Columbia Valley Carves Out New AVAs. What Does It Mean for Washington Wine?

The Burn of Columbia Valley, one of Washington State's new AVAs / Photo courtesy Ste. Michelle Wine Estates

Washington State suddenly finds itself with a surfeit of new grape growing appellations, with the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) announcing tomorrow the approval of two new American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). This comes on the heels of two approvals last year, as growers and winemakers increasingly subdivide the Columbia Valley, Washington’s largest growing region.

“I love the specificity,” says Bob Betz, MW, founder of Betz Family Winery, of carving up the Columbia Valley. “I love the precision and detail that it brings to the consumer.”

The Columbia Valley’s newest subappellations are the White Bluffs and The Burn of Columbia Valley AVAs. Goose Gap is also anticipated to be approved in the coming months.

The White Bluffs is the most established of the three, with 1,127 planted acres that include vines that date to 1972. The appellation sits on a plateau, its topsoil underlain by ancient lake-bed sediment unique to the region. Sagemoor Vineyards, a collection of sites largely within the new appellation, has already proven itself, and provides fruit to nearly one in every 10 wineries in the state.

“It’s long been known but not named,” says Kent Waliser, Sagemoor’s director of vineyard operations, of White Bluffs’ influence.

White Bluffs AVA / Photo courtesy Sagemoor Vineyards
White Bluffs AVA / Photo courtesy Sagemoor Vineyards

The Burn is the youngest of the new growing regions, with most of its 1,500 acres planted since 2015. With a higher annual precipitation and slightly heavier soils compared to nearby areas, this generally southeast-facing bench above the Columbia River is largely planted to Cabernet Sauvignon.

“The Cabernet really expresses itself differently than elsewhere in the Columbia Valley,” says Juan Muñoz-Oca, chief winemaker at Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. He likens it to “old-school Bordeaux.”

Goose Gap, meanwhile, abuts highly regarded Red Mountain. Named after a saddle between a series of mountains that is a common migratory pathway for waterfowl, the area was first planted to wine grapes in 1998. It’s now home to 18 varieties and approximately 2,000 acres under vine.

Whereas many of Washington’s growing regions lie on south-facing slopes, the Goose Gap appellation sits on a slightly different axis, with many of its plantings on northeast-facing slopes. This extends the region’s grape growing season.

“We’re able to get more hangtime than some of our neighbors because of the different aspects,” says Sydney Anderson, viticulturist at Goose Ridge Estate Vineyard and Winery, which lies within the proposed appellation.

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With the approval of these two AVAs, and a third coming, the Columbia Valley will have 15 subappellations. It’s fitting for a region that encompasses 11 million acres, or one quarter of Washington’s land mass, and over 99% of the state’s grapevine acreage.

Local wine professionals hope that subdividing the region will allow specific areas to gain greater recognition, as well as bring needed clarity to a state that grows nearly 100 varieties.

“I think Washington can be kind of confusing because we grow so many varietals so well,” says Mark McNeilly, owner of Mark Ryan Winery in Woodinville. “We have to break things into smaller parts and really kind of show what does best where.”

The vineyards of Goose Gap / Photo by Darren Zemanek
The vineyards of Goose Gap / Photo by Darren Zemanek

This multidecade undertaking has already paid some dividends, with appellations like Red Mountain and Walla Walla Valley becoming increasingly well-known for Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, respectively.

While some are concerned additional subappellations might further fragment the already complex story of the state’s grape diversity, others hope providing greater specificity will not only elevate these individual regions but also increase awareness of Washington wine more generally.

“I think we still have a great deal of work ahead of us to just put Washington on the map,” Muñoz-Oca says. “I’m hoping that part of the path we start walking as an industry is dissecting the place, allocating a variety that grows magnificently well in a specific appellation, and then articulating why and how.”

Even as that happens and the region is subdivided further, many of the state’s wineries will surely continue to use the broader Columbia Valley designation on their labels.

“It gives them more flexibility in where they can get their fruit,” says Lenny Rede, wine steward at Metropolitan Market on Mercer Island near Seattle.

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Equally certain, none of Washington’s new appellations will become overnight sensations. Even the success stories of Walla Walla Valley and Red Mountain took decades of effort before they began to gain broader recognition. This struggle for appellations to gain awareness is by no means unique to Washington.

“Even now, we are still so deep in our infancy in the idea of site specificity in American winemaking,” says Betz. “I’m not sure, beyond the most glamorous names of Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley, that many appellations really resonate on a national scale right now.”

Of course, trying to change public perception starts with having an appellation name to put on the bottle, an option now available to the regions’ winemakers. Then the hard work begins.

“It’s going to be on these new AVAs to really establish an identity,” says Chris Tanghe, MS, interim executive director of GuildSomm. “It’s going to be on the professional wine industry to fully understand what these AVAs are about. And it’s just also going to take time for all that to happen.”

Published on June 16, 2021
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