Washington Region Pursues AVA

Winery and vineyard proprietors hope to differentiate area from the greater Columbia Valley

by Peter Mitham
Ancient Lakes of Columbia Valley
Six wineries and six vineyards would be part of the proposed Ancient Lakes of Columbia Valley sub-AVA if the petition is approved. Source: White Heron Cellars
Quincy, Wash.—A new AVA (American Viticultural Area) is in the works for Washington state, and wineries are counting on the designation to deepen consumers’ understanding of what the diverse Columbia Valley has to offer.

The proposed Ancient Lakes of Columbia Valley AVA would include 162,762 acres at the eastern foot of the Cascade Mountains located in Douglas, Grant and Kittitas counties. Currently part of the Columbia Valley AVA, the proposed appellation is home to six wineries and six vineyards totalling 1,399 acres.

The name of the AVA refers to a series of water-filled depressions situated along the eastern edge of the Quincy Basin and left over from the glacial floods that swept through central Washington in prehistoric times.

Cameron Fries, proprietor of White Heron Cellars in Quincy, Wash., and Joan Davenport, a soil sciences professor with Washington State University in Prosser, said the name “Quincy Basin” wasn’t suitable on account of a Quincy designation in France’s Loire Valley. The new name connects with the local identity the AVA aims to create for the region.

“You want to differentiate yourself out of the Columbia Valley,” he told Wines & Vines. “The Columbia Valley is just a huge AVA, so you want some way to say our grapes are not just generic from Lake Roosevelt all the way to the Columbia Gorge.”

More acid and tannin
Fries said distinguishing traits of the region from his perspective are rooted in a cool climate that yields grapes that are higher in both acid and tannin than those from warmer parts of the state.

The vines for White Heron Cellars are located at between 900 and 1,200 feet in elevation, with the maximum elevation in the AVA being approximately 1,400 feet. While not incredibly high, the area’s location at the eastern foot of the Cascades exposes it to cool air from the mountains that collects in the Quincy Basin.

“Cold air comes down every night, no matter how warm it gets,” he said.

This ensures vines stay dormant during the winter and moderates the climate during the growing season. Growing degree day units (GDD) average 2,570, and continuous GDD number 162.

While the conditions make the area less than ideal for some of the state’s big red varieties, white grapes seem to love it.

“It seems to be the thing that works,” said Butch Milbrandt, co-owner of Milbrandt Vineyards, one of the AVA’s largest growers. “The area does a good enough job of raising white grapes that it deserves an appellation.”

The petition was published May 8, 2012, although it had been originally submitted last year (see “Washington State Hopes for More AVAs.”) The comment period ends July 9, with approval possible later this year.

Support for the appellation, which would be the 14th in the state, has come from the federal and state representatives, the Port of Quincy and the commissioners of Grant County, which has its seat in Quincy. The Port of Quincy funded work by Washington State University soil sciences professor Joan Davenport that strengthened the petition. (TTB staff rejected a previous version of the petition, due in part to the quality of the climate information provided.)

Mineral-rich soils
Approval of the petition will give Washington state wineries another means of distinguishing their wines, something winemaker Brennon Leighton of Efeste winery in Woodinville welcomes.

Efeste sources grapes from the Evergreen Vineyard on the southern side of the AVA for its Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Chardonnay wines. They’re single-vineyard wines, and Leighton says the local climate, elevation and shallow, mineral-rich caliche soils distinguish the grapes from what’s being produced elsewhere in the state.

Being able to put a name to the region will help both wineries and consumers understand what’s in the bottle, he said.

“It’s a completely distinct area from the rest of Washington state or the Columbia Valley, in the sense that it’s a higher elevation, very cool site with a really interesting profile in the wines,” Leighton said. “Until we can start really giving sites distinction, the consumer’s not going to understand and be able to put value on things.”

He points to the value AVA designations have had in elevating the profile of wines from Walla Walla and Red Mountain, two of the state’s best-known appellations. While wines from these AVAs have an admirable record of awards, the AVAs themselves have become signifiers of premium wines for consumers.

Leighton believes an AVA designation for the Ancient Lakes region add value to local wines by giving consumers a name to mention when they’re looking for the region’s well-known wines. Without the identity a name confers, consumers can’t name what they’re looking for or confer value on it as something special.

“I’m not saying that Evergreen will be considered the most valuable place in Washington state, but it does give us an opportunity to get value,” he said.

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