An inside view of grapes grown on the Lyre trellis system at the Outlook Vineyard. Yields can be increased with the Lyre system, but hand picking is required.

An inside view of grapes grown on the Lyre trellis system at the Outlook Vineyard. Yields can be increased with the Lyre system, but hand picking is required.

Rattlesnake Hills, one of Washington State’s newest American Viticultural Areas but home to some of the state’s older vineyards, is known more for its shallow, variable soils that produce fine wines than for venomous diamondbacks. The new AVA is named for the Rattlesnake Hills, a prominent landmark in the Yakima Valley.

“I’ve farmed in the area for 26 years and have yet to see a rattlesnake,” said Gail Puryear of Bonair Winery in Zillah. Puryear and his wife, Shirley, who were among those spearheading creation of the AVA, began planting grapes in 1980. After years of “cobbling” land together, they are on their way to becoming an estate winery, with 35 of their 60 acres devoted to wine grapes. Several years ago, they purchased the Morrison Vineyard, planted by Joe and Sid Morrison in 1968. The vineyard—the oldest in Rattlesnake Hills and one of the oldest in the area—is planted to Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling, though the Puryears have plans to add other varieties.

The Rattlesnake Hills appellation, approved by the federal government in March, was the focus of a summer vineyard tour sponsored by the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers. Some 70 industry members took a close-up look at the appellation’s soils, geography, and vineyards. The tour also included Red Willow Vineyard near Wapato, owned by Mike Sauer, although it is not within the new appellation due to a break in the topography near Union Gap.

Rattlesnake Hills AVA, contained within the Yakima Valley and Columbia Valley appellations, is an expanse of hills running east to west to the north of the Yakima River and south of Moxee Valley. The region has 1,500 bearing acres of wine grapes and 15 wineries. Vineyards are located on ridges and terraces, with vineyard elevations ranging from 850 to 1,600 feet.

Soil tour guide for the day, Dr. Robert Stevens, described the region’s soils as being shallow and variable. Stevens is an Extension soil scientist for Washington State University.

“The rule for the Rattlesnake Hills area is variability,” he said. “Not what you’d want to grow corn or alfalfa on.”

Most of the soils have a layer of silt loam on the top, followed by layers of caliche (calcium carbonate) and fractured basalt. Windblown loess material covers many sites, overlying remnants of the Ellensburg Formation that added river rock to the soils.

“Nobody had to haul rocks into these vineyards,” Stevens said, noting that in some vineyards, cobblestones and rocks are brought in to duplicate the look of famous French vineyards.

Outlook Vineyard

The Outlook Vineyard, owned by Apex Cellars, is a good representation of vineyards in Rattlesnake Hills, according to Brian Carter of Apex Cellars, Sunnyside. The 100-acre vineyard, planted in 1980, originally was home to Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Semillon, Gewürztraminer, and Riesling. More recent varieties include Merlot, Syrah, and Viognier (planted in 1990), and small experimental plots of other varietals.

The Lyre training system is used at Outlook to achieve higher tonnage in varieties like Syrah. Carter said that while the quadrilateral cordon, or Lyre system, results in 4.5 tons per acre, compared to the 2.5 tons per acre that is the area average, a big drawback is that the trellis system cannot easily be mechanically harvested.

Carter agreed that managing soil variability is challenging. Other challenges include sage rats that climb up trunks and eat leaves from the canopy, damage from grasshoppers, and occasional fires from lightning strikes.

Portteus Vineyard

Early pioneer of Zinfandel in the state, Paul Portteus, owner of Portteus Winery in Zillah, planted the red varietal in 1982 as an experiment. The area, thought to be too cold to grow the big-clustered variety, has proved warm enough to ripen the variety that is usually picked at 27° Brix in November for late-harvest-style wine.

But growing Zinfandel is not without challenge.

“It’s the hardest wine for us to make,” said Paul Vandenberg, Portteus winemaker and owner/winemaker of Paradisos del Sol, who told of problems with bird damage, stuck fermentations, and the need to thin clusters.

Zinfandel is prone to bunch rot, is thin-skinned, and not heavily colored, Vandenberg added. Clusters are thinned when workers are thinning shoots by hand-rubbing pea-sized berries out of the cluster, a practice that adds about $120 to $130 per acre in labor costs.

“If you’re a contract grower, I wouldn’t grow Zinfandel,” he said, adding there are too many challenges to the grower to make it profitable. “But it works if you can sell it as estate wine.”

Roza Hills Vineyard

Roza Hills Vineyard, owned by Silver Lake Winery, is the largest vineyard in the appellation at 250 acres. The original 25-year-old vines were trained to the Lyre system, producing high yields but grapes with low sugar, said Jim McFerran, viticulturist and manager of Milbrandt Vineyards in Mattawa. McFerran previously managed Roza Hills.

After his first season of having to hand pick grapes from the Lyre system, McFerran began converting the Lyre to a single trunk and single cordon. Conversion has been a slow and painful process, cutting big trunks to the ground and bringing trunks back to the center of the row. All but two blocks are now converted.

Elephant Mountain Vineyards

Elephant Mountain, near Outlook, is one of the few named peaks in the Rattlesnake Hills range. The mountain, said to resemble an elephant lying down, provides a unique microclimate for Elephant Mountain Vineyards, said Joe Hattrup, a third-generation family farmer who is in partnership at the vineyard with his brother Tom.

Rocky, south-facing slopes surrounding the 120-acre vineyard create a heat sink, explained Hattrup, who noted that their accumulated degree days in the last five years ranged from 3,100 to 3,400. During the last eight years, the vineyard’s frost-free growing season has lasted on average 30 days longer than most vineyard locations in the Columbia Valley.

Vineyard temperatures are also moderated by transitional air flows coming through nearby Konnowac Pass. “When other areas are at minus three and minus eight degrees Fahrenheit during a cold snap, we’re at three degrees,” he added.

Hattrup has yet to find a variety that doesn’t do well in the warm site. “Sangiovese is an easy finisher, Syrah does well, Cabernet Sauvignon, and more. We can do just about anything here.”

In recent years, the brothers have planted small experimental plots of Marsanne, Roussanne, Tempranillo, Grenache, Malbec, Barbera, Petit Verdot, Mourvedre, Cinsault, and Counoise.