The U.S. government officially recognizes more than 200 wine-growing regions, known as American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). Fourteen of those AVAs are located partially or entirely within the state of Washington. From the establishment of the state's earliest AVA, Yakima Valley, in 1983, the regional wine industry's skyrocketing expansion has been nothing less than astounding. While the state had only a handful of wineries as recently as the 1960s, by 2018 there were nearly 1,000 wineries in operation, and petitions in progress for more AVAs to join the 14 already recognized. The U.S. government role in recognizing wine-growing regions is similar to, although less than, that of renowned wine-producing nations like France and Italy, which have long regulated many aspects of grape-growing, including which grape varieties can be grown in which areas and the specific geographical boundaries those areas, in addition to monitoring such matters as vineyard harvesting schedules, wine-production techniques, and marketing terms.
Old-world Viticulture and Terroir
Viticulture -- the art and science of cultivating wine grapes -- has been practiced in areas around the globe for thousands of years. The technical term itself was coined in 1872 and certainly by then it was well-understood that a major factor behind the production of high-quality grapes was the concept known in French as terroir. In France, careful observation and experimentation had resulted in an appreciation that locality -- the characteristics of a particular vineyard's soil, altitude, sun angle, and microclimate -- had profound impact on any given variety of vines and the fruit it bore. Thus different regions within France -- for example, Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhone Valley, among others -- were discovered to excel at nurturing particular varieties: Bordeaux's Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon; Burgundy's Pinot Noir and Chardonnay; the Rhone's Syrah and Grenache. Winemakers in Germany and Italy also determined which grapes grew best in which areas.
Over time government-affiliated agencies were founded to help establish and then monitor compliance with various rules designed to keep things honest. In 1905 France established its first law regarding viticultural designations of origin. In 1919 another law -- specifying in which region certain wines could be made -- superseded the original measure. Today, all this is overseen by a French government agency that regulates the appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC) by which French wines are identified. Italy created a similar denominazione di origine controllata (DOC) process in 1963.
American Viticultural Areas
In America the whole process of recognizing and regulating designated wine-producing areas got a much later start, and took a lot longer to figure out. Indeed, the country's viticultural areas are still being discovered and then recognized officially by the U.S. Department of the Treasury's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) as American Viticultural Areas.
Over the years the TTB has established and expanded a series of requirements that petitioners seeking to have a particular area officially recognized as a distinct AVA must meet. These requirements, as set forth in the federal regulations effective in January 2018, include that a proposed area "must be nationally or locally known by the name specified in the petition," that "[t]he petition must explain in detail the basis for defining the boundary of the proposed AVA as set forth in the petition," and that it must describe "the common or similar features of the proposed AVA affecting viticulture that make it distinctive," with the relevant features to describe identified as "Climate ... Geology ... Soil ... Physical features [and] Elevation" (27 C.F.R. sec. 9.12). In addition, TTB rules mandate that for product marketed as originating in an AVA, "Not less than 85% of the volume of the wine [be] derived from grapes grown in the labeled viticultural area" ("Wine Appellations of Origin").
Typically, it has been local agriculturalists, vineyard owners, and/or winery operators who have led the significant efforts required to convince the TTB to bestow official AVA status on an agricultural area. Having that imprimatur established aids publicity and marketing efforts for locally produced wines. It also helps wine aficionados understand why those wines have the flavor and aroma profiles that they do -- based on increased knowledge of the terroir within an AVA.
Establishing the State's First AVA
The bureaucratic process required to get a new AVA approved requires considerable research and organizational efforts. That process formally began for Washington on May 1, 1982, when an ad hoc Yakima Valley Appellation Committee submitted an 18-page petition to the federal government making the case that the area deserved official recognition as what would be Washington's very first AVA. The committee's visionary 15 members were chair Mike Wallace (Hinzerling Vineyards), Stan Clark (Quail Run Winery), Roger Johnson (Ciel Du Chevel), George Hanson (Indian Valley Farms), Wade Wolfe (Chateau Ste. Michelle), James and Carla Willard (Willard Farms), Michael Sauer (Latum Creek Ranch, Red Willow Vineyard), Seattle's E. B. Foote Winery, John and Louise Rauner (Yakima River Winery), John Williams (Kiona Vineyards), and Dean Tucker (Tucker Cellars).
