ancient lakes – washington's next ava?

Monday, April 25, 2011

I spent two extremely busy and fascinating days last week touring a region known as the Ancient Lakes. If all goes well – and it should – Ancient Lakes will be certified as the 12th Washington AVA sometime later this year.

If you can locate the world famous concert venue known as the Gorge at George on a map, you are in the Ancient Lakes region. The Columbia river, at one of its most spectacular passages, defines the western edge. Both southern and northern boundaries are ridges of hills, folds in the earth, caused by tectonic movement in Oregon. These ridges run east/west and occur in sequence throughout much of eastern Washington.

If the new AVA is certified – public comment is scheduled for June, with approval expected to follow shortly – it will fill in a big hole in the Columbia valley map. To the south is a region known as the Royal Slope, which will probably have its own AVA in the not-too-distant future. Just south of that is the Wahluke Slope, site of many of this state's most important vineyard holdings. (I just profiled one of them, the StoneTree Vineyard, in yesterday's Seattle Times.

The Ancient Lakes region is almost as far north as grapes can grow in central Washington (the exception being some vineyards in the Okanogan, even farther north). For decades it was believed that no grapes could be planted north of I-90. That has been proven wrong for some time. At Cave B, Dr. Vincent Bryan has vines dating back to the early 1980s, and at White Heron, Cameron Fries began planting his vineyard some 20 years ago.

In the past decade, the Jones family has put in hundreds of acres of grapes, and the Milbrandt brothers have gone on a rampage, with Evergreen I, II, III and IV in the ground and totaling something like 1000 acres. For a good overview of the Milbrandt holdings, click here.

Evergreen in particular has been the source of exceptional white wine grapes, notably riesling, pinot gris and chardonnay, and is called out on many labels. It's a major component of Eroica in most years, and is the source for Charles Smith's Kungfu Girl Riesling and his new Vino Pinot Grigio project.

The official application process for any new AVA is arduous and time consuming, and this one has been in the works for over five years. The final update, now working its way through the Federal bureaucracy, was prepared by Joan Davenport, a Professor of Soil Sciences at Washington State University in Prosser. She has done a magnificent job of wrangling all the information that the Feds require without bogging the application down with non-essentials.

The name couldn't be better, and Davenport has proven beyond a doubt its historical legitimacy. Is there a better AVA name in the country? I haven't found one. And it speaks to the cataclysmic floods, occurring over a period of 1000 years, that carved out much of eastern Washington and left some of the most inspiring geologic formations (including the Gorge itself) in this region.

White wine grapes are sure to remain the calling card. The riesling and pinot gris wines in particular are breathtaking – vividly fruity, tightly wound, with lip-smacking acidity and palate-cleansing minerality. The red wines show excellent potential, and are stylistically apart from other Washington locations. In particular, they have thick, grainy tannins and that same bright, focused fruit with very high acidity. Some of the reds I've tasted have a propensity toward volatility, but that may be an indication of a needed winemaking adjustment rather than a defect in the terroir.

The region has the lowest annual rainfall of any in Washington, averaging around six inches. The proximity to the river protects most vineyards from frost damage, and most are planted along that western edge. Much of the land farther east is flat and sandy, with row crops and orchards rather than wine grapes. But there is plenty of room for expansion still.

There are just a handful of wineries actually located within the AVA borders. I visited and tasted at them all. On Wednesday's blog I'll follow up with tasting notes, recommendations, and contact information for at least one or two wineries I'll bet you have never heard of before.


NOTE: I have more live music appearances coming up soon! On Saturday 4/30 I'll be playing at the Balboa Wine Release & Lamb Roast with my buddy Joe Abrams. Tix are $20 – contact Tom Glase at 509-529-0461 or

On Friday 5/6 Where's Mary (that's me and Pete Crawford) will perform at Dunham Cellars open house from 5 to 7 and the Sinclair tasting room downtown from 7 till they turn the lights out.

If you are interested in booking some great live acoustic music for your next event, please contact me c/o


terroirist said...

"And it speaks to the cataclysmic floods, occurring over a period of 1000 years, that carved out much of eastern Washington and left some of the most inspiring geologic formations (including the Gorge itself) in this region."

