Long before Washington became the second largest wine-producing state in the US, the mighty and majestic Columbia River flowed through the Pacific Northwest on what it now a 1,200-mile march to the sea.
To know and appreciate Washington wine, the first step is to look at the Columbia River and the ancient history of the state’s geology. While the wine industry here is relatively young, the forces that give it life are longstanding.
In ancient times, lava flowed out of fissures in the earth and covered much of the land. The rock was so heavy that it depressed the earth’s crust to form the Columbia River Basin. More lava spewed over the land from volcanoes of the Cascades mountain range, including Mt. Hood, Mt. Adams, and Mt. Rainier.
At the end of the last Ice Age, approximately 12,000 to 19,000 years ago, water rushed into eastern Washington when the immense ice dams holding back the glacial Lake Missoula in northwest Montana melted.
Meanwhile, two tectonic plates that meet in the Pacific Northwest continued to nudge Oregon closer to the Washington border. This movement over time-compressed and wrinkled the Columbia River Basin into a series of east-to-west running ridges. The uplifting of these folds re-routed the Columbia River to form its present ‘S’ shape, leaving behind granite and quartzite river rocks where the river once flowed.
Now covering 258,000 square miles, including parts of seven states and one Canadian province, the Columbia River and its tributaries drain more water to the Pacific Ocean than any other river system in the Americas. In addition, the river provides drinking water to numerous communities and irrigates 600,000 acres of farmland.
A Contemporary History
The first grapevines were planted in Washington in 1825 and in the Yakima Valley by William B. Bridgman in the early 1900s. Later in the 20th century, Dr. Walter Clore, known as the father of the Washington wine industry, researched the most compatible grape varieties for Washington soils.
Today, Washington is home to more than 400 grape growers, 1,000 wineries, and 60,000 acres of wine grapes. The total economic impact in the state is close to $8 billion. In its 19 AVAs, the state grows more than 80 grape varieties and produces 17.7 million cases of wine. All but one AVA (Puget Sound AVA) are located in the dry and sunny eastern half of the state.
Straddling the Washington/Oregon border, the Columbia Valley AVA is Washington’s largest grape-growing area, with more than 99 percent of the state’s vineyards. The Columbia Valley’s newest sub-appellations are White Bluffs, The Burn of Columbia Valley, and Goose Gap AVAs, giving Columbia Valley a total of 15 sub-appellations.
While vineyards in Washington are huge and mainly located east of the Cascades, wineries tend to be small (with exceptions) and close to major markets. Winemakers purchase their grapes from these big vineyards that depend on the Columbia River and its tributaries for water. Some vineyards hold contracts with up to 30 different wineries.
Washington’s oldest winery, Chateau Ste. Michelle produces its white wines in Woodinville, near Seattle, and its reds at the Canoe Ridge Estate Winery in eastern Washington. The company accounts for about 60 percent of Washington wine sales by volume and farms in nearly 30,000 acres in Washington, Oregon, and California.
Though much smaller, Savage Grace also has two locations – one in Woodinville and one in the Columbia River Gorge in southern Washington. Winemaker Michael Savage founded the winery in 2011 and sources grapes from some of the most well-respected vineyards in Washington, including Red Willow Vineyard in the Yakima Valley AVA.
Another winery, Guardian Cellars, is owned by a chemist turned cop. After years of volunteering his services at wineries around Woodinville, Jerry Riener started his own in November 2007. Guardian Cellars produces 16 wines under two labels and more than 5,000 cases per harvest.
Frichette Winery is an example of a family-owned, limited production winery. Owners Greg and Shae Frichette opened their tasting room in the Red Mountain AVA in 2013. This dry, warm region near the Tri-Cities produces intense, fruit-driven, and tannic red wines.
Could there be a Washington wine industry without the Columbia River? Maybe, but it wouldn’t be the same.