For as long as I can remember, I’ve returned every summer to visit my moms family in her home town of Yakima, Washington. Most of my publically known wine background comes from my Italian heritage on my Fathers side of the family, (Larry is actually my grandfather, for those of you who didn’t know) but my Mothers side has also been making roots in the wine world.
The fact that Yakima Valley has gone from a tiny farming community only (somewhat) known for producing almost all (80%) of U.S hops, to being recognized as one of the top quality regions in the second largest wine production state in the United States is something I’ve been able to witness, growing in parallel by my passion for wine culture. I’ll share more about my unique ties to this land, and when you find out I’m sure you’ll roll your eyes and say something like “Well no wonder this girl ended up in the wine and beverage industry!”
First lets talk wine.
Did you know… Yakima Valley is a part of the 44,000kms of the Columbia Valley AVA? It’s early history can be traced back to Italian immigrants who brought the Cinsault grape with them in the 1950’s and ’60’s. Just another thing to thank the Italians for! It’s worth noting that like the Okanagan Valley, before wine took off, Yakima was also well known for their fruit orchards: apples, cherries, peaches, nectarines; you name it.
Geographically – Mount Adams to the west draws the boundary line, while the Yakima River (tributary) flows east towards the Columbia River (now extinct) to create unique viticulture growing region and breathtaking landscapes.
There are 6 AVA subregions, each distinct to merit it’s own identity, with a few commonalities:
- Most of Washington is located in the rain cloud shadow of the Cascades mountain, which greatly contributes to its overall dry and warm climate.
- It is considered a desert, classified as a Continetal climate zone, and irrigation is required in viticulture.
- Yakima Valley is considered slightly more mild compared to the rest of the Columbia Valley AVA and is roughly 5-10 degrees F cooler.
Washingtons oldest AVA! Established 1986, the Yakima Valley AVA includes Rattlesnake Hills, Red Mountain and Snipes Mountain AVA’s subregions in it’s territory. Easily the largest wine producing region in Washington – nearly 40% of all of the state’s wine production, or 17,000 acres of wine grapes, come from here. The 190 day growing season allows for a multitude of varietals to thrive. The most common planted grape varietals here are, in order: Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling and Syrah. There are also small lot producers experimenting with Aligote, Muscat, Barbera, Roussanne, Sangiovese and more! In fact, over 40 different varietals are grown here! Treveri Cellars is one much talked about winery here, which exclusively bottles sparkling wines.
Soil: Moderate to deep silt over top gravel and basalt bedrock. Many remnants of the Missoula Floods are here
Climate: Variant climates as the land is quite extensive, with warmer and cooler regions
Growing Degree Days: 1754 C
Planted Vines: 17,000 Acres
Annual avg Rainfall: 20cm
Established in 2001 as a sub-region within the Yakima Valley AVA. The smallest AVA in the state, located at the eastern tip of the Yakima River. Not necessarily a mountain, but south-western facing slopes toward the Yakima River. Normally Washington’s warmest region, with average day temperatures of 32 C. The soil here lacks nutrients, and in combination with high acid gravel, smaller berries are the norm here. With high gusts of win, it’s expected to see higher tannins in wine from Red Mountain. No surprise then primarily red varietals are planted here like Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and even small amounts of experimental Sangiovese.
Elevation: 1,410 ft
Soil: Sandy loam and gravel with a high Ph content and rich in calcium carbonate.
Climate: Desert like with big swings of hot days and very cool nights
Growing Degree Days: 2174 C
Planted Vines: 710 Acres
Annual avg Rainfall: 15 cm
Established in 2006, Rattlesnake Hills AVA is located in southern-central Washington around the town of Zilla. Begining along the Northern border of Yakima Valley, and including land between the North bank of Sunny Canal, extending to the southern exposed hills of Rattlesnake hills between Outlook and the Wapato Dam. Common bottlings found: Riesling, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Meritage Blends, Malbec, Merlot, Viognier, Semillion, Petit Syrah. The well known Chateau St.Michelle is located here. (*though the winery does have vines planted in other areas) Bonair Winery is one of the oldest in this region, which I have visited a few times now.
