Episode 4 of Discovering Wine Country
On this episode of Discovering Wine Country, we head to the high desert of Washington’s Yakima Valley. We will discover the five nested AVAs of the Yakima Valley AVA and visit some vineyards, including Elephant Mountain in the Rattlesnake Hills AVA, Roskamp in the Snipes Mountain AVA, and the legendary Red Willow Vineyard.
The Yakima Valley
The Yakima Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area)is a nested AVA inside the Columbia Valley AVA in Washington State.
Located in the Southern part of the state, it spans over 70 miles from the city of Yakima in the west to the city of Richland to the east.
You could fit the Napa Valley AVA from north to south at its widest point.
This region was volcanic. Think about it, Mount Adams, Mount Ranier, Mount Hood…there are stunning peaks everywhere. More than mountains, these were volcanos active 15 million years ago.
All that lava is the basalt that lies under the top soils here in the Yakima Valley. This soil includes a wide variety of minerals, and it’s well-draining. This gives you small berries, high in acid and full of concentrated flavors and textures.
This is also the land of the Missoula Floods, and many vineyards will tell you where they are in relationship to the flood levels. (Create a Short on Missoula Floods use Montinore as intro and Rabbit Hole Pass Through.
The floods came up to 1200 feet here, so it’s only the higher vineyards that sit in soils above the flood levels, and they are happy to show you the difference in the soils. You find deep silt loam over gravel or basalt.
The Missoula floods rolled through this region 13,000-15,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age. An ice dam backed up the water in what is now Idaho. The water above it started to melt, the pressure built, and the ice plug would get pushed up and release the water. The water would slow, and the dam would reform….this happened over and over for about 2000 years.
All those floods washed things downstream, and you find boulders in vineyards on top of ridges and hills. Kitzke Vineyard has one the size of a VW bus in their vineyard.
The Missoula Floods had an impact on both Washington and Oregon. When we visited the Willamette Valley, we spoke with Rudy Marchesi of Montinore in the Tualatin Hills AVA. Rudy gives a great explanation of the floods that you can find here.
Yakima Valley’s 5 nested AVAs
Within the Yakima Valley, you find five nested AVAs.
- Rattlesnake Hills AVA est. 2006
- In the Northwest part of the valley, this is the largest of the sub AVAs covering 74,380 acres with 1,832 under vine. Elevations here run 850 to over 3000 feet.
- Snipes Mountain AVA est. 2009
- Named for a rancher, Ben Snipes, who lived here in the 1850s, the AVA is 4,005 acres on both sides of the mountain. There are 859 acres under vine with more than 30 varieties.
- Red Mountain AVA est. 2001
- Nope, it’s not really a mountain. It is a steep southwest slope in the valley’s east end with elevations between 500 and 1500 feet. It gets its name from the cheatgrass that grows here that is deep red in the spring. It is home to some of the most well-thought-of Cabernets in the State.
- Candy Mountain AVA est. 2020
- This newer AVA is just east of Red Mountain. It covers only 815 acres and has 110 acres under vine. It is Washington’s smallest AVA. Vineyards sit on the mountain’s southwest side between 640 and 1,360 feet.
- Goose Gap AVA est. 2021
- Yep, this is the newbie! The ridge crest of Goose Mountain runs east to west, while Red Mountain, Candy Mountain, and Rattlesnake Mountain’s ridge crest runs north to south. Because the south slopes are too steep, vineyards are mostly planted on the North and northeast slopes. The AVA is home to just two vineyards, but they provide fruit to more than 20 wineries.
Some History the Yakima Valley
While the first grapes in the Yakima Valley were planted in 1869, it was the early 20th century when things picked up. In 1917 an agricultural research site was started in Prosser in the middle of the Yakima Valley.
Today it is known as the Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center. It was here that the wine grape growing in the state really kicked off, under the guidance of Dr. Walter Clore.
In 1962 Columbia Winery (at that time known as Associated Vintners) planted a 5.5-acre site in Sunnyside. In 1973 Mike Sauer planted his first Cabernet Sauvignon at Red Willow Vineyard. In 1975 Kiona on Red Mountain was planted. Now things were really rolling.
Associated Vineyards Winemaker David Lake encouraged growers to plant Bordeaux varieties and, in 1981, did the first vineyard-designate bottling from Red Willow Vineyard.
More than half of the grapes for Washington’s wines come from the Yakima Valley AVA. The region boasts 17,000 acres of vineyards, whose grapes go to both wineries within the region and further afield. Many of the tasting rooms in Seattle source fruit from the Yakima Valley.
This is a place where a vineyard name means something. Forty years ago, David Lake did the first vineyard designate wine in the state. Red Willow, Klipsun, Boushey…these names are legendary here. The soils, the weather, the people that grow the grapes…the more you know, the more you want to know, and the learning is delicious.
