Wade Wolfe in the tasting room of his Thurston Wolfe Winery in Prosser, Washington.

Wade Wolfe in the tasting room of his Thurston Wolfe Winery in Prosser, Washington.

Melissa Hansen

The thirtieth anniversary of Yakima Valley as an American Viticultural Area is an opportunity to inform consumers and trade groups  about the qualities of Yakima Valley grapes and wine and spread the new about changes in the region, says a wine ­industry veteran.

Wine Yakima Valley, a grower and winery association dedicated to promoting the region, is putting the spotlight on Yakima Valley this year through a variety of events. In March, the group sponsored an educational session on the history of the Yakima Valley AVA during Taste Washington, an annual consumer and media event held in Seattle.

This summer and fall, Wine Yakima Valley will host tours of the region’s wineries and the state’s oldest vineyards for consumers and media. The group will host several wine tastings with the Seattle wine trade to showcase the region’s wines.

These special events are in addition to traditional consumer events sponsored by the group, such as its February red wine and chocolate pairing, Spring ­Barrel Tasting, Catch the Crush, and Thanksgiving celebration tastings.

Up to the mid-1980s, most of the Washington State’s wine industry—its growers and wineries—were located in or near the Yakima Valley. As one of the state’s earliest wine grape growing regions, it was the center of the state’s wine industry, said Dr. Wade Wolfe, co-owner of Thurston Wolfe Winery. When wine writers and tourists wanted to visit wineries and see grape growing, “this was the place to come,” he said.

But as the industry matured and other growing regions developed, there was more to talk about, more places to visit, and more wine to taste. “In a way, Yakima Valley got forgotten about and lost,” he said during an exclusive interview with Good Fruit Grower.

Wolfe joined Washington State’s wine industry in 1978, and was vineyard operations director at Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery and general manager at Hogue Cellars before pursuing full-time winemaking in 2004 at Thurston Wolfe, the winery he and his wife, Becky, launched in 1987. Wolfe has been active in statewide winery and grower associations as well as grower and winery groups in Yakima Valley.

Getting lost

A combination of factors played a part in Yakima Valley losing recognition as a wine area, said Wolfe.

For one, Wolfe believes that the voluntary group organized to promote Yakima Valley wines had become complacent in the 1990s. The group was promoting only a few annual wine events and was not actively reaching out to wine writers, trade representatives, or even ­consumers on the west side of the state, he said.

Additionally, some Yakima Valley wineries were not staying as current as possible with winemaking practices, and in the early years, some ­varieties were planted in the wrong locations.

When the popularity of red wines exploded in the 1990s, Washington quickly tried to change from being ­primarily a producer of white wines. “There was a big expansion into red varieties, and red grapes were planted everywhere,” he said. “To be honest, a lot of mistakes were made in where varieties were planted, and there were some quality issues throughout the state.”

Some sites were too cool, others too hot, and ­overproduction in terms of yield was common.

“The result was that Yakima Valley was getting a ­reputation that its white wines were okay but reds, not so good,” Wolfe noted.

Less talked about, he said, has been the impact of clean planting material on wine quality.

When Washington’s first major grape expansion began in the 1970s and 1980s, plant material was imported from California nurseries because that was the only source for certified, virus-free plant stock.

Clean plants

In the 1990s, grapevine leafroll disease was observed in many vineyards throughout Washington, with heavy concentration of the disease in Yakima Valley, according to Wolfe. Little was known about the disease back then and it was generally thought that certified vines would stay clean once planted. Since then, researchers have found that insects can vector and spread the disease to healthy ­vineyards.

Wolfe, who studied how the disease got a foothold in the state’s vineyards, learned that many of the infected vineyards were ­propagated from cuttings of the ­original ­certified vines.

Leafroll disease-infected vineyards have since been replanted, but the disease can significantly impact grape quality by reducing yield, Brix, and other fruit attributes, and can delay ripening. Many believe that the ­disease may have played a role in reducing wine quality.

The state’s wine industry went through an evolution in the late 1990s and early 2000s, updating vineyards with different cultivars, replanting to match the right variety to the site, and winemaking techniques improved. Washington State University researchers helped provide the industry with viticulture and enology practices suited for conditions in the Pacific Northwest.

Yakima Valley also went through an evolution, Wolfe said.

“We knew better where to put varieties, winery practices improved, and overall, wine quality in Yakima Valley improved,” he said, adding that the regional grower and winery groups also saw need for stepped up promotion efforts.

In 2003, two regional groups—one supported by growers, one supported by ­wineries—merged into Wine Yakima Valley. An executive director was hired to educate consumers, trade, and media and a website and wine touring information developed.

“We realized that we needed to focus on re-educating and updating the trade and media of the changes that had taken place in the Valley and make them aware of the current situation and the wine quality we now have,” said Wolfe. “Yakima Valley has as much to offer in terms of wine quality as any other region. In fact, we provide other grape and winemaking areas, such as Walla Walla and Woodinville, with fruit to make their wines.”

Tooting your own horn is more challenging today, considering there are more than 750 bonded wineries and 13 recognized AVAs in the state.

“Because there are so many wineries and so many wine regions, it makes you tend to focus on your own region,” he said. “I’m sure there’s a ­dilution effect because we’re all ­competing for the same market, the same ­consumer.”

Summer tour

Wine Yakima Valley will host a summer tour on July 27 for the general public.

The tour will visit:
Kestrel View Estates, home to some of the state’s oldest Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and ­Malbec vineyards;
DuBrul Vineyard, one of the region’s highly acclaimed ­vineyards; and
Kiona Vineyards, planted by pioneer John Williams in what would become Red Mountain, a sub-appellation of Yakima ­Valley.
For information about purchasing ­tickets, go on-line to wineyakimavalley.org.