Wednesday, January 09, 2013

At 30, the Yakima Valley is Really Something

To begin with I should say that it gives me pause that 1983 was thirty years ago; the year that saw Return of the Jedi come to the theaters, Sally Ride became the first American woman to go into space and the Dow Jones closed at 1,258.  That same year, the Yakima Valley became the first AVA, or American Viticultural Area, in Washington State.

The history of wine in the Yakima Valley is really the history of Washington wine. The Yakima Valley saw Dr. Walter Clore's work at the Prosser-located WSU Irrigation Branch Experiment Station, now referred to as the Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center, where he oversaw what was essentially the discovery of what Washington could be in terms of wine. Today, the Yakima Valley sees the wines of Red Mountain, Washington's highly esteemed "sub-appellation" located within the Yakima Valley AVA, find their way to the White House dinner table with some regularity.

The region has come into its own; growing into the potential seen by pioneers like Clore, John Williams and Jim Holmes, Stan Clarke, David Lake, Wade Wolfe, the Sauer family, and Dick Boushey. Their discoveries and the promise of the Yakima Valley is really a story of time and experimentation as well as patience and cooperation.

"Mike Wallace (of Hinzerling Winery) was really the impetus," says John Williams, one of the founders of Red Mountain and Kiona Vineyards. "At the time, the ATF governed AVA applications, and there was a federal registry that had announced the opportunity to apply for an AVA designation. Mike really thought it was something we should do."  John, Mike and Randy Tucker of Tucker Cellars got together and Mike won them over. The three of them, along with the Yakima River Winery, formed a sort of loose Wine Growers Association. "We each took on a different part of the application, submitted it and it came back approved three or four months later."  

The establishment of Yakima Valley as an AVA did not mean that the learning or experimentation was over. In fact, it was really just beginning.  "In 1983 I was three years into my first planting of Cab Sauv., Merlot and of all things Chenin Blanc... I was learning on the job," says Dick Boushey. At the time, Walter Clore was recommending hardy German varieties, which many people were planting, but Dick was interested in other kinds of wine. "I think what influenced me was the older Otis Vineyard and the old Lester Fleming Vineyard on Hawn Hill.  Both these old blocks were near my farm and I would visit them frequently and even made wine, homemade wine, from these blocks.  They both had older red varieties."

"A small handful of growers were starting to incorporate wine grapes into their mix of crops and we were all trying to learn together.   We were collectively trying to develop the best growing methods that would produce decent grapes in the valley.  Lots of mistakes were made." Viticulture was a new practice for these farmers, some of whom had been growing other crops for generations. What they learned was that growing wine grapes was a whole different animal. Over time growers moved away from frost and freeze areas like the valley floor. "We slowly and sometimes painfully learned from our collective experiences and moved to more desirable sites and fine tuned our cultural practices. This process is still going on today."  

For John Williams the AVA designation alone added a lot of value to both the Yakima Valley and Washington in terms of name recognition. "At the time it was the only one, so anytime anyone in the wine press wrote about Washington, Yakima Valley was mentioned." That led to a lot of good press and notoriety.  

Things have changed and so has the Yakima Valley but it remains the state's leader in vineyard acreage. As the newer sub-appelations have grown in esteem, the Yakima Valley remains a front runner. “The coming year is a special one for the Pacific Northwest wine industry,” said Barbara Glover, executive director of Wine Yakima Valley, the official association of Yakima Valley wineries and growers. “We’re celebrating the confluence of conditions that has made the Yakima Valley so important to the regional wine industry: this valley is the first AVA in Washington State; this valley is home to the most vineyard acreage in Washington State; and this valley fuels the best wine labels across the state and beyond.” She added, “I encourage everyone to enjoy the compelling simplicity of having ‘first, most, and best’ in one appellation: Yakima Valley.”

Glover commented that the local wine industry will be making the most of the 30th anniversary throughout 2013. “In all, everyone will see that 30 years is worth celebrating—and that 13 is a very lucky number.” 

The AVA is planning a series of events over the course of the year aimed at consumers, wine media and retailers. All of those events and updates can be found at the AVA's blog here.


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