Chelan Scores AVA Status

Washington's eleventh appellation is official today

by Peter Mitham
Tsillan Cellars
Tsillan (pronounced "Chelan") Cellars is included in the newly designated Chelan AVA, Washington's 11th.
Chelan, Wash. -- Washington state's wine industry continues to grow, scoring its second American Viticulture Appellation of the year this week with designation of the Lake Chelan AVA.

"We've always known that we were growing world-class grapes up here but now the whole world's going to know about us," said Steve Kludt of Lake Chelan Winery, who opened the AVA's first winery in 2000 and co-founded the Lake Chelan Wine Valley Association. "We still have to produce good wines and grow world-class grapes, but at least now we're going to start getting recognized and people will give us a chance. And that's what we want."

Lake Chelan is the state's 11th AVA and the eighth sub-appellation AVA within the broader Columbia Valley AVA. Snipes Mountain AVA, designated earlier this year, was also carved out of the Columbia Valley AVA.

Winegrapes have been grown in the Lake Chelan area since 1891, and the region has been part of the Columbia Valley AVA since its creation in 1984. But in 2006, Washington state vineyard consultant Dr. Alan Busacca submitted a petition on behalf of the Lake Chelan Wine Growers Association proposing a separate designation for 24,040 acres of the 11 million-acre Columbia Valley AVA. With a geology and geography defined by past alpine glacial activity and the moderating effects of Lake Chelan, Busacca's petition claimed the area is distinct from the Columbia Valley AVA.

According to Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau documents, Busacca explained that, "The lake affects surrounding lands … by favorably moderating the climate, increasing the length of the growing season, and reducing the frequency of damaging or killing vine freezes."

A mile wide and 50 miles long, the lake has a maximum depth of 1,486 feet. This allows it to act as a heat sink that creates favorable growing conditions at the easternmost end of the lake. The region racks up about 3,200 heat units per year, enough to produce varieties that include Syrah, Merlot, Malbec, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Kludt, a former orchardist, told Wines & Vines that contemporary grapegrowing began with the downturn in the apple industry in the late 1990s. Wineries were an alternative venture for orchardists who still wanted to farm. There are now 15 wineries and approximately 260 acres of vineyard in the AVA.

The rise of the local wine industry has not only helped local orchardists but it has enhanced the local economy. The economic impact of the designation was a key point in the four comments TTB reviewers received regarding the petition for the AVA's creation. "We anticipate that this designation will bring with it great opportunities to showcase the already beautiful Lake Chelan Valley," wrote Michael Steele, executive director of the Lake Chelan Chamber of Commerce. "Further, we know and understand the dramatic impact this type of designation has had on commerce in other areas of our state, we expect nothing less for Lake Chelan."

Kludt agreed, noting that local wineries have transformed Lake Chelan from a summer resort into three-season destination. "People have been coming here for the sun and the mountains, the nice weather, and now they're coming for the wine, and this AVA is just going to promote that even more," Kludt said. "Once this AVA starts to be known, we're going to start getting some of those visitors who are now going down to Walla Walla, Red Mountain and the Yakima area."

Whether those visitors and consumers understand the import of the AVA designation beyond its use as a marketing tool is another question, however.

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Designation of the Snipes Mountain AVA in January prompted Dr. Mike Veseth, Robert G. Albertson Professor of International Political Economy at the University of Puget Sound, to ask how many AVAs are enough.

"On a local level, I have heard many winegrowers grouse about whether a new AVA really has a distinctive terroir or if it just had enough money and political clout to get its designation," he wrote on his blog, wineeconomist.com. "And of course the drawing of lines is controversial, since who is in and who is out can be pretty arbitrary at times."

The new Lake Chelan AVA is a good idea in principle, he told Wines & Vines, but whether it highlights the unique character of local wines in a way that consumers understand is key. His concern is that too many AVAs have the potential to create confusion rather than clarity. "Like many of the other recent AVA additions I think this one will have some commercial value for the associated wineries and vineyards, but at the same time will diminish somewhat the brand value of AVAs more generally as some consumers struggle to understand what they mean," he said.

Whatever the claims to distinction found in petitions, Veseth believes the bigger factor in an AVA's success lies in its ability to develop a unique reputation for itself. A designation that helps a region do this will have enduring value.
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