YAKIMA, Wash. -- Let the celebrations continue.
Many of us enjoyed green beer, corned beef, cabbage and the color green during last weekend’s St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. There’s more to celebrate, but this time the origin of the celebration is local.
This Saturday marks the 36th anniversary of the Yakima Valley’s designation as an American Viticultural Area. There were just four wineries operating within the new appellation: Kiona Vineyard and Winery, Hinzerling Winery, Yakima River Winery and Tucker Cellars. It was the first AVA in Washington state and the only recognized AVA north of California at the time.
An American Viticultural Area is a designation to a specific wine-grape-growing region authorized by the federal Alcohol, Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. The AVA must show distinguishing features of the grapes within the region. The designation allows vintners, growers and consumers to attribute a given quality, reputation or other characteristics of a wine made from grapes grown within the described region.
The history of wine in the Yakima Valley is really the history of Washington wine. It was the Yakima Valley where Walter Clore’s work at the Washington State University Irrigation Branch Experiment Station in Prosser was conducted. Clore oversaw the discovery of what Washington could be in terms of wine and was later named the Father of Washington Wine by the Legislature.
The Yakima Valley has come into its own thanks to pioneers like Clore. The discoveries and promise of the Yakima Valley are really a story of time and experimentation as well as patience and cooperation.
“Mike Wallace (Hinzerling Winery) was really the impetus,” said John Williams, one of the founders of Red Mountain and Kiona Vineyards. “At the time, the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) governed AVA applications. There was a federal registry that had announced the opportunity to apply for an AVA designation. Mike really thought it was something we should do.”
Williams and Randy Tucker of Tucker Cellars got together with Wallace (who died in 2016) and won them over. The three of them, along with the Yakima River Winery, formed a sort of loose wine growers association.
“We each took on a different part of the application, submitted it, and it came back approved three or four months later,” Williams said.
During this time, a handful of Yakima Valley growers were starting to incorporate wine grapes into their mix of crops and trying to learn together. They were collectively developing growing methods that would produce the best grapes. A lot of mistakes were made, but a lot of knowledge was gained. They learned that growing wine grapes was a whole different game. Over time, growers moved away from frost-and-freeze areas like the valley floor. They slowly and sometimes painfully learned from their collective experiences and moved to more desirable sites, fine tuning their viticultural practices.
The AVA designation added a lot of value to both the Yakima Valley and Washington in terms of name recognition. At the time, it was the only AVA in the Pacific Northwest, so any time there was a write-up about Washington’s wine industry, the Yakima Valley was mentioned. That led to a lot of good press and notoriety.
The Yakima Valley has changed over the past 36 years, but it remains the state’s most significant growing region. Today, it is home to three sub-appellations, the Rattlesnake Hills, Red Mountain and Snipes Mountain AVAs and more than one-third of Washington’s vineyards.
Celebrate this weekend by popping the cork to your favorite Yakima Valley wine.
• Barbara Glover is executive director of Wine Yakima Valley, an industry group representing member wineries.