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Washington State Hopes for More AVAs

Naches Heights viticultural area proposed; Okanogan Valley and Ancient Lakes may be next

by Peter Mitham
Naches Heights AVA
Naches Heights Vineyards and Winery is one of three wineries in the proposed AVA.
Yakima, Wash.—Plans are afoot for more AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) in Washington state. The proposed Naches Heights AVA north of Yakima is the next most likely candidate for the designation.

“We had a very easy time delineating the differences between soil, elevation, geology, geography, history,” said Phil Cline of 1,200-case Naches Heights Vineyards and Winery, one of three wineries in the proposed AVA. He expects the designation to bring attention to what he believes is an up-and-coming wine region.

“This is a recently unknown region for growing winegrapes in Washington, but this region has been growing excellent fruit,” he said. Cline established his 7.5-acre vineyard in 2002. It was the area’s first commercial planting of winegrapes, although his family had a small planting of table grapes alongside orchards that produced tree fruits from apples to cherries. There are now 40 acres of vineyard in Naches Heights.

Documents filed with the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) and published in the Federal Register at the end of May describe the area proposed for the Naches Heights AVA as, “a single, elevated Tieton andesite plateau landform that ends in andesite cliffs that descend into the valleys surrounding the plateau.” The total area proposed for inclusion in the AVA is 13,254 acres.

The plateau is arid and largely free of alluvial deposits from the famed Missoula Floods that swept through the Columbia Valley between 13,000 and 15,000 years ago. Situated in the shadow of the Cascades to the west, the plateau is sheltered from effects of winter storms blowing in from the Pacific Ocean. In addition, the lowest point in the proposed AVA is 1,200 feet, facilitating air drainage off the plateau and reducing risk of frost damage to vines. Rich loams cover deep loess soils on the plateau, which allow vines to develop deep roots to further defend them from winterkill.

Last fall’s freeze
Cline admitted that last fall’s freeze at the end of November hit everyone, however, and his own vineyard was among the most severely affected. He’s still expecting a crop, though, unlike some growers in the Horse Heaven Hills and Walla Walla AVAs.

Damage has been hard to estimate, because vine development remains about a month behind this year, and vines still have just four inches of green on them. Cline doesn’t expect much permanent damage to his vineyards.

“Last year we were late, now we’re even a week later than we were last year,” he said. “Bloom is still a ways away, so the season is going to be very short unless we have a pretty big warming trend.”

That said, the andesite rock that features prominently in the proposed Naches Heights AVA can help provide steady heat even during a short growing season. “We’re surrounded by rocks, which act as heat sinks,” Cline said, noting that he had just more than 3,000 growing-degree days in 2005.

The grape varieties he grows testify to the area’s potential: Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer grow alongside warmer climate varieties such as Albariño, Tempranillo and Syrah, which one year yielded a wine with a whopping 15.6% alcohol reading. It was more than Cline wanted, but testimony to the ease with which grapes ripen in the area.

Cline manages Wilridge Vineyard, which has 25 grape varieties. These will further demonstrate which varieties are best suited to the proposed AVA.
A petition for the Naches Heights AVA comes two years after approval of the Lake Chelan and Snipes Mountain AVAs, the most recent to be recognized in the state.

Comments on the Naches Heights petition are welcome through July 25, 2011. A decision is expected in August. If approved, Naches Heights would become the state’s 12th AVA.

More on the table
Naches Heights certainly won’t be the last.

An evolving and growing understanding of Washington’s geography and soils have been fuelling interest in new viticultural areas both at the regulatory level and among enterprising growers discovering the distinct capabilities of the state, which the Washington State Wine Commission touts as having, “the perfect climate for wine.”

Well-known winemaker and viticulture consultant Rusty Figgins is spearheading preliminary work on a petition for the Okanogan Valley AVA, which he first mentioned to Wines & Vines last summer. The planned AVA will stretch from the Canada-U.S. border in Okanogan County south to where the Okanogan River empties into the Columbia River at Brewster, Wash. Signatories to a petition requesting the AVA’s creation have been identified, and work is beginning on the petition itself, which can be a long-time process.

TTB has also accepted an application for the creation of the Ancient Lakes of the Columbia Basin AVA near Quincy, Wash. Cameron Fries of White Heron Cellars in Quincy expects the petition to be open for public comment by the end of this year.

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