As winemakers worldwide strive to emphasise regionality, the Pacific Northwest is dealing in wine regions with a foot in both Oregon and Washington. Don’t let the confusion put you off, says PAUL GREGUTT.
Consumers who bravely explore the far-flung corners of the wine world are often, understandably, a little vague on the local geography. One yardstick by which emerging wine regions all across the US have begun to define themselves is through the official certification of ones (American Viticultural Areas). Although AVAs are commonly referred to as appellations, they bear little resemblance to the traditional ACs of Europe. Moreover, the US government agency that regulates AVAs (the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, or TTB) has all but stopped approving new ones, and has threatened to change the rules regulating existing ones. The proposed revision, if fully enacted, would no longer allow smaller AVAs to exist within the boundaries of larger ones. Instead, they would be entirely separate. A vast AVA such as the Columbia Valley of the Pacific Northwest would have holes in it where smaller AVAs now exist, like a moth-eaten piece of cloth.
Oregon’s Willamette Valley in the Pacific Northwest, which recently received approval for six new sub-AVAs, would be equally disrupted. Just 30 years ago, Washington and Oregon had no more than two dozen wineries between them; today, they are home to roughly 900 wineries and 23,000ha (hectares) of vines. They will never catch up with California in terms of quantity, but from a quality standpoint, they have more than established themselves as peers.
Since the first AVAs were approved in the late 1970s, the TTB has granted approvals based on proposed boundaries, soil, weather analysis, and – believe it or not – the historical significance of a proposed AVA’s name. In most instances, although wineries will scream ‘terroir’ at the top of their lungs, the primary value and purpose of an American AVA is to stake out marketing turf. Think Napa Valley. The word ‘Napa’ sells wine by itself, and generally commands high prices. Oregon, with 16 new AVAs, and Washington, with nine, would love that sort of cachet. A handful – the Willamette Valley in Oregon, and the Walla Walla Valley and Red Mountain AVAs in Washington – are increasingly sought after by knowledgeable consumers. Even so, most Pacific Northwest AVAs are completely unknown outside their own borders. And in the case of three in the Pacific Northwest, their case isn’t helped by the fact that they happen to cross state lines, overlapping Washington and Oregon. To add to the confusion, US labels list the name of the AVA and the winery location, but not the state where the grapes were grown. For example, Cayuse labels say Walla Walla Valley, and the back label lists the town of Milton- Freewater, Oregon, because the winery is located there.
Both Oregon and Washington in the Pacific Northwest are split into a dry, desert-like eastern side and a cool, maritime western side by the Cascademountain range. The Cascades, which include such famous volcanoes as Mount St Helens, catch most of the weather (and water) blowing in from the Pacific. Historically, the great majority of Oregon’s vineyards were planted in Willamette Valley, on the western side of the state, with Washington’s vineyards almost entirely on its eastern side. When the Columbia Valley AVA was first established in 1984, the fact that a small section crossed the border into Oregon seemed irrelevant. The AVA is huge – almost 5 million ha – and includes almost all of the potential grape-growing land in eastern Washington. Six otherWashington AVAs are wrapped within its borders.
Only recently have vineyards begun to expand into the Oregon side, with most located within the much smaller Walla Walla Valley AVA. The Columbia river creates most of the border between Washington and Oregon, with Columbia Valley desert on either side. But as it approaches the Cascades, it cuts a broad gap in the mountains as it flows west towards the Pacific. The area either side is known as the Columbia Gorge, and an AVA bearing its name was created in 2004. Steve Burns, now a wine marketing consultant in California, was executive director of the Washington Wine Commission when the AVA was proposed. He remembers that the borders were designed with a fair degree of cooperation between some Oregon wineries and the Washington Wine Commission; the Oregon Wine Board was not involved. ‘Personally,’ says Burns, ‘I have always liked the fact that an AVA would cross a political boundary. It speaks for the fact that it might actually be a distinct wine-growing region and not a political entity.’ Winemaker Peter Rosback echoes the sentiment. For his Sineann winery, based in Willamette Valley, Rosback makes both red and white wines from both sides of the Columbia Gorge. ‘Two state AVAs are totally valid,’ he says.
