19 Feb Yakima Valley farming families and local research have cultivated Washington State’s best wine grapes
Scientific support for viticulture, or the craft of grape growing, began in the Yakima Valley as early as 1917. It was then that William Bridgman planted a vinifera vineyard on Snipes Mountain in Sunnyside. Remarkably, those original vines are still bearing fruit. They are now part of Upland Vineyards, which has been farmed by three generations of the Newhouse family since 1972.
During the past four decades, the Sauer family has been tending the Red Willow Vineyard at the far western edge of the Yakima Valley, in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. Mike Sauer worked with Washington State University scientist Dr. Walter Clore to plant Cabernet Sauvignon vines in 1973. Grape clusters are still harvested from those old vines, as well as from another 140 acres that Mike and his son Jonathan now farm for dozens of Washington State’s finest wineries.
At the far eastern end of the valley, John Williams planted the first vineyard in 1975. Those initial 10 or 12 acres have since been expanded to more than 300 acres now farmed by his son Scott, and grandson J.J. for their own winery, Kiona Vineyard & Winery and other leading labels across the region.
These are just a few of many families who have made the Yakima Valley the best wine-growing appellation in Washington. Yakima Valley farming families have achieved much from hard work and a lot of pioneering trial and error. But they also have benefited from a mutually productive relationship with Washington State University’s agricultural research station located in Prosser, WA. The WSU Irrigated Agriculture Research & Extension Center (IAREC) began test-planting hundreds of grape varieties in the Yakima Valley back in 1937.
During the 1980s, the center developed strategies to support vine hardiness during colder conditions, which some years can make the difference between a successful crop and no crop at all. The 1990s then delivered remarkable research into deficit irrigation methods, which both improved wine quality and reduced the industry’s water usage by as much as 30 percent. More recently, the center’s work has successfully tackled vine bacteria and viral problems decreasing the need for insecticides—the usage of which dropped 80 percent during the decade to 2005. These are just a handful of many substantial accomplishments that have helped make the Yakima Valley grape-growing industry such a triumph.
What do these vineyards and local scientific research mean to the wines of the Yakima Valley, or more appropriately, the wines of Washington State as a whole? Look at the back labels on bottles produced anywhere from Woodinville to Walla Walla, and you will discover that top Washington wineries have grown to greatness with Yakima Valley grapes. The largest concentration of the most famous vineyards in the Pacific Northwest are found in the Yakima Valley. The confluence of topography, climate, farming families, and viticultural research in this region are like nowhere else on Earth.
The vineyard-specific characters are notable across multiple styles. For example, with a little practice, almost anyone can distinguish a bold red wine from Upland Vineyard versus one from Kiona, or a rich white from Red Willow versus one from DuBrul. They all appeal in different ways, yet they all are expressions of Yakima Valley. See for yourself, and discover the Yakima Valley landscape in your glass.