Yakima Valley celebrates 40 Years of cultivating Washington’s finest grapes

This New Year’s was particularly special across the Washington State wine industry. As the clock struck midnight, Yakima Valley grape growers and winemakers started celebrating their 40th anniversary as part of the first American Viticultural Area (AVA) established in the Pacific Northwest.

I often write about the current accolades of the appellation’s wines and growing qualities, but let’s look at a brief overview of what lead up to the Yakima Valley AVA being recognized as the PNW’s first AVA.

USA, Washington, Yakima Valley. Elephant Mountain vineyard in Yakima Valley.

In early 1983, the federal government designated the Yakima Valley as the first winegrowing appellation north of California. Across the following four decades, the Yakima Valley wine industry has consistently justified its status as the “first growth” of Washington State. From the earliest vintages until today, the Yakima Valley has grown more wine grapes for Washington wineries than any other appellation. Simultaneously, it has cultivated most of the best wine in the region, since award-winning wineries from Woodinville to Walla Walla to the Willamette Valley have grown to greatness through their use of Yakima Valley grapes.

The first grape vines in the valley are credited to a French winemaker named Charles Schanno, who in 1869 planted cuttings taken from the famous Hudson’s Bay Company trading outpost at nearby Fort Vancouver. But it was not until the very early 20th century that Seattle attorney William B. Bridgman pioneered the modern wine industry in the Valley. Many of the vineyards established across the region during this time were planted from Bridgman’s own vine cuttings.

Following the hiatus of Prohibition, Bridgman opened Upland Winery and initiated some of the earliest varietal labeling for American wines.  Scientific support for viticulture, or the craft of grape growing, began in the Yakima Valley as early as 1917.  That same year a 200-acre plot of near the city of Prosser was designated as an agriculture research site. This facility hired Dr. Walter Clore, who initiated grape plantings that proved vital to the ascent Washington State wine industry.

Today’s Yakima Valley wine landscape likely emerged in 1962, when Associated Vintners purchased a 5.5-acre site near the town of Sunnyside. It was recommended by the pioneering Bridgeman for its elevation – above frosts along the valley floor – and the south-southwest-facing slopes that take advantage of Eastern Washington State’s sunshine. This became the Harrison Hill Vineyard, which is now farmed by the Newhouse Family for DeLille Cellars.

More remarkable vineyards came into being during the following decade. Mike Sauer planted his first three acres of Cabernet Sauvignon at Red Willow in 1973. Forty years later, grapes from Red Willow’s 140 acres supply many of America’s finest winemakers. At almost the same time, in 1975, John Williams and Jim Holmes started with a dozen acres at Kiona on Red Mountain. Today, both Kiona and neighboring Ciel du Cheval supply fruit to Washington State’s top wine labels.

During the 1980s the Yakima Valley experienced a boom in the planting of new vineyards and the opening of new wineries. These included Hogue Cellars and Covey Run, both established in 1982, and Chinook Wines in 1983.

Then on March 23, 1983, the Yakima Valley appellation was officially designated by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. It was the first American Viticultural Area (AVA) in Washington State, and the only recognized AVA north of California at that time. Just four wineries operated in the new appellation: Kiona Vineyard and Winery, Hinzerling Winery, Yakima River Winery, and Tucker Cellars. But some of our region’s finest vineyards were coming on stream in those years, including the now-famous Boushey in 1980, Klipsun in 1984, and many more.

The Yakima Valley AVA now cultivates 19,000 acres of vineyards, and is home to five sub AVAs; Red Mountain, Rattlesnake Hills, Snipes Mountain, Candy Mountain and Goose Gap. Yakima and Benton counties are home to more than 200 wineries, and collectively they make up more than half of the wine production in Washington State.


Published in the Yakima Herald Republic Jan. 13, 2023.



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