washington’s "oregon" avas – part one

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

I thought about calling this Washington’s most confusing AVA. In part because for many people, even those who live in the Northwest, the name Columbia Gorge is most closely associated with a different gorge on a different stretch of the same river – also known as The Gorge at George (George being the name of the nearby town). That Gorge is a worldclass concert venue.

The rest of the confusion arises because the Columbia Gorge AVA, which straddles the Washington/Oregon border east of Portland, has never been shown well on maps. The official Washington state AVA map has had it wrong for years (a fix is in the works).

On the Oregon side, they get it half right – their half. (OR map) The crux of the problem here is that, although vintners from both states frequently cross the river to purchase grapes, the respective state-centric promotional organizations are reluctant (or unable) to come up with a joint agreement to show the entire region intact. The growers association has a wine touring map, which covers the actual AVA and extends farther east into the Columbia valley AVA (which also includes parts of Oregon) to capture wineries just outside the official boundaries. (Growers' map)

Whatever. The Columbia Gorge AVA is one of Washegon’s (Orington’s?) most spectacular. It comprises a scenic, 15-mile stretch along both sides of the Columbia River, and is, for all intents and purposes, a further extension of the western edge of the Columbia Valley AVA, though not technically included within it.

As legally defined, the AVA comprises a total of 191,000 acres, with about 500 under vine. There are 30-plus wineries, most of them on the Oregon side, clustered around the town of Hood River, a center for tourism and recreation. Though vineyards are small and most are relatively new, the quality of the grapes being grown has caught the attention of winemakers from both states. On the Washington side, south-facing vineyards occupy plateaus and slopes perched high above the river. Some are buffeted by fierce winds, yet protected from desert extremes of heat and cold by the rain shadow of the Cascade Mountains. Among them are among a handful of Washington vineyards that can be dry-farmed.

Peter Rosback (Sineann) knows the area well. “It’s not a big AVA,” he explains, “but it has a lot of temperature and elevation change. You get an inch less rain per year per mile as you go east, from the Cascade Locks at 60 inches/year to The Dalles at 12 inches/year. So you shed a lot of moisture as you travel across the AVA. Elevation is the other key factor. The Wyeast vineyard at 1500 feet ripens pinot noir better than some Willamette valley vineyards that are much lower.”

As for differences on the two sides, Rosback notes that “Oregon tends to be warmer, and better pinot noir comes off the Oregon side. What I focus on in Washington,” he confides, “is gewurztraminer. There is also some pinot gris there, with higher acidity, and later ripening than in Oregon. But the two-state AVA is totally valid. They succeed with similar varietals, similar ripening. So many vineyards are young, it’s still being explored.”

For iconic wines from the Washington side of the AVA, check out any white wine from Celilo vineyard grapes, or Syncline’s Steep Creek Ranch red. From the Oregon side, look to Sineann’s Columbia Gorge pinots (especially Wyeast), and the estate wines of Phelps Creek Vineyards.


Unknown said...

Thanks, Paul, for providing some insight into our small, but mighty, winegrowing area!
Maybe it will remedy some of the confusion about the Columbia Gorge.

Anonymous said...

The Columbia Gorge, more than any other, mocks any connection between AVA's and terroir. If anything, the unifying characteristic of the Columbia Gorge AVA would be "variability" - in soils, in climate, in topography.

Peter Rosback said...

Though, Anonymous, the varietals in the region are not so widely diverse. Wouldn't the Columbia Valley AVA be so large and so diverse as to render meaningless an AVA designation with respect to soils, climate and topography? The line has to be drawn somewhere and the Gorge doesn't seem so radically diverse.

Peter R

scott said...

Very generally the basis for an AVA is that all land within the AVA boundary has similar geographic, geologic, and climatic characteristics. And at least some of those characteristics have to be substantially unique relative to land outside the AVA boundary. Why? In theory the grapes/wines coming from an AVA will exhibit some identifiable similarity(ies) and uniqueness to that AVA. Creating an AVA is about creating exclusivity, and I don’t mean that in the sense of being snobbish or high-priced, I mean it in the sense of demarcating an area where everyone inside shares something (or many things) in common and is different than anyone outside.

As Anonymous points out it seems that the Columbia Gorge AVA is more about inclusivity – bringing together regions or areas of dissimilarity.

PaulG said...

Scott's comment is correct as far as it goes, but the broadest AVAs are designed to demarcate vast areas - eg, Columbia Valley – with the idea that smaller sub-regions will evolve within them and ultimately demonstrate the sort of particularity that we like to call terroir. This takes time. It's happening in this country actually rather quickly. As for the Columbia Gorge AVA, I have to disagree that it's bringing together regions that are dissimilar. It is very tightly defined to be within the rainshadow of the Cascade mountains, with a secondary influence from the Columbia river. Where the land dries out and turns into desert, the AVA stops. Grape growing is still new, with only a handful of exceptions. So yes, a lot of experimenting is taking place, as it should.

scott said...