Visiting the Yakima Valley
If you want to visit wineries and tasting rooms in the Yakima Valley, you will find the bulk of them in the area around the town of Zillah.
The community sits just a little more than 20 miles from the city of Yakima. These are the wineries of the Rattlesnake Hills AVA. You will find over 20 wineries & Vineyards in the region, including Dineen, Owen Roe, & Trevari.
The Rattlesnake Hills AVA
The Rattlesnake Hills AVA, established in 2006 is Located on the North Western side of the Yakima Valley, about 4 miles southeast of the city of Yakima,
This AVA has vineyards dating back to 1968, and is the largest of the sub AVAs in the Valley, covering 74 thousand 3 hundred and 80 acres with just over 18 hundred under vine.
Rattlesnake Hills takes in the ridges running east to west that are north of the Yakima River. Elevations here are high, starting at 850 feet and going to over 3,000 feet, with most vineyards planted in the lower elevations.
Elephant Mountain Vineyard
Elephant Mountain Vineyard sits within the Rattlesnake Hills AVA, on the southern slopes of Rattlesnake Ridge at the base of Elephant Mountain. The ridge sits above the Missoula Flood plain. Elevations here go from 13 hundred and 20 to 14 hundred and 60 feet.
The high elevation means that they have about 30 more frost-free days than the rest of the Yakima Valley.
Here the vineyards are surrounded by high desert scrub brush.
This vineyard was first planted in 1998 by Joe Hattrup. They currently have 120 acres of vineyards in sandy silt loam over gravely calcareous soils
Many wineries source the sought-after fruit from this vineyard. The high elevation and south-facing slopes catch the last of the summer heat and allow them to grow late ripening varieties.
They grow 13 red and five white grapes, including Rhones like Grenache, Syrah, Mouvedre Roussanne, Marsanne & Viognier. Bordeaux varieties Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cab Franc, as well as the Italian varieties Sangiovese & Barbera.
Trevari focuses on sparkling wines. Their property is a great place to spend an afternoon seated on the patio or lawn, enjoying the views and the bubbles.
They focus on 100% varietal sparkling wines, and you will find sparkling Riesling, Mueller-Thurgau, and Syrah here in addition to the traditional Blanc de Blancs and Blanc de Noirs.
David O’Reilly co-founded Owen Roe. He spent his first 14 years growing up on a farm in Ireland before moving to British Columbia.
The name “Owen Roe” comes from a 17th-century Irish Patriot. David admired his dedication to principle and founded the winery on the commitment to not compromise on quality.
The vineyard at the winery is their Union Gap Vineyard, which sits in soils both above and below the Missoula Flood plain.
They also source grapes from iconic vineyards like Red Willow, and DuBrul in the Yakima Valley, and Lenne and Anna’s Vineyards in the Willamette Valley.
Justin Neufeld is the Associate winemaker at Gilbert Cellars and also has his own label, JB Neufeld.
We spoke with him about the Yakima Valley and his choice to focus on Cabernet Sauvignon.
He is also on the winemaking team at Dineen Cellars.
Prosser and the surrounding area
In the area of Prosser, you will find over 30 wineries. Some large, some small, with plenty of tasting rooms to visit.
This region also is the gateway to many of the vineyards in the Rattlesnake Mountains, including Boushey Vineyards, where vines were first planted in 1980.
Roskamp Vineyard and Snipes Mountain
As you are driving through the Yakima Valley, Snipes Mountain is hard to miss. It bubbles up in the middle of the Valley on the south side of the highway. Snipes Mountain, named for Ben Snipes, who had a cattle ranch here in the 1850s, is it’s own AVA.
Roskamp Vineyard is located on the crest of Snipes Mountain. This mountain is a basalt ridge that was uplifted millions of years ago. Then came the Missoula Floods, which left behind sand and gravel. Its high position in the middle of the Yakima Valley allows for breezes to keep the fruit healthy and a slightly warmer climate than the surrounding area.
It was planted by the Roskamp family in 1998.
Cote Bonneville and DuBrul Vineyard
In the Prosser area, you find Sunnyside. Driving through the small town of Sunnyside, you come upon a quaint, restored building that was previously a train station.
When Hugh and Kathy Shiels moved to the area, Hugh set up practice as an orthopedic surgeon. The renovated Train Station was his office for many years. It has now become the Cote Bonneville tasting room.
Their estate wines come from their DuBrul Vineyard, which is one of the older vineyards in the Yakima Valley. Hugh and Kathy Shiels purchased the property in 1991 and pulled out the orchards to plant vines. This is a family business, and the winemaker is their daughter Kerry Shiels.
DuBrul Vineyard is a vineyard of own-rooted vines. This site sits on a basalt upthrust. They have a south-facing slope with a cutout that allows for southwest and southeast aspects. They sit high in the foothills of the Rattlesnake Mountains. This unique vineyard, with its aspects, grows quite a range, from Cabernet Sauvignon to Chardonnay to Riesling!
