Naches Heights is Washington’s newest AVA

As Washington’s wine industry grows in size and stature, grape growers and winemakers continue to define the best places to plant vines. The newest federally recognized viticultural area is near Yakima.

On Wednesday, the U.S. government announced it has approved the Naches Heights American Viticultural Area, a region near the city of Yakima that encompasses 13,254 acres.

Just 37.3 acres of wine grapes are planted in the new AVA, making it the smallest planted wine region in Washington.

Phil Cline, owner of Naches Heights Vineyard, said another 80 acres of plantings are planned but have been on hold because of the recession.

Cline has the oldest vines in Naches Heights, having planted Pinot Gris and Syrah there in 2002. He said the grape-growing history goes back more than 40 years, however. A home winemaker in the early ’70s planted a quarter-acre of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Those grapes were damaged in the late ’70s during a particularly harsh winter and were not replanted.

Naches Heights is in the Columbia Valley AVA, though its soils and conditions differ significantly from other areas of Washington wine country.

Paul Beveridge, owner of Wilridge Winery in Seattle, said the Naches Heights was unaffected by the ice age floods 15,000 years ago because of its location and elevation. That means its wind-blown soils are much older. He described the Naches Heights as one of the few grape-growing spots in the state that actually gain soil each year.

"It just keeps blowing in," he said.

The region also tends to be higher in elevation than many areas of Washington wine country, ranging from 1,200 feet at its lowest point to 2,100 feet. It also receives plenty of heat and little rainfall.

Beveridge, who started his winery in 1988, began planting grapes in Naches Heights five years ago and appreciates the shorter commute as well as the quality of grapes.

"It’s  2 1/2 hours door to door," he said.

It takes twice as long to get to Walla Walla, where he went to college and has bought grapes for many years.

Beveridge runs the only tasting room in the new AVA, though wines from three producers — Wilridge, Naches Heights and Harlequin Wine Cellars — are featured. Cline plans to open his own tasting room by April. The tasting room is a 10-minute drive from Interstate 82.

Cline said about 10,000 acres in the AVA are suitable for wine grapes, though apple and cherry orchards take up much of the land. He said the region has no issues with water availability from the Yakima River.

Beveridge, a lawyer by trade, wrote the petition for the AVA, though he and Cline worked closely together on it, and they were assisted by two students at Yakima Valley Community College. They began the process four years ago.

The Naches Heights AVA will become official Jan. 13 and will be Washington’s 12th AVA. Washington is the second-largest wine-producing state in the country, second to California, making about 12 million cases annually from 40,000 acres of vines.