A sustainable new wine region takes root in Eastern Washington

A perfect storm of soil factors and altitude has created a fertile Washington bioregion perfectly suited for vineyards, and the group of sustainable vintners who plant their grapes there is working to turn it into Washington state's 12th official American Viticultural Area (AVA).

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Grapes at Wilridge Winery in Naches Heights.

A perfect storm of soil factors and altitude has created a fertile Washington bioregion perfectly suited for vineyards, and the group of sustainable vintners who plant their grapes there is working to turn it into Washington state's 12th official American Viticultural Area (AVA).

Whatever your beliefs about destiny, a chain of events — both geologic and human — is leading to the imminent christening of what could arguably be the state's most interesting American Viticultural Area (AVA). The Naches Heights AVA would be the state's twelfth AVA and the only area whose vineyards are exclusively farmed organically.

Consider . . .

Roughly one million years ago, a tongue of unusual lava slunk east from the mouth of a volcano that has since become the Goat Rocks in the Cascades. It formed a plateau of andesite upon which vintner Phil Cline's ancestors farmed. Generations later, Phil himself grew apples there. Destiny?

Cline's passion for the apple business eventually fled, driven away by the erratic economic forces of Washington's biggest agricultural industry. Nevertheless, his innate passion for farming stood fast, and when he began the search for a new outlet for it, he saw the wine industry in ascendance. Delving further into his orchard's potential for growing grapes, he discovered that it was not merely suitable as a vineyard, but its soil composition and altitude made it superior in the state. Its distinctive attributes would be reflected in the grapes. Thus, about ten years ago, Phil wrenched out the apple trees and planted vines. Destiny?

Cline was managing his own vineyard, as well as several others, and had started his own winery — Naches Heights Vineyard. He was just one guy, way too busy to confront the abstract chore of pursuing an AVA. A few years later, he happened to meet winemaker Paul Beveridge, of Wilridge, who was chasing his dream of owning a vineyard so he could control the entire winemaking process. Beveridge was interested in property that was ideal for grapes, and relatively close to his Seattle winery, and the area Cline farmed west of Yakima - known as Naches Heights - appealed to him as well. Destiny?

Both men felt the area they had planted deserved recognition as an AVA. However, Beveridge also practiced law and raised a family. The task of gaining the AVA designation involves considerable work in gathering information about the area's geography, its climate, and its soil, and how these factors differ from surrounding areas. Other issues must also be dealt with and documented, such as whether or not the proposed name impacts an already established brand name, and whether or not historical evidence exists for the name. This information is then presented in a petition to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB).

The two were unable to do more than token work on the project. Yet a couple of years later, unexpected help arrived in the form of three students enrolled in a local enology program. They had been assigned the project of drafting an AVA petition. One of them, Kathleen Kinkead, had already met the two winemakers because of a mutual interest in biodynamic farming and she herself aspired to own a vineyard in the Naches Heights area. Her classmates Carol and Twyla agreed with her suggestion to make Naches Heights their subject. However, Kinkead never intended to stop at submitting the project to her professor. She wanted it to go all the way to the TTB. Destiny?

Regardless, enough critical human mass had coalesced. For Kinkead, Cline, and Beveridge, it became not just a metaphorical pilgrimage, but a real one. They journeyed throughout Naches Heights' 13,254 acres, defining the area's boundaries, measuring its elevations, and surveying its soils with the precision demanded by the TTB. In 2009, with Beveridge's legal expertise brought to bear on the remaining paperwork, the petition was done and submitted. The final word is expected as early as this August. Early feedback from the TTB praised the professionalism of the petition, and to date no objections have been received.

The area's elevation ranges from 1200 to 2000 feet in a slow ramp to the west, which allows it drain off excessively cold air that can cause freeze damage. It sees as many days of sun as anywhere in Washington's grape growing regions, ensuring the grapes will ripen well. The height bestows cool nights upon the grapes, imbuing them with food friendly acidity to balance the ripeness. The soil combines windblown loam and andesite pulverized by millenia of freezing and thawing. In comparison, only a tiny portion of a one California AVA reports andesite in its soil. Though related to the basalt common throughout the Columbia Valley, andesite is composed of different minerals. Among those is silica, which is prized by biodynamic farmers such as Cline and Beveridge.

Indeed, it would be the only AVA in the state, and perhaps the country, in which all of the vineyards are farmed organically. Though organic farming is not a requirement the current growers could easily impose, they hope others will follow suit. Grapes in the area also benefit from the high quality of the water, which comes from the same mountains as the Yakima-Tieton Irrigation District — the state's oldest public irrigation district. The water for Naches Heights flows more directly to the area than the Columbia River water does to the Columbia Valley — and needs no treatment.

Can you taste all of these properties in the wines? You can certainly try. None of the grapes from the area are currently sold to anyone outside it, and not all of the vines are mature enough to produce usable grapes. But several wines made from them are available at the Tasting Room Yakima and at the Tasting Room Seattle. These include Melange Blanc and Melange Rouge, Nebbiolo, Barbera, a Syrah - Mourvedre blend, port, and Zweigelt from Wilridge, and Riesling, Pinot Grigio, Gewurztraminer, and Syrah from Naches Heights Vineyard.

Look for another manifestation of destiny in Naches Heights next spring, when hop czar turned sustainable vintner Doug McKinnon's Aecetia Vineyard tasting room is expected to open.


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