The vines here are own-rooted due to the sandy soil that keeps phylloxera at bay. It makes a difference, not having a variety grafted to a different rootstock. Kerry speaks of it as reading Tolstoy in Russian. It’s more pure at its essence when it doesn’t have to go through translation.
Co Dinn Cellars
Just down the street from Cote Bonneville in Sunnyside, you will find Co Dinn Cellars, located in a restored building that was the old city waterworks.
Co is an expert on the soils and topography of the region. He sources his grapes from some amazing vineyard sites in the Yakima Valley.
Co got into winemaking working harvests in the Napa Valley. In the mid 90, ’s he came to Washington working at Hogue Cellars. He worked as a consulting winemaker for Cote Bonneville for many years before founding Co Dinn Cellars in 2013.
He is dedicated to making wines from the world-class vineyards in the Columbia Valleys’ many and varied terroirs.
Down the Rabbit hole of Corks vs. Screw Caps with Co Dinn
While we were visiting with Co at his tasting room, the topic turned to bottle closures, so this seems like an appropriate time to dive down that rabbit hole.
The discussion on Screw Caps or corks has been going on for a while. I will admit that the ritual of taking a cork out is appealing. Still, a winemaker always has to worry about the possibility of cork taint, which can make a bottle of wine anywhere from muted and slightly off-smelling to completely undrinkable.
Cork taint is Tricholoroanisole or TCA. This compound is formed when insecticides or fungicides come into contact with mold, bacteria, or fungi on tree bark. The fungi alter the fungicide/insecticide, and TCA is created. In a wine it can show up in smells of wet cardboard, wet dog or moldy basement.
Well, cork is tree bark, and while these fungicides/insecticides are no longer used, they remain in the soil and are resistant to biodegradation. It’s hard as a cork grower to know if the bark was contaminated. (okay, I’m going to make a side remark here about chemicals in agriculture, see how it can bite you in the butt!).
Beyond the orchards of cork trees, this compound can contaminate barrels, boxes, or walls once in a winery.
TCA is super stable as a compound, so as a wine ages or opens up, it can become more prominent.
It is not harmful, but it is smelly and can make things taste bad. Sadly it only takes a little (2 to 3 parts per trillion) to make a wine smell or taste terrible.
There are methods of mitigating cork taint, from treating the corks themselves before they head to wineries to wineries avoiding the use of chlorine products and sanitizing corks before use. Some cork manufacturers will test before sending the corks, but these extra tests make the corks cost a bit more.
Environmentally? Cork is a renewable resource. Once planted, a cork tree takes 25 years to get to the point where the cork bark can be harvested. Then it can be harvested once every nine years for the next century and a half, about 15 harvests.
Wine corks are recyclable beyond just making coasters and hot pads for your kitchen. But there are only a few companies, and you must send them your corks.
There are also synthetic corks made of petrochemical or plant-based plastics.
Then you have screw caps.
Developed in the 1950s, they were used on many things other than wine, to begin with. In the 60s, a French manufacturer began trials on what became the Stelvin screwcap. After trials in France, these caps began to be used in Australia, New Zealand, and Switzerland in the 70s. But there was some consumer resistance, and Australian producers returned to cork for a while. But today, if you purchase an Australian wine, the majority, including fine wines, are under screwcap.
Screwcaps have received a bad wrap. People have associated them with cheap wines primarily because their introduction to wine under screwcap in the US was through Sutter Home. So people associated these caps with cheap bulk wines.
Technology with screw caps has increased. You might still hear the myth that wines can’t age under screw cap. Well, that’s not true. Yes, there are screw caps that will seal bottles not to allow any oxygen in (oxygen is what helps a wine age). These are great for wines meant to be enjoyed while young and youthful.
Co Dinn was at Hogue Cellars when they were doing trials on closures comparing cork, synthetic cork, and screw caps in a study between 2001 and 2003. They settled on screw cap for freshness and to eliminate cork taint, which they found at unacceptable levels with all the corks they tried.
But the technology has changed, and there are screwcaps now with different levels of oxygen exchange. You can age wines under screw cap! I just enjoyed a 17-year-old Semillon from Australia that had aged beautifully and, quite honestly, had I not opened it, would have continued to age gracefully for another 5 to 10 years.
The thing is, younger wine consumers are not all caught up in this ritual/tradition hype of corks. They are more open to packaging alternatives, such as canned wines and screw caps. For them, this packaging does not have the same negative connotation.
The Red Mountain AVA was established in 2001. Nope, it’s not really a mountain. It is a steep southwest slope at the east end of the valley with elevations between 500 and 1500 feet.
It gets its name from the cheat grass that grows here that is deep red in the spring.
