In 1983, the Yakima Valley was designated an American Viticultural Area, the first in the Pacific Northwest. Back then, there were only a handful of wineries in the Valley, and guidebooks had long listed Washington as too cold to grow wine grapes.
But 30 years later, the Valley is filled with more than a hundred wineries, many nationally and even internationally renowned for their consistently balanced, affordable wines.
It’s an exciting time, winemakers say.
“This really is a big deal; 30 years is huge,” said Shirley Puryear, co-owner of Bonair Winery in Zillah. She and her husband, Gail, started Bonair in 1985, one of the oldest in the area. “We’re kind of like Napa Valley was 30 years ago — we’re just coming into it. We have wonderful wineries.”
To become an AVA, local winemakers have to establish that the area has a unique “terroir,” the French term used to describe the combination of soil and climate that makes the wine grapes different from those found anywhere else. It’s a rigorous approval process in which the petitioners have to submit soil samples, history of weather patterns and other background information to prove the uniqueness of their wines. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau of the U.S. Treasury approves AVAs.
Since the Yakima Valley AVA was founded 30 years ago, several other AVAs have sprung up. The Columbia Valley AVA encompasses a wide swath of Central and Southeast Washington, spread out from the Columbia River, while the Rattlesnake Hills, Red Mountain, Snipes Mountain and Naches Heights AVAs are smaller pieces of land within the Yakima Valley AVA that winemakers have shown to possess their own unique terroir.
Gail Puryear established the Rattlesnake Hills AVA in 2005, but before that, Bonair was part of the Yakima Valley AVA. The winery has been featured in guidebooks around the country and in Europe. His wife says the arid region has many advantages for winemakers, including the fact that growers get to control how much water the vines receive.
“During the growing season, you get a huge amount of heat during the day, but at night, because we’re in the desert, it cools off,” she explained. “So during the day, you have the sweetness growing in the grapes; at night, the coolness lets the acid stay in the grapes.”
The soil, meanwhile, is rich in volcanic ash as well as sediment carried here thousands of years ago by the Missoula floods.
J.J. Compeau, general manager at Kestrel Vintners in Prosser, praised the agricultural variety produced here.
“Because of Mother Nature, it’s incredible how great this region is for growing everything,” he said, including apples, hops and cherries, besides many types of wine grapes. “One thing that makes the Yakima Valley really special is that we can grow a lot of varietals here. You can get world-class Riesling, then right down the block you can grow world-class Merlot and Cab ... Syrah, Malbec.”
Kestrel’s first vintage was produced in 1995. Compeau, who’s been at the winery since 2004, said Washington wines are “really hip right now.”
“What’s great about Yakima fruit is that it’s extremely balanced; great food wines, and they’re just ripe fruit flavors,” he said. “I think Washington is hugely known for fruit-forward, balanced wine.”
The number of small AVAs here, he said, speaks highly of the Yakima Valley terroir.
“You know you’re in a good AVA when sub-AVAs develop,” he said. “Just tells you that the ground we’re growing our grapes on is pretty darn good.”
Winemakers say much of their foot traffic in the Valley comes from the Seattle area, but they frequently see visitors from the East Coast and even Europe. Newcomers to Washington are often surprised to find that Eastern Washington is vastly different from the rainy western side of the state.
“Most people see the national weather forecast for Seattle, and it’s rainy. ... They’re shocked when they get here and it’s 85 and sunny,” said Nikki Samaniego, who started Severino Winery with her family in Zillah five years ago. She’s spent 10 years working at various wineries, and grew up in the heart of wine country in Zillah.
The Yakima Valley AVA “really put Washington on the map,” she said, and leads people to seek out wine from the area.
“Just like people say, ‘Oh, this Cabernet is from the Napa Valley,’ they’ll know where it’s from in their head. It gives them a reference,” she said. If they read about Yakima wine in a magazine or hear about a competition, “they’ll put a positive memory with that.”
Sheila Delquadri was at Bonair Sunday afternoon buying wine during the Valley’s annual Red Wine and Chocolate event. She said she loves the diversity of Yakima Valley wines.
“You can get whatever you want, and basically in your backyard,” she said.
Delquadri works as a research analyst at Yakima Valley Community College, and frequently travels to conferences out-of-state. She gets to share Yakima wine with people all the time, she says.
“Whenever I’m in another state, I ask them if they have any Yakima Valley wine, specifically, and everybody always knows about the Yakima Valley wine,” she said.
Winemakers say the future is looking bright. Samaniego looks forward to the day that the Yakima Valley is as much a household name as Napa or Sonoma, while Puryear says she and her husband are enjoying themselves as much as when they started.
“Most of us (in the Valley) are young — haven’t been in the business forever and ever, so we’re still excited and enthusiastic,” she said. “We want people to come and share our story and what we’re doing.”