Snakes on the Plains: Rattlesnake Hills
BY RONALD HOLDEN
[twocolumns]Established in 2006, the 70,000-acre Rattlesnake Hills AVA is home to 1,500 acres of vineyards, planted mostly on a 30-mile stretch of south-facing slopes along the Yakima Valley’s northern boundary and entirely within the Yakima Valley AVA. The soil contains more silt and loam than the valley floor, and the vineyards themselves are slightly warmer, with better airflow to drain the cold winds from the Canadian Rockies.
Because of the elevation, between 850 and 2,000 feet, as well as the southern exposure, wines from the Rattlesnake Hills AVA stand a better chance of ripening from the additional heat. Andrew Will, Apex’s 100-acre Outlook Vineyard, Dubrul, Hyatt, Portteus, Sheridan, Silver Lake: these are sources for some of the Yakima Valley’s biggest red wines, made from the AVA’s cabernet sauvignon, malbec, merlot and syrah.
Dick Boushey, one of the state’s best-known viticulturists, owns a vineyard nearby but wanted no part of the AVA designation; he believes it lacks differentiation from the rest of the Yakima Valley. “I know of no regional style, specific variety or type of wine that is unique to this proposed area,” Boushey told Decanter Magazine in 2006. “The granting of this proposal would confuse consumers and undermine the existing Yakima Valley Appellation.” But Gail Puryear of Bonair Winery, who wrote the successful AVA application, would disagree. It’s all about contours and heat units, he says, but it’s also about a group of family-owned wineries that are easy to reach from the freeway along the Rattlesnake Hills Winery Trail.
Every March, Puryear dresses up in faux-Irish garb and, as “St. Gail,” reads a proclamation banning snakes from the vineyards of the Rattlesnake Hills. Even so, by August, wine makers are ready to welcome them back with a “Snake in the Grass” party. The common northern Pacific rattlesnake, Crotalis viridis oreganus, doesn’t really make its home among the rows of vinifera planted on the lower, irrigated elevations of the Yakima Valley (it actually inhabits the arid uplands of the Rattlesnake Hills), but it makes a good mascot for the tourism-oriented wineries.
This is arguably Washington State’s most scenic wine country. There’s a level of camaraderie among the AVA’s 17 wineries and almost 30 vineyard owners that one doesn’t find everywhere. The biggest nearby town, Zillah, at the foot of the Rattlesnake Hills, counts perhaps 3,000 souls and a couple of family-friendly Mexican restaurants. There’s a “passport” guiding visitors along a wine trail through the vineyards that makes it particularly easy for winery visitors to taste and purchase.
You won’t find Washington’s most famous wineries in the Rattlesnake Hills, but the AVA’s grapes find their way to wineries in other parts of the Yakima Valley. The oldest plantings, from the Morrison Vineyard, have been providing cabernet sauvignon and riesling to Chateau Ste. Michelle for 45 years. Meantime, the Rattlesnake Hills Wine Trail is helping popularize wine touring.[/twocolumns]
Find more information at www.rattlesnakehills.org.
Ronald Holden, author of Northwest Wine Country, blogs at www.cornichon.org