The Red Mountain AVA is on Red Mountain, which is part of the fold belt that makes up the Yakima Valley.
The soil here has a decided lack of nutrients. It also has a high pH. This, combined with the wind, causes small berries with thick skins, which give you a greater skin-to-flesh ratio, as well as higher tannins. That gives you much more intense juice.
Wines from Red Mountain are some of the most well-thought-of and highly rated wines in Washington State.
You will find rich deep Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah coming from this region.
Tom Hedges & his wife Anne-Marie bought this property in 1989. Tom grew up in the region but had spent his life traveling the world in produce sales and then wines. At a high school reunion in 1989, he found that Red Mountain was growing some of the best fruit in the state and invested in 40 acres.
In 1995 they broke ground on the Chateau, a place that would transport them to France, where Anne-Marie grew up.
Sarah Goedhart Hedges, their daughter, is now the winemaker, and they farm the estate biodynamically.
It’s a stunning place with spectacular views and delicious wines.
The Candy Mountain AVA was established in 2020 and sits just east of Red Mountain. It covers only 815 acres, with 110 acres under vine. It is Washington’s most petite AVA.
Vineyards here sit on the southwest side of the mountain between 640 and 13 hundred 60 feet.
Vickie and Paul Kitzke planted their vineyard on Candy Mountain in 2000. Their son Seth Kitzke is now the winemaker and has his own label, Upsidedown Wines, based out of Hood River.
Candy Mountain is just East of Red Mountain in Washington’s Yakima Valley. It is the smallest AVA in the state at just 820 acres.
In addition to their Candy Ridge Vineyard, they have another vineyard called Dead Poplar, which is in the lower Yakima Valley south of the Red Mountain AVA.
They have caliche soil, at the Candy Ridge Vineyard. This thick hard calcium carbonate, makes it really difficult to plant vines. This soil stresses the vines causing them to produce small berries, which means a more concentrated flavor from the berries. This is great for their Cab Franc.
Here we dive deep into the history of Washington Wine.
Mike Sauer grew up 20 miles from here. In college, he majored in Ag Econ and was sure he would be a banker or work at an Ag Company. But love can change your plans. He met a girl in college who became his wife. Her father, Harold Stephenson, had a successful large farm here and offered Mike a job. As the new kid, Harold thought Mike should have something to experiment with. There were cherries, apples, or grapes…but these French-sounding wine grapes were just beginning, and they sounded interesting to Mike.
“I got hooked up with; I guess you would call him the father of the Washington Wine Industry at the time, Dr. Walter Clore.”
The modern Washington wine Industry was just in its infancy.
Dr. Clore was exploring the state, and this was one of about a dozen original remote test sites planted to see where grapes would grow. They would pick the grapes from these different sites at the same Brix level, make wines from them, and then send them off to an expert taste panel for review. The Red Willow wines consistently came out on top.
Not long after their vineyard got started, Mike Sauer met David Lake. In 1981 David Lake began making vineyard designates from Red Willow Vineyard. Mike thinks at that point, perhaps only Ridge Vineyards in California was doing vineyard designates. This idea which seems so common now, was new at that time in America, attaching an identity, a sense of place to a wine.
David Lake encouraged Mike Sauer to plant Syrah, the variety that Red Willow is perhaps best known for these days. This humble vineyard is one of the great vineyards in Washington State, and some of the legendary names in Washington Wine helped to form it.
The site is famous for its Red Willow Stone Chapel, which sits at the top of its Chapel Block. David, who first suggested planting Syrah here, also joked that if they had syrah on a hill, they should have a chapel-like Hermitage, the famous Northern Rhône region where they grow Syrah. The Sauers is a spiritual family, and Mike liked the idea. He had a stonemason from Mexico working for him doing rock work, and they put together an idea for a chapel. It took three years to finish.
This humble vineyard is one of the great vineyards in Washington State, and some of the legendary names in Washington Wine helped to form it.
This was one of our favorite interviews, and there is more. You can see the interview in full on our youtube channel.
Search for red willow on the Scenic route playlist.
We’ve just dipped our toes in the Yakima Valley’s wines and vineyards. There is much more to discover!
You should plan a trip! We can help with that. Visit Discovering Wine Country for regions and places to visit.
Our next episode will focus on Biodynamic and Regenerative Viticulture.
Climate change has hit the winemaking world hard in the last few years. Wildfires, drought, flooding, late frost, and scorching summer heatare affecting vineyards globally.
We will get into how organic, biodynamic and regenerative agriculture can help both vineyards on a local level and the world on a global scale.
Robin Renken is a wine writer and Certified Specialist of Wine and WSET 3 Certified. She and her husband Michael travel to wine regions interviewing vineyard owners and winemakers and learning the stories behind the glass.
When not traveling they indulge in cooking and pairing wines with food at home in Las Vegas.