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OUR AVAS – Wahluke Slope

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Wahluke Slope: Big Reds from the Watering Place

BY RONALD HOLDEN

 

Most drivers from the west side of Washington stay on I-90 after crossing the Columbia River at Vantage and continue past Moses Lake towards Spokane. Turning off and heading downriver toward the Priest Rapids dam and the dusty town of Mattawa takes a special kind of adventurer, for this is windswept, high-desert country. From the ridge of the Saddle Mountains behind Mattawa, the land slopes ever-so-gently down to the river, losing no more than 1,000 feet in the course of a six-mile stretch. This is the Wahluke Slope (“Watering Place”), an AVA that encompasses 18,000 acres, a third of them now planted with grapes. It is the warmest growing area in the state, producing intense reds (mostly Merlot and Cabernet) and full-bodied whites (Chardonnay) on its sandy, gravelly soils.  It’s a natural coulee—a drainage zone—whose gradual slope has allowed the water to spread out and form small ponds and cattail marshes, with Russian olive and willow trees taking over some of the wetlands.

A quarter century ago, the Washington wine industry was still hoping for some indication that the state’s viticultural pioneers were right about the state’s strategic location, and its potential to become one of the world’s best growing regions. Their validation came from an unexpected source: a German wine producer called F.W. Langguth, one of the largest suppliers of wine to the supermarkets of Europe. Its president, Wolfgang Langguth, the seventh generation of his family to head the firm, wanted to expand operations to the United States, and on the Wahluke Slope he found what he needed. Local capital for the first vineyard came from a group of investors led by Alec Bayless and Win Wright, the founders of Sagemoor Farms, some 50 miles downriver. They planted 265 acres on Wahluke Slope for the Langguth winery, naming it Weinbau (“vineyard” in German). Sadly, the wines from Weinbau’s grapes were poorly marketed, and Wolfgang Langguth soon returned to his base in the Mosel. The vineyard remains. An AVA since 2006, Wahluke Slope today is home to 20 vineyards that cover 6,000 acres; it accounts for one out of every six bottles of wine produced in Washington.

Brothers Butch and Jerry Milbrandt began planting vineyards here in 1997. They look for cooler sites for white grapes; red varieties get warmer sites. By now, they’ve planted close to 2,000 acres, established their own winery as well as a custom-crushing facility; their tasting room is at Vintners Village in Prosser, an hour’s drive to the south.

The Wahluke Slope itself is as tranquil a spot as you’ll find in Washington, populated by sagebrush and tumbleweeds. Quarter-mile-long sprinklers move slowly through circles of alfalfa and potatoes like giant tinker toys. The Hanford Reservation lies just beyond the meandering Columbia River, with the purple-tinged Rattlesnake Hills beyond; Mount Rainier’s snow-capped peak can be seen to the west, while the Saddle Mountains form the slope’s northern boundary like a crumpled brown blanket.  But if you’re looking for tourist amenities, there are none—except, perhaps, for the taco truck in Mattawa.


Ronald Holden, author of Northwest Wine Country, blogs at cornichon.org

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