Elevation: 850 – 3,085 feet asl
Soil: Fine and shallow deposits of Silt and Loam
Climate: Arid, and continental; defined by many geographical folds, the region is protected by hills to create sightly warmer temperatures. While the region sees the highest point in Yakima, most of the vines are planted at the foothills.
Growing Degree Days: 2054 C
Planted Vines: 1,566 Acres
Elevation: 260m – 940m asl
Annual avg Rainfall: 18cm
The second smallest and 10th AVA awarded to the state in 2009. A sub-region totally encompassed within the Yakima Valley AVA. The mountain was actually created by fault activity, and spans between the towns of Sunnyside and Granger, in the southeast corner of Washington. Most noted varietals are Semillion, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. There are many gravel and soil deposits left on the river beds from the Columbia River. These deposits range in size from the fist of your hand to large melons!
Elevation: up to 393m asl
Soil: Loess (wind blown) sand, clay and silt, over top Missoula Flood detriment – 82% Aridisoles (unique, rocky soil)
Climate: Arid, with steep north and south facing slopes which allow for good air circulation
Growing Degree Days: 1776 C
Planted Vines: 4,145 acres
Annual avg Rainfall: 18cm
Horse Heaven Hills
South facing slopes with huge gusts of wind from Columbia George in the West, allowing for higher yields and decreasing the chance of rot and fungus. This also allows decent cooling of the grapes which intensifies and preserves the flavour and acidity. Most planted grapes here include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Riesling, and Cabernet Franc. But many other varietals like Barbera, Chenin Blanc, Grenache, Zinfandel, Mourvèdre, Petit Verdot, Sauvignon Blanc are popping up! The well known Columbia Crest winery is located here.
Elevation: 61m asl in South – 549m asl in North
Soil: Quickly draining Silty Loam
Climate: 30% more windy compared to the rest of the Columbia Valley, which moderates extreme temperatures
Growing Degree Days: 1974 C
Planted Vines: 6,040 Acres
Annual avg Rainfall: 18cm
Characterized by slow westerly ramps which offers a number of benefits to the grape, including allowing for good drainage of water, and cold air. The smallest AVA of planted vines in the area. Recognized because of its considerable amounts of Andesite, which is very uncommon in North America. Currently only one site in California contains Andesite. Related to Basalt, Andesite differs in that it is composed of different minerals, such as Silica, which is glorified by biodynamic farmers.
Elevation: 1,200 – 2,000 ft asl
Soil: Volcanic rock and wind blown loam and Andesite that has been pulverized by a millenia of freezing and thawing
Climate: Sunny but cooler than most regions in the Columbia Valley
Growing Degree Days: 1639 C
Planted Vines: 37.4 Acres
Annual Avg Rainfall: 11cm
And now for the story you’ve all been waiting for…
Back in the day (circa 1945ish) my Mother’s family owned Grove Poplar Ranch in Yakima Valley. (No, not Poplar Grove Winery…) It was one of the largest hop ranches in the state at the time and employed nearly the whole valley. My great grandfather, Gordon Merrill, bought the land from the locally infamous character, Mr.Harrah.
Mr. Harrah founded and owned the neighbouring town of (can you guess it?!) Harrah, Washington. The story goes he racked up quite the gambling debt, and after selling his land in Yakima to my great grandfather he skipped town with his new flux of cash! That land went on to create Grove Poplar Ranch, and Mr.Harrah was never heard from again! The town to this day is still named after him though!
So as you can tell, wine is in my blood! Maybe a bit of beer too… Sounds like a rough night, but somehow I make it work! Hopefully you’ve learned a little bit about this cool and growing wine region, happy things!