On June 7 the government responded to the committee with a request that it provide additional information and copies of various published references that had been cited in the original petition. That information was rounded up and Mike Wallace forwarded it to Washington, D.C., on June 24. That mailing also included maps, newspaper clippings, excerpted reports from Cooperative Extension Service of the College of Agriculture at Washington State University, and written statements of support from Lloyd Woodburne (1906-1992), a University of Washington professor and founder of Seattle's pioneering Associated Vintners winery, and Phillip George, Manager of Port of Benton.
In addition, on July 16, U.S. Senator Ted Stevens (1923-2010) of Alaska submitted a glowing and very detailed "Vineyards of the Pacific Northwest" address to the U.S. Senate. Two days earlier, on July 14, U.S. Congressman Sid Morrison (b. 1933) -- a native of Yakima and partner in the Morrison Fruit Co. who represented the state's Fourth District encompassing a large swath of Central Washington including the area of the proposed AVA -- submitted a letter noting his pride in Washington wine. Morrison wrote, "It is essential for the Washington State wine producing area to be distinguished from those in other parts of the world in order to get the recognition that is deserved" (Morrison to William Drake). The petition was ultimately approved, and the Yakima Valley AVA was established on May 4, 1983, as the first in Washington.
As of December 2017, the ever-growing total of American Viticultural Areas across the country was 240 and the state of Washington -- which boasted more than 350 winegrowers, more than 900 wineries, and more than 50,000 acres planted to wine grapes -- was home to 14 of those AVAs.
1. The Yakima Valley AVA, established in 1983 as Washington's first, is located in Yakima and Benton counties. It had more than 18,000 acres planted to grapes as of 2018. The earliest-known wine grapes grown in the area were planted in 1869 in the Charles Schanno family's vineyard near Union Gap. Other notable vineyards established in the area over the years include William Bridgeman's vineyard (1914), Otis (1957), Harrison Hill (1963), Red Willow (1973), Hogue (1974), Kiona (1975), Boushey (1982), and Chinook Estate (1990). Among the standout grapes grown in the Yakima Valley AVA are Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah.
2. The Walla Walla Valley AVA, established in 1984, is a sub-appellation of the Columbia Valley AVA established the same year. It is located primarily in Walla Walla County, Washington, but also includes the Rocks District of Milton-Freewater sub-appellation in Umatilla County, Oregon. The earliest known wine grapes grown in the area were the Cinsault variety planted by local settlers in the 1860s. Nearly 3,000 acres are planted to grapes in such notable vineyards as the Leonetti Old Block (1974), Woodward Canyon (1977), Seven Hills (1980), Northstar, Pepper Bridge, Saviah, and Spring Valley. Standout grapes include Chardonnay, Vigonier, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Merlot, Syrah, and many more.
3. The Columbia Valley AVA, by far the largest in Washington, was established in 1984. It contains numerous sub-appellations, separately recognized AVAs with distinctive terroir characteristics. Indeed, all of Washington's other AVAs except three (Puget Sound, Columbia Gorge, and Lewis-Clark Valley) are located within its borders. The Columbia Valley AVA currently has more than 8,000 acres (not included in any of the sub-appellations) planted to grapes. Among its most notable vineyards are Bacchus (1972), Cold Creek (1972), Sagemoor (1972), and Dionysus (1973), growing grapes that include Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah.
4. The Puget Sound AVA, the fourth to be approved in Washington, was established in 1995. Extending across portions of Clallam, Island, Jefferson, King, Kitsap, Mason, Pierce, San Juan, Skagit, Snohomish, Thurston, and Whatcom counties, it had about 92 acres planted to grapes as 2018 began. The earliest known wine grapes grown in the area were those planted in the vineyards of Lambert Evans (1870s) and then Adam Eckert (1889) on Stretch Island in Mason County. The mild maritime climate of this AVA (the only one on the west side of the state's Cascade Mountains) limits the types of vines that grow well to varieties that include Island Belle, Madeleine Angevine, Siegerebbe, Muller-Thurgau, Pinot Noir, and Riesling.
5. The Red Mountain AVA located near Benton City in Benton County was established in 2001. It is the first of three AVAs to be created within the boundaries of both the Columbia Valley AVA and the Yakima Valley AVA, making it a sub-appellation of both those areas. By 2018 it had more than 2,000 acres planted in vineyards that included Ciel du Cheval (1975), Kiona (1975), Klipsun (1982), Hedges, Tapteil, Col Solare, and Cara Mia. Among the primary grapes grown in the Red Mountain AVA are Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot, and Syrah.
