OUR AVAs- Yakima Valley
Yakima Valley: Well-Fed People
BY RONALD HOLDEN
Even before modern agriculture, the Yakima Valley was a bountiful land. In one of the many Native American dialects of central Washington, the word E-ya-ki-ma means “well-fed people.”
Apple orchards and hop vines came soon after the rivers were channeled for irrigation. The first grapes were the hardy, prolific Concords, whose sweet, fleshy fruit was prized by the Welch’s cooperative to make juice and jelly. But Concords sell for $200 a ton, while vinifera like Cabernet and Merlot sell for ten times as much. In 1983, with a couple thousand vineyard acres planted and Washington’s wine industry well underway, the Yakima Valley became the state’s first AVA. It’s easy to see the geography: the valley is bordered on the north by Ahtanum Ridge and the Rattlesnake Hills, to the south by Toppenish Ridge and the Horse Heaven Hills; Red Mountain rises at the eastern end, Mount Adams presides in the western distance.
The valley is defined geologically by a broad layer of fractured basalt topped with silt, loam, loess and cobble. The climate is desert-like during the growing season (only six to eight inches of rainfall, but access to the Valley’s vaunted Roza and Kennewick irrigation districts for water), and has the familiar late-season drop in nighttime temperatures (to maintain a good balance of acidity in the grapes) and cold winters (to kill pests).
Thomas Henick-Kling, who runs the WSU viticulture and enology program sees quite a variety of wines coming from the valley, with more full-bodied reds coming from vineyards on the eastern end (Red Mountain) and more elegant, finely textured reds from the cooler sites on the northern and southern slopes.
Even so, Yakima Valley hasn’t always produced the state’s best wines. Paul Gregutt, author of Washington Wines & Wineries, remarked in 2007 that the AVA wasn’t living up to its potential, but by 2010 he was applauding the influx of new talent and recognizing the best of the old-line growers. (The valley’s two leading growers, Mike Sauer in Wapato and Dick Boushey in Grandview, don’t have wineries of their own.) “It is heartening to see growers and winemakers working together to promote their many strengths,” Gregutt wrote in his 2010 edition.
Fully a third of Washington’s wine grapes are in the Yakima Valley AVA, and there’s room for vineyard expansion. The AVA encompasses 12,000 acres currently planted (including its three sub-appellations, Red Mountain, Rattlesnake Hills and Snipes Mountain) with a total of 82 wineries. The challenge, says Boushey, is finding land that includes water rights.
Seattle writer Ronald Holden blogs at Cornichon.org. He is the author of Northwest Wine Country.