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Urban Seattle Winemaker Lets Vineyards Speak for Themselves

Urban Seattle Winemaker Lets Vineyards Speak for Themselves

A winery visit typically begins on an unpaved country road lined by vineyards. After bumping along for a quarter mile or so, the visitor arrives at a stone, brick, or sometimes wood building labeled “winery” and it feels as if this scenic yet isolated spot is indeed in the middle of nowhere.

But Latta Wines is a chic urban winery located in SoDo (South of Downtown), a neighborhood in Seattle’s industrial district. Cars squeeze into a small parking lot surrounded on three sides by warehouses where several wineries and other businesses have set up shop. Forklifts scramble about, loading and unloading boxes, and jets from nearby Sea-Tac airport scream overhead. In a corner of this block sits Latta, its covered patio furnished with propane heaters and socially distanced tables.

Latta Wines was founded in 2011 by winemaker and owner Andrew Latta. He was first introduced to wine while coming up in the restaurant scene in his home state of Kentucky, where he made his way from busser to sommelier. It was during this time as a sommelier that Andrew was introduced to the wines of Washington state. Prior to moving to Washington, he was the wine director for a resort in Thailand. When he decided to leave Thailand 15 years ago and move to Walla Walla, WA sight unseen, he jumped into wine production. Now he crafts highly acclaimed wines from Rhône varieties and others, grown in the unique soils of eastern Washington.

Latta’s outdoor patio is set up for tasting while adhering to Covid restrictions | Photo credit: Peter Whipple

What makes Washington special?

From Seattle looking east, the north-to-south-running Cascades loom large and deep green—the highest peaks snow-capped even in summer. But venture over the mountains and a dry, brown landscape awaits.

East-moving storms off the Pacific dissipate before they reach the east side of Washington. In this “rain shadow” of the Cascades, the climate is sunny and dry, with a scant six to eight inches of rain on average. A desert, actually. Large glacial river systems and underground aquifers replenished by mountain snowmelt provide ample irrigation water to Washington’s farmers. Grapes bask in up to 300 days of sunshine per year—more summer sun than San Diego, Phoenix, or Honolulu typically get. Just as important, there’s a huge difference between day and night temperatures during the growing season. This diurnal shift locks in the bright acidity that distinguishes Washington state wines.

From a geological perspective, eastern Washington is a wine geek’s paradise. Lava bubbling up from ancient fissures or spewed by explosive volcanoes, some of them still active, have layered the ground in rich basalt over time. When glacial Lake Missoula broke through an ice dam about 15,000 years ago, floods washed over eastern Washington and left behind well-draining alluvial soil topped, on higher elevations, by a super-fine, windblown material called loess. Meanwhile, the movement of tectonic plates continues to push the hills into ridges and valleys that offer a variety of slopes and aspects (the direction a slope faces) to a range of diverse grape varieties.

Map of Washington state wine regions | Photo credit: Washington Wines

How Washington rolls

Historically and to this day, huge Washington vineyards have supplied grapes to small wineries located near Seattle markets. In this arrangement, winery owners partner with vineyard managers and may have a say in how grapes are handled. Some vineyards hold contracts with up to 30 different wineries. Vineyard names often appear on wine labels, a testament to the independence and significance these sites have in the Washington wine industry.

Things are changing, however. More of the state’s larger wineries are building close to vineyards, and some big California wineries are moving into Washington to lower their operating costs. The Walla Walla wine region, which was voted America’s Best Wine Region in the 2020 USA TODAY 10 Best Readers’ Choice Awards, boasts a total of 120 wineries. Some of them produce wines from their own grapes.

Eastern Washington grapes, Seattle wine

Though Andrew Latta is based in Seattle, he’s “hyper-involved on the growing side” of the industry. He travels to eastern Washington regularly and looks for sites that allow the planted varieties to express their terroir (sense of place). “Matching variety to site is paramount,” he states.

Latta describes his winemaking style as a combination of sourcing grapes well-suited to their terrain and a low-intervention approach that allows the selected sites to speak for themselves.

To Latta, eastern Washington’s “analog,” or comparison wine region, is the Rhône Valley of southern France. This iconic region is best known for producing powerful and elegant Syrah wines from the steep, south-facing slopes of the northern Rhône. In the warmer and flatter southern Rhône, Grenache takes the lead, supported by a well-heeled cast of grapes that includes deep-red Mourvèdre and full-bodied whites like Roussanne.