PaulG – I suppose this could be a philosophical discussion, but one thing that’s a fact and that is there is a dramatic change in climate as one traverses (west/east) the Columbia Gorge AVA. There’s not a line at The Dalles where it’s cool/wet to the west and warm/dry to the east.

Anonymous said...

Steep hillsides covered in douglas fir that receive 40+ inches of rain a year, grassy hillsides dotted with oaks, with 25 inches of rain/year and sagebrush covered flats with less than 10 inches/year along the Columbia River. Basalt-rich soils on the slopes of young volcanoes, rolling, loess-covered hills, steep canyon walls exposing cliffs of cobblestone conglomerates, Missoula flood gravels - elevations ranging from 200 to 3000 ft. Heavily irrigated Zinfandel and grenache in one part of the AVA, dry-farmed gewurz and pinot in another... The thermal influence of the Columbia River is nonexistent once you're more than a mile form the river. Sorry, Paul it's DIVERSE, big time - especially compared to Red Mtn., Snipes, Chelan, Wahluke, etc. Sticking to my guns...

james said...

Scott and Anonymous,
Sure there is diversity throughout the AVA, but there are overlying characteristics that unify the grapes grown throughout the AVA. The AVA grape growing is dominated by the presence of the Cascade mountains and the fact that the Columbia River cuts the only sea-level passage through these mountains. This does result in a significant change in precipitation but it also allows for much greater impacts to the grapes due to the fact that the Gorge is the confluence of three climate zones: Moist maritime air coming from Portland, warm desert air from the east, and the very important impact of the cold Alpine environment both north and south of the AVA. This climate confluence cannot be repeated anywhere else in the northwest. The gorge sees some of the greatest diurnal temperature exchanges in the state as a result of these confluences. The resulting vineyards ripen at lower brix, have less cold weather injury, higher natural acids, and lower pH's than the Columbia Valley. And as to variations in rainfall, they are almost a mirror image of rainfall patterns in Walla Walla and similar to those of Paso Robles. Rainfall does not direct varieties to be planted, but more along the lines of cultural practices. Yes there are some areas within the AVA that defy any reason for inclusion and the future will bring some sub-avas. but overall there is a certain continuity that can be tasted across varietals, and this might be the true sign of the potential for terroir.

PaulG said...

Good discussion, and thank you all for contributing. I have always felt a bit of confusion surrounding the boundary lines of the AVA, because it has been difficult to find an accurate map, and I have not driven the entire perimeter. I sense that we are not all that far apart in our assessments. Another informed comment came to me via e-mail from Peter Rosback (Sineann) who writes:

"They didn't get the lines drawn perfectly, no doubt. There is such a gradient within that stretch of the Gorge, I'm sure an argument could be made for multiple AVA's. Celilo may get 60 inches of rain per year, the farthest eastern edge probably near 12 - and it's a relatively small AVA! They elevation limited the Gorge AVA (which controls the north/south limits of grape growing, touched up to the Columbia Valley in the east, and went as far west as one can reasonably grow grapes successfully. One could argue for years over just about any AVA (actually - people do!). Certainly the Columbia Valley has far more diversity.

To compare the Gorge to the puny AVA's is not entirely fair. Some, larger, inclusive AVA's have to be set (Napa, Columbia Valley, etc.). Maybe over time, they will all be chopped up as Napa, Willamette and Columbia valleys have been. If you want my argument, it comes down to vineyard by vineyard to get real meaning.For you, Paul, you have to judge the significant majority of what you see coming out of an AVA. That you are doing. Exceptions? Bound to exist."

Alan said...

Hey Everyone, I know I’m late to the dance (been busy lately), but please take a chill pill and calm the hysterics about AVAs for a few minutes, then consider this: Terroir is one thing, but the legal definition of an AVA, the criteria for establishing an AVA with TTB, and arguably the marketing reasons to have an AVA are something completely different.

I’ve spent 30 years in the Pacific Northwest conducting research on soils, geology, climate and climate change, agriculture, and now for the last 15 years on viticulture, and I’ve worked to get 5 of the state’s 11 AVAs approved, so please hear me out.

I am a firm advocate for the search for true terroir characteristics in our oh-so-young winegrowing region, but this rightfully will take decades, perhaps centuries to accomplish. We often like to imagine that a perfect AVA is synonymous with a perfect piece of terroir but technically and practically they exist for different reasons.

We all think we know a good and correct definition of terroir, so I won’t add mine here. But here is a paraphrase of the guidelines TTB uses to approve or reject petitions for new AVAs: “A legally defined area of wine grape production whose geographical features, climates, soils, or geology produce growing conditions that distinguish the proposed area
from surrounding areas.”

Do you see the words ‘uniform’, ‘identically the same in all parts’, or ‘terroir’ anywhere in the definitions? No because they are not there and they are not intended to be there. I will come back to this in talking about the Columbia Gorge AVA in a moment.

