How many AVAs are too many? Take the Napa test

Today, I was chatting with someone about Naches Heights, Washington’s newest American Viticultural Area.

"When does Washington have enough appellations?" my friend asked. "Twelve seems like a lot."

While 12 might seem like quite a few for just one state, consider this: Napa Valley - an area that is about three miles wide and 27 miles long - has 16 AVAs. That’s right. An area much more compact than the Yakima Valley has more appellations than the entire state of Washington.

They are:

  • Los Carneros
  • Howell Mountain
  • Wild Horse Valley
  • Stags Leap District
  • Mt. Veeder
  • Atlas Peak
  • Spring Mountain District
  • Oakville
  • Rutherford
  • St. Helena
  • Chiles Valley
  • Yountville
  • Diamond Mountain District
  • Oak Knoll District
  • Calistoga
  • Napa Valley

Other comparisons between tiny Napa Valley and the entire state of Washingto

  • Napa Valley has 43,000 acres of wine grapes, while Washington has a bit more than 40,000 acres.
  • Napa Valley has about 300 wineries, while Washington has more than 750.

Washington’s list of AVAs

After Tuesday’s announcement on the approval of the Naches Heights American Viticultural Area, here is an updated list of Washington’s appellations in order of when they were approved.

  • Yakima Valley (1983)
  • Columbia Valley (1984)
  • Walla Walla Valley (1984)
  • Puget Sound (1995)
  • Red Mountain (2001)
  • Columbia Gorge (2004)
  • Horse Heaven Hills (2005)
  • Wahluke Slope (2006)
  • Rattlesnake Hills (2006)
  • Snipes Mountain (2009)
  • Lake Chelan (2009)
  • Naches Heights (2011)

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.

Washington wine grape growers look to 2012

The Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers (WAWGG) is preparing for its annual meeting, convention and trade show, which will take place Feb. 7-10 at the Three Rivers Convention Center in Kennewick.

The convention has become one of the most important and best-attended events in Washington wine country, and it attracts grape growers and winemakers from several states.

Organizers expect as many as 2,000 to attend the 2012 meeting, which has pretty much maxed out Kennewick’s convention center and hockey arena.

Here are some of the seminars:

  • The World View And Impacts On Washington State
  • Marketing Your Vineyard-Does Fruit Marketing Drive Wine Sales?
  • Applying Sustainable Winery Practices-A Guide To Using Winerywise As A Tool
  • Professional Development For The Next Generation
  • Grand Tasting-Getting Over “Sideways”…A Look at Merlot
  • (Re)Establishing A Vineyard

Old soldier at Ciel du Cheval

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I was out on Red Mountain on a recent sunny afternoon and took a photo of this vine at Ciel du Cheval Vineyard, one of the ridge’s oldest and most venerable vineyards.

As you can see, the vine is all pruned and awaiting bud break.

Naked vines on Red Mountain

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I was up on Red Mountain late last week. It was a beautiful spring day, and I wanted to check out how close the vines were to bud break. Most looked like they were at least a week or two away from showing any green. This was taken near Hedges Cellars.

Determining vineyard damage not an exact science

In the next few weeks, Washington grape growers will get a better idea of just how much damage was caused by the Nov. 23-24 freeze. But veteran growers know this is far from exact.

I was chatting last week with Kevin Corliss, vice president of vineyards for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. He told me about a block of Grenache near Columbia Crest that got torched in the 1990-91 freeze. Based on sampling, Ste. Michelle determined that 100% of the primary and secondary buds were toast and there was no hope for a crop that year.

So what happened? They got three tons per acre of fruit from those vines. To this day, Corliss doesn’t know how that happened, but apparently enough secondary buds survived to provide grapes.

"We expected it to go to the ground, but it produced a decent crop for us. Sampling bud damage is an indicator, but it’s not the final word."

Thus, even with vineyard assessments in January, growers likely won’t know exactly what they are getting until grapes begin to form in May and June.