Yakima Valley AVA: 30 years and growing

After 30 years, Yakima Valley is still the gateway to Washington wine country.

Wine Press NorthwestMay 23, 2013 

While this year marks the 30th anniversary of the federal government recognizing the Yakima Valley as an official viticultural area, the region’s roots run so much deeper.

In nearly every way, the Yakima Valley is the cradle of Washington wine. Certainly, wine grapes were planted elsewhere in Washington before they came to the Yakima Valley, but today’s wine industry can be traced back directly to William Bridgman, a lawyer and politician who planted European wine grapes near Sunnyside just as the darkness of Prohibition was spreading across the nation.

In 1917, Bridgman planted such grapes as Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Muscat of Alexandria and Thompson Seedless on a hill known as Snipes Mountain. Some of those vines remain today and are used to make commercial wine — an astonishing 96 years later.

After Repeal, Bridgman started Upland Winery, which he operated until selling to his nephew in 1960. He died in 1968.

Walter Clore, a horticulturist for Washington State College, arrived in the Yakima Valley in 1937. Bridgman gave Clore cuttings of European wine grapes and told the scientist that he believed they had a future in Washington. Clore went on to become the most prominent figure in the state wine industry.

“If Walter Clore is the father of Washington wine, then Bill Bridgman is the grandfather,” said Todd Newhouse, whose family bought Bridgman’s vineyard in the early 1970s. Newhouse even revived Upland Winery, a nod to the man who got things going in Washington.

In turn, Clore worked with the next generation of the modern Washington wine industry when Wade Wolfe arrived in 1978 as a viticulturist for Chateau Ste. Michelle. By that time, Clore had retired from WSU and was consulting for Ste. Michelle.

“I met Walt the first day I was here,” Wolfe said. “He took me around and introduced me to the growers.”

Wolfe’s job was to work with growers supplying grapes for Ste. Michelle.

“Walt would take me to a vineyard site and talk about its strengths and weaknesses. He was the one who gave me the thorough introduction to the area.”

After leaving Ste. Michelle in 1985, Wolfe became a consultant, launched Thurston Wolfe Winery and later ran Hogue Cellars.

Wolfe is widely viewed as the successor to Clore, who died in 2003. Together, they wrote the petition for the Columbia Valley American Viticultural Area, which was approved in 1984, a year after the Yakima Valley became official.

Creating the Yakima Valley AVA, however, was a collaboration of winemakers, starting with Mike Wallace of Hinzerling. In 1972, Wallace arrived in Prosser from Seattle — on advice from Clore — and began planting vines north of Prosser. He launched Hinzerling in 1976.

In the early 1980s, Wallace was in Santa Rosa, Calif., to visit friends. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms — the ATF — was holding a meeting about the first AVA being created in California, and Wallace thought it might be interesting.

“I wanted to see what it was all about,” he said. “I listened to the program and talked to the ATF guys. I thought, ’We can do this, too.’ “

He return to the Yakima Valley, where there were four wineries: Hinzerling, Yakima River, Tucker and Kiona. He talked to John Williams, who had just opened Kiona on Red Mountain, and they figured out how to put together the petition.

“We each took a section of the application for the AVA,” Williams said.

Williams remembered he was in charge of coming up with the AVA boundaries, while Wallace worked on gathering weather data. Helen Willard, whose family owns Willard Farms near Prosser, chronicled the history of the valley for the petition. By 1983, the Pacific Northwest’s first AVA had been approved.

Since then, three more AVAs have been carved out of the Yakima Valley: Red Mountain in 2001, the Rattlesnake Hills in 2006 and Snipes Mountain in 2009. Today, the Yakima Valley has more than 17,000 acres of the state’s 43,000 acres of wine grapes, by far the largest concentration in Washington.

Unfortunately, being the oldest region in the state does not mean the Yakima Valley has a great deal of respect. In fact, such areas as Walla Walla, the Horse Heaven Hills and Red Mountain — which many forget is within the Yakima Valley — tend to be the state’s shiny objects with winemakers and consumers alike, while the Yakima Valley is eschewed as a place too cold to grow red wine grapes.

Wolfe said much of the criticism of the Yakima Valley is deserved. As red wine grapes became a hot commodity in the early 1990s, growers in the valley went on a planting spree, often putting grapes wherever they could — rather than where they should.

“The valley did get a bad rap from bad decisions made in the 1990s,” Wolfe said. “We’ve learned that lesson through better site selection, better farming practices and better wine-making.”

Today, many of the state’s most famous red wine grape vineyards are in the Yakima Valley, including Boushey, Ciel du Cheval, DuBrul, Elephant Mountain, Harrison Hill, Klipsun, Lonesome Spring, Olsen, Red Willow and Upland. These are stalwarts of the industry, vineyards that any winery is proud to proclaim on its label.

Meanwhile, white wines — which comprise the majority in Washington — start in the Yakima Valley.

“The Yakima Valley is the breadbasket of our Columbia Valley Riesling,” said Bob Bertheau, head winemaker for Chateau Ste. Michelle. “You have to appreciate the diversity the Yakima Valley offers.” Wolfe wonders if the valley’s agricultural strengths actually work against it at times.

“Trying to promote the Yakima Valley is kind of like promoting Washington,” Wolfe said. “We can grow so many varieties so well. How do you define what our region is good at and what it should be known for?"

That is one reason “Oregon” and “Pinot Noir” are synonymous amid consumers, he said.

“The limitations of the Willamette Valley work in Oregon’s favor,” Wolfe said. “It’s a story of monoculture. Whereas when you have much more potential and work with so many varieties, it’s harder to define.”

The 30th anniversary of the Yakima Valley AVA is a good opportunity for education as well as celebration.

“The primary objective of Wine Yakima Valley (the AVA’s organization of growers and winemakers) is to change the opinion of the Yakima Valley,” Wolfe said. “We’re talking about the history, geology, climate and topography of the Yakima Valley.”

This makes 2013 the right year to rediscover the Yakima Valley for its place in creating a wine industry as well as sustaining it.

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ANDY PERDUE is the editor of Great Northwest Wine, a news and information company. Go to www.greatnorthwestwine.com.

JACKIE JOHNSTON, a freelance photojournalist, is a regular contributor and the page designer for Wine Press Northwest. Her website’s at: JackieJohnston.com

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