Cameron Fries of White Heron Cellars was one of several who worked to create the new Ancient Lakes AVA.

Cameron Fries of White Heron Cellars was one of several who worked to create the new Ancient Lakes AVA.

Photo courtesy of White Heron Cellars

When the first wine grapes were planted in Washington State’s newest American Viticultural Area more than 30 years ago, the new crop looked out of place next to potato, bean, and wheat fields. Back then, few would have imagined what is now the Ancient Lakes AVA would be home to some of the state’s best Riesling wines.

The Ancient Lakes AVA near Quincy was approved by the federal government in mid-October, becoming Washington’s thirteenth appellation. It is a subappellation of Washington’s largest AVA, the Columbia Valley. When 11 million acres were approved as the Columbia Valley AVA in 1984, Washington’s wine industry was young and most of the state’s grape growing regions not yet discovered.

A petition submitted to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, a division of the U.S. Department of Treasury, for a new AVA must show that the region is distinct from others and support the delineation of boundaries based on soil, topography, climate, and more. The process can take many years—in the case of Ancient Lakes, it took seven—and often involves more than one petition submittal.

Cameron Fries, owner of White Heron Cellars, spent many hours on the Ancient Lakes petition process. He had help from other area growers and wineries—Cave B Estate Winery’s Alfredo “Freddy” Arredondo, Ryan ­Flanagan, Jones of Washington’s Victor Palencia, and Milbrandt Vineyards owners Butch and Jerry Milbrandt. Washington State University soil scientist Dr. Joan ­Davenport also contributed.

White Heron Cellars is the oldest continuously operated winery in the area. Fries, the owner and winemaker, made his first wine in 1986 and planted his first vines in 1991. But White Heron wasn’t the first in the area. Champs de Brionne winery was the region’s first winery, starting in 1984, but it shut down for several years, reopening as Cave B Estate Winery in 2000.

Ancient soils and lakes

The Ancient Lakes AVA encompasses nearly 163,000 acres in Grant, Douglas, and Kittitas counties. Primary towns in the AVA are Quincy and George. Boundaries are the Beezley Hills to the north, Frenchman Hills to the south, the western shores of the Columbia River near West Bar to the west, and the manmade Winchester Wasteway to the east. Already, the AVA has a handful of commercial wineries and more than 1,500 acres of wine grapes, including part of the new 180-acre Spanish Castle Vineyard, a venture of the Flanagans and Milbrandts, planted last spring.

The appellation is named for some of the state’s most dramatic and unique landforms created some 15,000 years ago by the Missoula Floods. As flood waters rushed westward from the Quincy Basin, they scoured the topsoil down to the basalt bedrock and left behind troughs and pools, creating Quincy and Ancient Lakes (three small lakes) and an area called Potholes Coulee. Centuries later, winds blew in sand and silt, now layered above caliche and fractured basalt, to create fast-draining, low-nutrient soil ideally suited for growing premium wine grapes.

Cool region

Fries has been involved with the industry in the Ancient Lakes area since the mid-1980s. After studying viticulture and enology in Switzerland for five years, the Washington native returned to his home state. Fries was winemaker for several years at Champs de Brionne ­winery before launching his own winery and vineyard.

Fries says the area is influenced by a unique set of ­climatic conditions—moderating temperatures from the waters of the Columbia River, sloping landforms to the river that allow for air drainage, and a regional pocket that collects cold air from the central part of the state. “We often have snow here when there’s no snow in Moses Lake,” he said. “We’ll get snow when other AVAs don’t.”

He believes that the region’s cooler temperatures keep the vines in dormancy longer. When growers in other regions suffer 20 to 50 percent bud damage from arctic temperatures, he says he’ll have only slight damage, around 2 percent.

“I learned the importance of finding a good vineyard site for ripening when I studied in Switzerland,” Fries said. “In Washington, site selection is not so important for getting the grapes ripe, but for surviving winter and cold temperatures.”

Ancient Lakes is a cooler region than the Wahluke Slope that’s just 30 minutes south. Heat units accumulated during the growing season average 2,500 to 2,700. The cooler temperatures allow grapes to ripen slowly and develop bright aromatics, said Fries, adding that the area has proven to be exceptional for white varieties like ­Riesling, Chardonnay, and Pinot Gris. Fruit from the ­Milbrandts’ Evergreen Vineyard, a 950-plus-acre vineyard planted in 1998, is used by Chateau Ste. Michelle to make Eroica, a high-end Riesling wine made in conjunction with Germany’s Dr. Ernst Loosen.

But the Ancient Lakes AVA is not just a white wine region.

Fries explained that both red and white grapes grown in Ancient Lakes tend to have higher acids in general due to the area’s cooler temperatures. And because of the ­dramatic diurnal swings in daytime and nighttime ­temperatures, the grapes are able to retain their high acids.

Red grapes from Ancient Lakes are also high in tannins, he said, adding that he picked his Cabernet ­Sauvignon grapes during the last week in October at 28° Brix. He describes the red wines as those that reward ­cellaring before drinking.

“Saying that Ancient Lakes is good only for whites reminds me when people used to say that Washington State would be known just for its Riesling,” Fries said.

Arredondo, winemaker at Cave B, agrees that there are zones within the AVA where reds do well. “At Cave B, we grow 18 different varieties, and there are definitely areas where some do better than others,” he said, noting that reds do better on the cliff’s edge, closer in proximity to the river, and whites do better further away.

Arredondo says that while he’s had bud damage from past cold temperatures, he’s never lost a vine from trunk damage.

Grape pioneer

Vincent Bryan, one of the first to plant grapes in the state north of Interstate 90, could be considered the Ancient Lakes AVA grape pioneer. He planted the area’s first grapes in 1980 for his Champs de Brionne winery, falling in love with the rugged basalt outcroppings and cliffs, bunch grass and sagebrush.

“We thought we’d found a special spot for grapes,” said Bryan. “At the time, no other vines were in the area aside from some Labrusca grapes being grown by a few ­growers. I was like a sheepherder in cattle country.”

Bryan first planted a four-acre experimental vineyard to evaluate the area’s grape-growing potential, filling it with northern French varieties—Chenin Blanc, Riesling, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir. He quickly planted more diverse varieties, expanding the list of reds, because of the enormous climate variations he found.

Whites do very well on Bryan’s Cave B Estate vineyards, and most of the vineyard is planted to whites. “Clearly, the white grape piece is an important part of the region,” Bryan said. White grapes grown here have a very distinct flavor and are true to character, he says. “But a strip runs right along the cliff’s edge that is ideally suited for red grapes.”

Many of the double gold awards they’ve received have been from classic Italian and French red varieties like Tempranillo, Sangiovese, and Syrah.

Bryan believes that the future of the Ancient Lakes AVA will be in its vastness and ability to grow a wide diversity of varieties.