I've always wondered if "Ancient lakes" referred to 1) the lakes (such as Soap Lake) that now occupy depressions that were scoured out by the Missoula floods 12-15 thousand years ago (Pleistocene), or 2) the much more ancient lakes that existed in that area due to the damming of drainages by lava flows of the Columbia River Basalt around 15 million years ago (Miocene). Evidence for the much more ancient basalt-dammed lakes consists of thick deposits of diatomite that crop out (and are mined) along Silica Rd. between I-90 and the Gorge concert venue. The diatomite is composed of the skeletons of gazillions of diatoms that lived (and died, obviously) in the lakes. While the Pleistocene ancient lakes formed by the Missoula floods are an interesting feature of the area, they have no affect on terroir. The deposits of the Miocene ancient lakes, however, do affect terroir as they are a component of the soils in some parts of the proposed AVA. Joan??

PaulG said...

Great point, Mr. T. My impression is that the locals use the term to include lakes from both epochs (are they technically epochs?). The older ones have left the deposits you mention (also called diatomaceous sp? earth I believe) which are piled alongside the road as you drive up to the Gorge. But the more recent floods, here as elsewhere, shaped the land and left deposits that impacted the soil. Would that not have an effect on terroir?

terroirist said...

Yes, they're epochs, Mr. G. Certainly the Missoula floods had a profound influence on shaping the landscape, and their deposits are the source for most vineyard soils, not only in the Ancient Lakes area but throughout the Columbia Basin. I'm just saying that the present-day "Ancient" lakes, whose basins were created by the Pleistocene floods, have no impact on the terroir of the region while the deposits of the much more ancient Miocene lakes actually do, in some areas. For example, the soils in parts of Evergreen Vineyard contain large chunks of common (not precious) opal, which were derived from the silica-rich Miocene lake beds.

Anonymous said...

Two things. Naches Heights should beat out Ancient Lakes as the next Washington AVA. I am told the Naches Heights application awaits one final signature at the TTB. Ancient Lakes only has a placeholder on the federal register, with an action scheduled for March of 2012. Assuming that means a notice of proposed rulemaking, and that the application will be posted then, the next step is the comment period of two months. So let's say June for it to start wending its way across the various desks of TTB reviewers for final signatures. That is IF no negative comments are received. So far, it's been 3 months and counting for the Naches Heights application since the close of comments (none were received). Given the approaching holidays, at least 4 months looks probable. So my guess, is next October at the earliest, for the Ancient Lakes of Columbia Valley.

Second thing. This is becoming a pet peeve of mine: wine writers who confuse Okanogan with Okanagan. The Okanagan is Canada, darn it!

PaulG said...

Anon, the Okanogan I am referring to IS in Washington. There are wineries there as well as the ones in the Canadian Okanagan. I am well aware of the different spellings. Pet peeves are fine, but aim it at the right offender please. As for the timing of Ancient Lakes vs. Naches Heights, I appreciate the update. This blog was written many months ago; things have progressed along different paths since then.

Anonymous said...

I aimed accurately: "The Ancient Lakes region is almost as far north as grapes can grow in central Washington (the exception being some vineyards in the Okanagon, even farther north)."

You are saying you know the difference, and I of course, believe you, but your fingers belied your mind here. Sorry to picky, but I've seen this typo elsewhere. It is perhaps unfortunate that two so similarly named ares are so close to each other.

Royal Slope AVA . . . a vineyard owner I've talked to there says yes, they should do it, and other area growers agree, but no actions have been taken to that end or are contemplated in the immediate future. So we're looking at several years at best, even if they get on it right after Christmas. I am no geologist, but I gather one differentiating feature has to do with an eddy in the area during the Great Missoula Floods, resulting a lot of sediment and calcium being deposited. I am not sure if this applies to the whole AVA or just part of it. Terroirist likely knows a lot more.

PaulG said...

Listen, for the last time, the most northerly vineyards IN CENTRAL WASHINGTON are in the Okanogan. Period. Done. Look it up. I know what I'm talking about. I've been there. The Canadian Okanagan is just north of the border. The Washington Okanogan is just south. BOTH HAVE VINEYARDS.

Anonymous said...

I owe you an apology. What you typed in your original post --"Okanagon" -- is neither one, (sounds like a good name for a planet in a sci-fi movie, though). I understand that you know the difference, and you've nailed the spellings every time since then. Obviously just a typo. I am sorry.

PaulG said...

You are right - there was a typo. Now fixed. Touché!

Anonymous said...

Sorry about the typo stir, sir. Let's move on. Naches Heights AVA final rule (Approval) will be on the Federal Register tomorrow, establishment effective in a month.

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