle, the accessibility of Taste Washington for Big Smoke consumers is a vital part of the wineries' marketing strategy.
That is also the driving force behind the growth of Woodinville, with more than 110 wineries following in the footsteps of Chateau Ste. Michelle and establishing tasting rooms in the one central location.
Some, such as Delille Cellars, Columbia Winery and Chateau Ste. Michelle occupy grand estates with picturesque grounds and a summer calendar of events. Others are tucked into humble shopfronts in the town's walkable Warehouse District, which has more boutique wineries per square foot than any other wine region in the world.
Notable wineries with a presence in Woodinville include Efeste (with its distinctive label boasting the Aboriginal symbol for "kangaroo"); JM Cellars, a family owned winery in sublime landscaped grounds; and the chic Novelty Hill/Januik, two independent wineries that share a tasting room and winemaking facilities under the direction of leading winemaker Mike Januik.
Meanwhile Matthews Estate – owned by brothers, Scott, Jeff and Bryan Otis – targets millennial wine lovers, hosting special events, concerts, dance parties, farm tours and pop-up gourmet feasts on their three-hectare organic farm.
Held in the summer months, either al fresco or in the rustic tasting room, Matthews' intimate Farm-to-Table dinners feature fresh produce sourced from either their own fields or within a 15-kilometre radius, prepared by guest chefs and served family-style with share plates.
"Our formula is food plus wine plus people equal community," Bryan Otis says as he pours me a glass of Matthews' award-winning rosé, made from grapes grown in the Columbia and Walla Walla valleys.
"This was our hipster doomsday plan, to grow your own food and wine – that's all you need to survive!"
I'll drink to that.
Julie Miller visited Taste Washington as a guest of Visit Seattle.
Delta Airlines flies daily from Sydney and Melbourne (via Sydney) to LAX on the upgraded 777, featuring the new Premium Select cabin. Domestic transfers are available to Seattle. See delta.com
Kimpton Hotel Vintage Seattle is a wine-themed hotel with guest rooms named after Washington State wineries. Rates from $US208. See hotelvintage-seattle.com
Taste Washington takes place every March in Seattle. See tastewashington.org
Blend: Winemaker for the Day costs $US125 a person. See ste-michelle.com
Matthews' Farm-to-Table Dinners are held throughout summer for $US75 a head. See matthewswinery.com