Latta crafts small-lot, single-vineyard wines from each of these four grapes and a Grenache-Syrah-Mourvèdre (GSM) signature blend to rival those of the Rhône. His intense, terroir-driven wines garner high marks from reviewers and notable wine publications. Detailed descriptions of his vineyard partners can be found on the Latta website. Following is a sampling of six Latta wines to try:

2017 Latta Roussanne, Lawrence Vineyard | Photo credit: Linda Whipple

2017 Latta Roussanne, Lawrence Vineyard

100% Roussanne

 Lawrence Vineyard is located in the Columbia Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area), almost halfway between Seattle and Spokane. A cool site overlooking the Royal Slope and the Saddle Mountains, the Roussanne block sits at 1,450 feet in silt loam soil and broken basalt. “We sprawled the west side of the vine rows to keep sunburn out and freshness in,” the website states. The sloped elevation of this vineyard protects it from frost that wreaks havoc in vineyard sites lower on the slope.

  • Geekery: Whole-cluster pressed and fermented with native yeast in barrel, a mix of 228-liter barriques and 500-liter puncheons, 15% new French oak. The wine rested in barrel for 16 months until bottling.
  • Tasting notes: Gold in color. Aromas of ripe red apple and pear, butterscotch. hints of mango. Lemon and lemon curd flavors, followed by tropical notes of pineapple and grapefruit. Alcohol: 14.1%.

2015 Latta Mourvèdre, Upland Vineyard

100% Mourvèdre

Upland Vineyard is a rolling, extremely sloped site located in the Snipes Mountain AVA, a subregion of the Yakima Valley AVA. This warm, rocky site was one of the first planted to vitis vinifera (European grapes) in Washington. Snipes Mountain is a seven-mile-long ridge created by fault activity. Its 1,290-foot “peak” rises from the floor of the Yakima Valley. Below this area, soils are composed of gravel and sediments deposited by ancient riverbeds and ranging in size “from a fist to a football.”

  • Geekery: Fermented with 70% whole cluster/30% whole berry. Aged for 25 months in puncheons and barrique, 10% new.
  • Tasting notes: Dark ruby with purplish rim. A structured and powerful wine with black cherry, licorice and gamey aromas on the nose. A truckload of blackberry and black cherry flavors are upfront on the palate, followed by mineral and vanilla notes, with a generous dash of black pepper spice on a long finish. Alcohol: 14.1%.

2016 Latta Latta GSM
60% Grenache, 26% Syrah, 14% Mourvèdre

Latta sources Grenache and Mourvèdre from Upland Vineyard, while Freewater Rocks Vineyard in the Rocks District of the Walla Walla AVA is his source for both Grenache and Syrah. The soil in Freewater Rocks is cobbly loam. Dana Dibble, the vineyard manager, is a third-generation farmer who “transformed these hardscrabble orchards into the manicured rows of vines standing among the stones today.” Latta and Dibble have collaborated on many vintages and vineyard projects over the years.

  • Geekery: Fermented 55% whole cluster/45% whole berry on native yeast and punched down by hand for an average 29 days before pressing. Aged in neutral barrels for 22 months before bottling.
  • Tasting notes: Ruby in color. Nose reveals black cherry, earth, garrigue spice, and hints of fennel and cinnamon. Palate has garrigue spice upfront with a black cherry mid-palate and a hint of tart cranberry on a peppery finish. Alcohol: 14.1%.
David Shapland, tasting room associate, arranges samples on the tasting bar at Latta Wines | Photo credit: Linda Whipple

2016 Latta Grenache, Upland Vineyard

100% Grenache

  • Geekery: Lengthy maceration with 50% stems and 50% whole berries “lends wildness to the aromatics and length to the finish.” 210 cases.
  • Tasting notes: Ruby in color. Aromas of cranberry, raspberry and wet earth on the nose. Palate has notes of garrigue spice and tart cranberry. Alcohol: 14.1%.

2016 Latta Grenache, Freewater Rocks Vineyard

100% Grenache

  • Geekery: Macerated with 60% stems and 40% whole berries. Aged in neutral puncheons and barrique for 25 months before bottling.
  • Tasting notes: Garnet in color. Cranberry and sweet tobacco on the nose; tart cranberry, garrigue spice and minerality on the palate. Alcohol: 14.1%.

2016 Latta Malbec, Weinbau Vineyard

100% Malbec

Weinbau Vineyard is a warm site located in the Wahluke Slope AVA, a subregion of the Columbia Valley AVA. The Rattlesnake Mountains rise to the south and the Saddle Mountains to the north. The land slopes gently south, with elevation ranging from 710 to 950 feet. Soil is dominated by silt loam.

  • Geekery: Macerated for 34 days on the skins and aged in 45% new barriques for 25 months. 159 cases.
  • Tasting notes: Opaque ruby and purple in color. Blackberry, black cherry and cloves on the nose, with a woodsy, outdoors aroma. Palate is mineral upfront, followed by blackberry, and ending in a spicy, long finish. Alcohol: 14.1%.