washington’s “oregon” avas – part two

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Driving east from the Columbia Gorge AVA (see yesterday’s blog), you cross immediately into the Columbia Valley AVA. This reaches across the river also into parts of northern Oregon, and some vineyard development is occurring on both sides of the river. The landscape quickly changes, as you leave the rain shadow of the Cascades for the scrub desert of eastern Washington and eastern Oregon.

The view is spectacular from either side of the river. From the Oregon side you’ll get a better look at some of the Washington vineyards in the Horse Heaven Hills AVA (a sub-set of the Columbia Valley), which reaches down to the river but does not cross it. Some of this state’s largest and most productive vineyards are located here, including Alder Ridge, the two Canoe Ridges, the vast Columbia Crest vineyards, Champoux and its satellites, Destiny Ridge, McKinley Springs, and Wallula/The Benches. But I digress.

Just past the Wallula site, the river abruptly turns north, through the Wallula Gap, and heads to the Tri-Cities. You’ll have to follow it a short distance before heading east again, on Highway 12, toward the Walla Walla AVA. This more than any other encompasses sizeable and significant parts of Oregon, yet somehow Washington has been able to lay claim to all of its most important vineyards and wineries, though many are located in the wrong state. I won’t go into the legal complications, but suffice it to say that the actual boundaries of the AVA are perfectly logical.

There is no Columbia river to provide a neat dividing line – simply a road, conveniently named Stateline road. The AVA itself is quite varied, and thanks to the development of important vineyards in all sub-sections, four or five potential sub-AVAs can easily be identified. See my book Washington Wines & Wineries (now available as an e-book) for an in-depth look at the specifics.

The emergence of Walla Walla as an important Washington wine region had little or nothing to do with vineyards. The AVA was certified in 1984, and there were only about 60 acres under vine, most of them in Oregon. It was the quality of the wines, from Leonetti, Woodward Canyon, and L’Ecole No 41 (the first three wineries in the region) that attracted notice. Seven Hills winery was the first to be tied to a sizeable estate vineyard, and the Seven Hills vineyard (now greatly expanded and under new ownership) has become the epicenter of the Oregon-side plantings, which run up the slopes of the Blue Mountain foothills, and down to the old riverbed informally known as The Rocks.

Directly north of Stateline road are the most fertile and low-lying vineyards, as well as a cluster of impressive wineries – Pepper Bridge, Northstar, and a couple dozen others. More vineyards are planted at the western edge of the AVA, out toward the teeny town of Lowden, where Woodward Canyon and L’Ecole are headquartered. It’s the driest and perhaps most difficult location to grow grapes, but quality can be superb, as the estate wines from Woodward Canyon prove.

In the other direction, east up Mill Creek, are new vineyards that run up the Washington-side slopes of the Blue Mountains, and accumulate triple the annual rainfall of the driest sites. Some of these vineyards are being dry-farmed. Finally, there is the most northern section of the AVA, which includes the wheat country vineyards of Spring Valley winery, and seems poised for further development, given the enormous success of that brand.

Today there are over 100 wineries headquartered in Walla Walla, but only four well-established producers (that I can think of) that use Walla Walla grapes exclusively – Leonetti Cellar, Pepper Bridge, and Spring Valley (all on the Washington side), and Cayuse (entirely on the Oregon side). Of course there are many others growing grapes and making wine from Walla Walla vineyards, but it is rare to focus entirely on estate grown grapes in this AVA, because it is prone to freeze damage and historically has had years in which a large percentage of the grape harvest was wiped out. The solution has been to purchase grapes from other AVAs, and rely on the Walla Walla “brand” to carry over. Whether fair or not (this has caused more than a little resentment around other parts of the state), it has been a very effective marketing strategy.

6 comments:

Sean P. Sullivan said...

Paul, I like to refer to Walla Walla Valley's Oregon vineyards as Washington's "dirty little secret." I have been thinking about this a good deal lately. What happens when, inevitably, the AVA is subdivided and an area like The Rocks becomes it's own AVA? Will pose some very interesting problems for Washington. My personal solution is to annex the area.

PaulG said...

I'm re-posting this comment from Sean Sullivan because for some reason it did not come thru (and I think annexing the W2 part of OR is a great solution, but they can keep Milton-Freewater):

"Paul, I like to refer to Walla Walla Valley's Oregon vineyards as Washington's "dirty little secret." I have been thinking about this a good deal lately. What happens when, inevitably, the AVA is subdivided and an area like The Rocks becomes it's own AVA? Will pose some very interesting problems for Washington. My personal solution is to annex the area."

Jason Baggett said...

While not having the long history of wineries such as Leonetti, Mannina Cellars uses only Walla Walla fruit. I cannot think of many that actually do this exclusively.

Chris said...

I'm going through Salem in a couple of weeks, you guys in Walla Walla want me to drop off your annexation request so you can become part of Oregon? We might have to keep Waitsburg, though. :)

Anonymous said...

You should be so lucky as to live in Milton Freewater. Great place, great people and great fruit. Please, no more "urban" attitude. Stick to what you almost know.

PaulG said...

Anonymous, you could use a sense of humor. And FYI, I live in Waitsburg, in Walla Walla county. The town's population is 1203.

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