But let’s go back and talk about the Washington AVA that everyone loves to cite as a perfect example of an AVA coinciding with a single terroir.

Everyone LOVES to cite Red Mountain. WRONG.

It’s easy to say, “they got it right at Red Mountain AVA and boy, did they ever get it wrong on the Columbia Gorge AVA”. I think this is because Red Mountain is a single bench that we can take in with a single gaze, and the overall macro-climatic characteristics are similar. Ok so far but consider this. Having performed detailed land assessments as a consultant now on almost 2000 acres of Red Mountain’s 8000 acres, Red Mountain is most decidedly NOT a single terroir. Just one example suffices: On Ryan Johnson and Paul McBride’s Grand Revè vineyard north of Col Solare, we excavated 56 backhoe pits in order to make any sense at all of the soil patterns on 11 acres! On that tiny parcel, I identified eleven incredibly, distinctly different soil types, including soils from windblown sand 50 feet deep demarcated along a knife-sharp boundary invisible on the land surface from soils with a massive, absolutely impermeable hardpan 3 feet thick lurking just 10 inches beneath the surface.

What this means to vineyard performance and, hypothetically at least, to grape flavors and quality is clear: that in just 11 acres of one parcel on Red Mountain there are many terroirs, not just one. And Ryan and Paul have honored those dramatic soil, slope and aspect differences in designing a beautifully complex set of vineyard blocks, some of which are barely half an acre and the largest of which is only 2 acres or so.

To know the incredibly violent geologic history of Red Mountain as regards turbulent flows of cataclysmic floodwaters up and around and probably over the top of Red Mountain plus the multiple pathways of windblown sand off of the Yakima River floodplain since the end of the last Ice Age is to not be surprised at all at this. Such variation, along with incredible differences in the relative wind intensity of different locations on Red Mountain, may go a long way toward enlivening the discussion of reasons underlying the ‘femininity, elegance, and finesse of Cabernet Sauvignon from Ciel du Cheval vineyard versus the powerful, dark, tannic, masculine qualities of Cabernet from Klipsun vineyard...’ less than half a mile away (quote from Jim Holmes, owner of Ciel). (Sorry: to be contined).

Alan said...

(Continued from earlier post).

I could cite many similar points about supposedly uniform terroirs within other Washington, Oregon, and California AVAs (rainfall within the Walla Walla Valley AVA ranging from 6’ to over 40”, ‘melange’ (read: ‘chaos’) geologic terrains creating unbelieveable complexity within all 43 Napa Valley sub AVAs etc.), but let me return to the question of the appropriateness or inappropriateness of the Columbia Gorge being an AVA.

If one reads the TTB definition, “A legally defined area of wine grape production whose geographical features, climates, soils, or geology produce growing conditions that distinguish the proposed area from surrounding areas”, nothing is said about ‘terroir’ or uniformity. James weighed in rather eloquently earlier with his blog post describing some of the wonderful and unique attributes of the Columbia Valley region, AVA or not.

Read the definition again slowly to yourself and you must realize that no neighboring area is at all similar to the Columbia Gorge in toto. To the north? Mount Adams, Goldendale and elevations and climatic conditions totally unsuited to fruit production along the backbone of the Cascades. To the south? The same. To the west? Rainfall amounts up to 120” and temperatures too cool for vinifera. To the east? Perhaps here, following the definition set by TTB, a case can be made that the ‘geographic’ Columbia Gorge extends eastward at least to the area of Maryhill Museum or John Day Dam and that the AVA boundary might be expanded another 25 miles east. Farther upstream on the Columbia River, the cliff-bounded Columbia Gorge opens into the gentle-walled Columbia Valley from Rufus to Hermiston, clearly a different province by any measure.

Not good enough? Pick ANY other AVA in the Northwest to compare the Columbia Gorge AVA to and you fail to find even one that is similar. Simply nowhere else provides the sea-level passage for air exchange east to west, the rainfall and temperature gradients and types of soils (glacial, eolian, and true volcanic) that allow virtually every major variety of fine wine grape to find a perfect vineyard fit. Not a shoehorn fit, not some of the varieties, but ‘A World of Wine in 40 Miles’.

From a practical standpoint, who among us will oppose the argument that the most fundamental value of AVA status is in wine marketing, not purity of terroir. From this perspective as well, the Columbia Gorge is very cohesive as an AVA: it presents a scenic destination, close to major urban centers, transected by an interstate highway, with a century-long history of fruit production, with wonderful outdoor recreation resources originating from wind, water, and snow, within which a wine consumer can reasonably expect to find fine wines produced by local wineries from AVA-grown (as well as other-AVA) grapes, that accurately reflect the tipicity of virtually all commonly known grape varieties. Name for me, please, another AVA in the Pacific Northwest that can make this claim.

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