RICHLAND — Barnard Griffin Winery’s Rosé of Sangiovese has blossomed into a harbinger of spring each year for wine lovers touring the Yakima Valley around Valentine’s Day.
And for the past decade, Barnard Griffin arguably has been the best rose producer in the United States. Judges at the 2018 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, the largest judging of wine in America, voted the Barnard Griffin rose as the best of the week-long judging. It marked the sixth rose sweepstakes win at the Sonoma competition since 2008 for the Richland winery, so when that wine was unveiled to the panel on Jan. 12, it came as no surprise to Ellen Landis, viewed as one of the country’s top wine judges.
“It was gloriously expressive, and it took me to Washington and Barnard Griffin,” said Landis, a longtime sommelier and educator who worked in the Bay Area wine trade before moving to Vancouver, Washington. “It’s a classic sangiovese rose — floral notes, red cherry, dried strawberry and subtle sweet herbs, with vibrant acidity.”
Rob Griffin, the dean of Washington winemakers, released his 2017 pink on Valentine’s Day, and it is for sale at his Richland winery for $14. Bottling of that wine will approach 17,000 cases. That electric pink, which is devoted to the Italian red grape variety, accounts for about 25 percent of the total production at the multi-generation wine company.
Mike Dunne, wine columnist for the Sacramento Bee, reviews the top wines at the Chronicle competition. He continues to be impressed by Griffin’s skill at transforming the grape most commonly associated with Chianti-style table wines into Northwest’s best-selling homegrown rose, vintage after vintage.
The competition’s archives reveal that Barnard Griffin also captured the top honor in 2016, 2014, 2012, 2011 and 2008 — the first year that the Chronicle tasked its judges with determining a sweepstakes award for rose. Starting in 2006, the Barnard Griffin rose has won a gold medal in 12 of the 13 years it’s been entered. The first year entries beyond California were allowed was 2005.
Those years of acclaim and headlines in the U.S. wine industry’s most important newspaper, marketing influence and consumer acceptance fueled Barnard Griffin’s rise among the nation’s rose producers, particularly with sangiovese.
“There’s a fun aspect to it,” Griffin said. “Sangiovese has an inherent sweetness to it, and the tiny bit of tannin gives it some nice structure. It’s surprisingly versatile and works beautifully with salmon and across so many dishes, especially pasta dishes. There’s not much it doesn’t work with in some form or another, including salads, which is not always an easy thing to accomplish.”
It’s become so personally important to Griffin — a proud graduate of the storied University of California-Davis winemaking school — that he focuses a significant chunk of his professional attention each year on the development of his rose. He remains the company’s director of winemaking. His daughter, Megan Hughes, heads up the white wine program. Mickey French, Griffin’s longtime right-hand man, quarterbacks the red wine production.
“That leaves me with the rose, and I love it,” Griffin said.
Griffin referred to one of his longtime friends and most trusted growers, Maury Balcom and his vineyard north of Pasco, as “the backbone” of his rose program. Their sudden success, starting with Barnard Griffin’s 2002 Rosé of Sangiovese, prompted Griffin to not only look for other growers of that variety but also to get Balcom & Moe Vineyard to plant an additional 7 acres of sangiovese a year ago.
“In the beginning, that first year at least, it was 100 percent of the program,” Griffin said. “The way that sangiovese yields and the way we farm it, (the variety) produces a lot of fruit.”
“It’s been kind of a steady growth,” Griffin said. “In 2016, we went from 15,000 to 20,000 cases. That’s because the fruit was there. In 2017, we were not able to get as much.”
The 20,000 cases bottled from the 2016 vintage stands as the record, and Barnard Griffin’s prescience to sync up with the worldwide thirst for rose seems uncanny.
His family and staff would prefer to have fans buy it at their tasting room on Tulip Lane, but bottles are widely available throughout the Pacific Northwest.
“An astute customer can find it for a better price,” Griffin said. “It’s been big in QFC, Safeway and Albertsons, and Yoke’s (in Eastern Washington) has been as big of supporter as any chain account. It’s also big in independent stores and PCC around Seattle.”
His deft touch with sangiovese seems to be paying dividends for everyone. Italians historically embraced the variety because the vine is so fruitful and the clusters so large.
“In a good year, we can crop sangiovese to 10 tons an acre, which is almost embarrassing to admit,” Griffin said. “But that gives the wine the crisp acidity, and it still has the fruit.”
These days, there are plenty of smiles at Barnard Griffin. This year marks the 35th anniversary of his own company, which he launched after spending eight years at now-defunct Preston Wine Cellars in Pasco. Just beyond the tasting room, workers continue to remodel The Kitchen at Barnard Griffin and prepare for the restaurant’s reopening in early March.
Eric Degerman and Andy Perdue run Great Northwest Wine, an award-winning media company. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com.