6. The Columbia Gorge AVA, established in 2004, is situated in Washington's Klickitat and Skamania counties on the north side of the Columbia River Gorge, and also extends into Hood River and Wasco counties on the Oregon side of the river. There are more than 300 acres planted to grapes in such notable vineyards as Acadia, Garnier, Gunkle, Mt. Hood Winery, Phelps Creek, and Syncline. As the AVA straddles the Columbia, the river moderates the area's temperatures, and its significant grapes include Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Noir, and Syrah.
7. The Horse Heaven Hills AVA, established in 2005, was the seventh in Washington to be recognized. A sub-appellation of the Columbia Valley AVA, it is based in Benton, Klickitat, and Yakima counties. In 2018 there were some 16,000 acres planted to grapes in such notable vineyards as Champoux Vineyard (1972), Canoe Ridge Estate (1989), Discovery, Horse Heaven, and Phinny Hill. Chardonnay, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah are among the primary grapes grown in Horse Heaven Hills.
8. The Wahluke Slope AVA was established in 2006 as a sub-appellation of the Columbia Valley AVA. Located in Grant County, its vineyards, including Milbrandt (1997), Indian Wells, Stoneridge, and Desert Aire, encompass nearly 8,500 acres of grapes that include Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah.
9. The Rattlesnake Hills AVA was established in 2008 as the ninth recognized in Washington. Based in Yakima County, it is located within the boundaries of both the Columbia Valley AVA and the Yakima Valley AVA. The Morrison Vineyard (1968) was an early effort in the area, which by the start of 2018 had some 1,800 acres planted to grapes, including such notable vineyards as Portteus (1982), Hyatt (1983), and Roza Ridge. Significant grapes of Rattlesnake Hills include Chardonnay, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot, and Syrah.
10. The Snipes Mountain AVA, established in Yakima County in 2009, is also a sub-appellation of both the Yakima Valley AVA and the Columbia Valley AVA. The earliest known wine grapes grown in the area were planted in William Bridgeman's Harrison Hill vineyard in 1914, which was later acquired by the Seattle-based Associated Vintners winery and replanted in 1962. By 2018 there were more than 800 acres planted to grapes in vineyards including Upland Estates. Standout grapes include Bridgeman's original Muscat of Alexandria plantings and Associated Vintners' original Cabernet Sauvignon vines.
11. The Lake Chelan AVA, a sub-appellation of the Columbia Valley AVA located in Chelan County, was established in 2009. Wine grapes were first grown in the area in the nineteenth century, and by 2018 there were around 260 acres planted in such notable vineyards as Benson, Chelan Estate, Karma, Lake Chelan Winery, Tsillian Cellars, and Tunnel Hill Winery. The AVA's major grapes include Riesling, Pinot Noir, and Syrah.
12. The Naches Heights AVA was established in 2011. A sub-appellation of the Columbia Valley AVA, it is based in Yakima County and has 39 acres planted to grapes in such notable vineyards as Aecetia, Harlequin, Kalkruth, Keller, Naches Heights, Strand, and Wilridge. Its standout grapes include Riesling, Pinot Gris, and Syrah.
13. The Ancient Lakes AVA is a sub-appellation of the Columbia Valley AVA based in Douglas, Grant, and Kittitas counties. Established in 2013, by 2018 it had some 1,600 acres planted in such notable vineyards as Cave B and Trinidad, growing grapes that include Riesling and Chardonnay.
14. The Lewis-Clark Valley AVA, established in 2016, was the 14th to be recognized in Washington. It is situated between the Clearwater and Snake rivers in Washington and Idaho, with the majority of the area located in Idaho. The earliest known wine grapes grown there were Cabernet Franc, Petit Syrah, and Petit Verdot planted by new settlers in 1872. In 2018 there were some 80 acres planted in such notable vineyards as Arnett, Colter's Creek, Lindsay Creek, and Umiker, with Riesling the primary grape being grown.
Looking ahead, further rapid growth of Washington's grape-growing and wine-production industries can be expected. Indeed, in 2017 alone four petitions proposing additional new AVAs in Washington were accepted by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau as complete.
The four proposed new AVAs, which in January 2018 were awaiting the start of the review process, were the Candy Mountain AVA in Benton County, the Royal Slope AVA in Adams and Grant counties, the Burn of Columbia Valley AVA in Klickitat County, and the White Bluffs AVA in Franklin County. Their recognition would raise the number of officially designated wine-growing areas in Washington to 18. Cheers!