‘They succeed with similar varietals, and similar ripening patterns.’ Rosback believes that precipitation and elevationare the key factors in defining the special qualities of the region. ‘It’s not a big AVA,’ he explains, ‘but it has a lot of temperature and elevation change. You shed a lot of moisture as you travel across the AVA. You get an inch less rain per year per mile as you go east.’ That said, there are different strengths emerging on either side. In Oregon, Pinot Noir from the Columbia Gorge ripens at higher altitudes and has a longer, dryer growing season than in Willamette Valley. Rosback, who makes up to a dozen different vineyard-designated Pinot Noirs from widely-scattered Oregon sites, says of the Columbia Gorge: ‘It’s warmer than Willamette Valley. It’s dryer, it misses the late-season rainfall that can hit Willamette in September, and the heat is tempered by elevation.’ In Washington, the oldest Columbia Gorge vineyard, called Celilo, produces uniquely flavoured Chardonnays and Gewurztraminers. The vineyard is dryfarmed (most Washington vineyards are irrigated), sub-alpine, and is at a high elevation (240m–365m), draped across the eastern foothills of the Cascades. Almost 200 miles further east, the Columbia river abruptly turns north. The border between Oregon and Washington is now a straight line following the 46th latitude, and it cuts right through the heart of the Walla Walla Valley AVA. Thanks to the pioneering efforts of a handful of Walla Walla wineries – Leonetti Cellar, Woodward Canyon and L’Ecole No 41 – the region gained a reputation for quality wines long before it actually grew many grapes. The AVA was established back in 1984, when the only significant vineyard planting was at Seven Hills, across Stateline Road in Oregon.
So how did this happen? Essentially, it was because the appellation’s boundaries were crafted around the drainage basin of the Walla Walla river, which defines the larger valley. Only in the past decade have significant numbers of wineries and vineyards been located there. (Walla Walla wineries now number over 100, and the town has become a popular destination for wine tourists as well.) Most of the vineyard development has been clustered near the border. Relatively flat, low, fertile wheat land was some of the first to be planted, at locations such as Pepper Bridge. But a wave of new plantings on the Oregon side followed the discovery, by winemaker Christophe Baron, of a previously unexplored area called The Rocks. Baron, who is Champenois by birth, founded his Cayuse winery as soon as he saw the rock-strewn land, which had been an apple orchard. ‘What was very attractive about Oregon,’ Baron recalls, ‘was discovering The Rocks in 1996. We were the first commercial vineyard. The minerality of this little island of rock, surrounded by an ocean of silty loam, to me was very attractive.’ It had the potential – since proven – to make more restrained wines. ‘I’ve never been able to produce a fruit bomb at Cayuse,’ he notes.
The other wineries that have followed Baron have to put up with the additional expenses and bureaucratic hassles of being tied to what is generally viewed as a Washington AVA. ‘We are in the Walla Walla Valley; that’s what counts,’ insists Baron. ‘And it has more in common with Washington than with Oregon as far as I’m concerned.’ Existing in two states is not straightforward, though. For a start, such wineries must be bonded in two states and pay extra taxes. The Oregon-side Walla Walla AVA wineries are generally included in Washington Wine Commission events, but the Oregon-side Columbia Gorge wineries are not, a decision that appears to be politically motivated. Although there are clear differences in Oregon Walla Walla vineyards as opposed to those in Washington, it will be some years before further sub-appellations carve up the Walla Walla Valley. As and when they do, there would appear to be as many as half-a-dozen sub-regions, with several in both states. Whether these future AVAs are entitled to retain Walla Walla Valley as well will depend upon the next round of TTB rule changes. Until then, in Walla Walla, like the rest of the Pacific Northwest, the best guide to quality is the producer. With the right combination of producer, vineyard and AVA, you are likely to find an excellent bottle of wine. And while few of them are yet exported to Europe, those below will serve US readers well.