Two Blondes Vineyard near Zillah was planted in 2000 by Andrew Will and Chris Camarda.
PHOTO CPHOTO COURTESY OF WASHINGTON WINE COMMISSION
Andy Perdue has thought a lot about why the wine spotlight seems to shine brighter on areas other than the Yakima Valley appellation, Washington State’s oldest and biggest producing wine grape region. He doesn’t have a good answer for why the region is sometimes forgotten, but says it’s not because of the quality of grapes or wines produced there.
Perdue, veteran journalist and wine judge from Richland, Washington, moderated a panel discussion held earlier this spring to toast the thirtieth anniversary of the Yakima Valley American Viticultural Area. The session was part of Taste Washington, an annual consumer wine tasting and educational event held in Seattle. The panel featured growers, winemakers, and wine critics and examined why the Yakima Valley is the backbone of the state’s wine industry.
As he prepared for the seminar, Perdue said he was reminded of the great history and contributions that the region has made to the industry. “It seems in recent times, Walla Walla has taken the spotlight, along with Horse Heaven Hills and Wahluke Slope,” he said. “These other areas have gotten all the love from the media and wine industry. Many within the industry seem to forget that Red Mountain is a part of the Yakima Valley appellation.”
Perdue rattled off several growers who have pioneered new varieties or with decades of experience have developed renowned vineyards. In this group of key growers and vineyards, he included Mike Sauer of Red Willow Vineyards, Joe Hattrup of Elephant Mountain Vineyards, Hugh Shiels of DuBrul Vineyard, Otis Vineyards, the Newhouse family with Upland Estates, and Dick Boushey of Boushey Vineyards. “The list goes on and on,” he said.
“Such vineyards are producing terrific grapes that winemakers are proud to have the vineyard designations on their label and pay big money for the grapes. They’re willing to pay for the grapes because they know the fruit will make great wines.”
Yakima Valley is one of the more diverse AVAs in the state; nearly any variety can ripen in the region.
Further south in the appellation at Red Mountain, he highlighted the grape-growing efforts of Jim Holmes at Ciel du Cheval, John and son Scott Williams at Kiona Vineyards, and the Gelles family at Klipsun Vineyards.
“When you look vineyards in the other appellations of the state—Wahluke Slope with its Stonetree Vineyard and Milbrandt family properties, and Walla Walla with its Seven Hills Vineyards, Pepper Bridge Vineyard, and a few others—none really have that same name recognition as those in Yakima Valley and Red Mountain,” he said, adding that the only ones that rival them are a few in Horse Heaven Hills. Champoux Vineyards, Phinney Hill, Coyote Canyon, and McKinley Springs in Horse Heaven Hills are recognized as some of the state’s best vineyards and are well established, planted some 30 years ago or more.
Best wine touring
Yakima Valley AVA has much going for it, including what Perdue believes is one of the state’s best locations for wine touring. Vintners Village in Prosser, developed by the Port of Benton, is home to more than a dozen wineries all connected through walking trails. “You can park your car, walk to wineries for tasting, and have a delicious meal—all in the same location,” he said.
“Vintners Village was really the first crack at creating a tourism-centric wine touring area that was planned out ahead of time,” he said, adding that many of the state’s other wine touring areas happened organically. “But Vintners Village has a terrific design that was designed for people.”
Where’s the love?
“From an overall perspective, when you take a step back and look at the region, you have to ask why Yakima Valley, with all these great vineyards, has not garnered as much love as it deserves?” asked Perdue. “I don’t know the answer, but I think part of the answer is that the region has some older producers who are thought of as old school and might have lagged behind in progressive technology.”
He thinks other factors could include the valley’s agricultural dominance and its ability to produce everything from apples to zucchini. Yakima Valley grows everything so well that some may think of the area as a commodity producer instead of a region that produces premium agricultural products.
The valley has orchards and vineyards that stretch for miles, a landscape often thought more indicative of commodity-based crops. But Perdue countered there are large swaths of wine grapes located elsewhere—Goose Ridge Vineyards, vineyards in Wahluke Slope owned by Wyckoff Farms, and McKinley Springs vineyards in Horse Heaven Hills. “These vineyards are each more than 1,500 acres.”
Perdue said comments made by California wine critic W. Blake Gray during the Taste Washington seminar illustrate the Yakima Valley’s perception problem. Perdue purposely included Gray on the Taste Washington panel because he was an outsider from San Francisco. “When I asked Blake to be on the panel about Yakima Valley wines, he said to me, ‘Well, I’ve got a problem, because I don’t know anything about Yakima Valley.’”
Perdue was surprised that Gray knew nothing about the state’s oldest wine region and also didn’t know that one of the state’s largest wineries, The Hogue Cellars, is located in the appellation. After sampling Yakima Valley wines as part of the panel, Gray described the wines as balanced with very nice minerality. “There’s great terroir to be discovered in the Yakima Valley,” Gray said.
“There is definitely a perception problem,” Perdue agreed. “But it sure isn’t the fault of the grape growers. It’s not Dick Boushey’s fault. Or Red Willow’s fault. I don’t really know whose fault it is, but it’s an interesting dilemma.”
Perhaps because the appellation, as the state’s “first growth,” has been around the longest, it’s not as new and exciting as younger regions like Walla Walla, he mused.
Valley grapes have long been relied on wineries throughout the state, from Woodinville to Walla Walla. Nearly 40 percent of the state’s annual wine production is made from Yakima Valley grapes. In the past, much of the fruit produced from Yakima Valley lost its identity because the grapes were used in wine blends. But as the vines have matured and wines are winning top awards, winemakers are taking notice.
Perdue said one of the best things to come out of Yakima Valley’s thirtieth anniversary is that it’s caused him to re-examine the region. “It’s forced me to step back and look at the individual pieces that make the region so special. Those vineyards, scattered up and down Yakima Valley, really are unique and are the backbone of the state’s industry,” he said.