Guide to Washington Wine
Located on approximately the same latitude (46 degrees north) as the great French wine regions of Bordeaux and Burgundy, Washington wine regions include 11 federally recognized American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), otherwise known as appellations, three of which it shares with Oregon. A variety of climates and soils combine with the long summer sunlight hours of northern latitudes to create prime growing regions, predominantly in the valleys and on the hillsides of areas east of the Cascade Mountains.
Washington wine regions benefit from about two more hours of summer sunlight each day than in California wine regions. Gradually cooling autumn temperatures in Washington help wine grapes reach full maturity while maintaining desirable acid levels. Climates of individual Washington wine regions differ dramatically.
Washington State is divided north to south by the Cascade Mountains. Lands located west of this volcanically formed barrier are more mild and lush than those to the east. In fact, 98 percent of the state’s wine grapes are grown within Washington’s official AVAs on the east side of the Cascades — Yakima Valley, Walla Walla, Columbia Valley, Red Mountain, Columbia Gorge, Horse Heaven Hills, Wahluke Slope, Snipes Mountain, Rattlesnake Hills and Lake Chelan. The Puget Sound AVA is the only officially recognized wine region west of the Cascades.
The arid climatic conditions of eastern Washington permit grapes to fully ripen while they develop complex fruit flavors, pleasing aromatics and nuances. A few Washington wineries have vineyards (approximately 33 acres) on the cooler, western side of the Cascades, where occasional marine breezes drift over the ridges of the Coast Range into the Puget Sound wine region, moderating temperatures and increasing rainfall on their way to the Cascade Mountains. Clouds must rise to continue their eastward march, and colder temperatures cause moisture to fall as rain or snow, before reaching the north-south barrier of the Cascade ridges.
Washington’s first wine grapes were planted in 1825, and by 1910, they were growing in most areas of the state. Today, Washington wine regions produce more wine grapes than any other state in the United States except California. Wine grapes are now the fourth most important fruit crop in Washington State behind apples, cherries and pears.
Large-scale irrigation, fueled by runoff from the melting snowcaps of the Cascade Mountains, was introduced in eastern Washington in 1903 unlocking the dormant potential of the rich volcanic soils and warm, sunny desert-like climate. Italian and German varietals were planted in the Yakima and Columbia Valleys and wine grape acreage expanded rapidly in the early part of the 20th century.
The first commercial-scale plantings began in the 1960s. Early commercial producers mentored modern winemaking in the state. The resulting rapid expansion of the industry in the mid-70s is now rivaled by today’s breakneck pace, where a new winery opens every couple of weeks. The trend started by a few home winemakers and visionary farmers has become a respected and influential industry.