Friday, November 28, 2014

Love the AVA, but Hate the Name or Which Will Sell More Wine – Yakima Valley or Rattlesnake Hills?

I have spent 20+ years trying to promote the Yakima Valley AVA. I gave up and petitioned the TTB to form the Rattlesnake Hills AVA.
I remember the olden days before the Rattlesnake Hills when Ste. Michelle bought most of its grapes from the Yakima Valley, but labeled them Columbia Valley. We tried in vain as the Yakima Valley Wine Growers to get them to recognize the AVA and put it on their labels. They never did. Maybe for good reason. They quit buying red grapes from the Yakima Valley a few years back. Seems the wines from Wahluke and Horse Heaven Hills were superior.
The Yakima Valley is an incredibly diverse AVA with soils ranging from deep alluvial bottom lands (90% of the AVA) where grapes cannot be grown to rocky shallow soils (ancient cobbles) of the Ellensburg Formation. The climate ranges from barely region I in the colder areas to a low Region IV in the warmer areas. This renders the AVA on a label totally meaningless.
I think the Yakima Valley AVA got a bad rap in the early days being the first AVA in the state. Honestly a lot of the wines were poorly made back then. Ste Michelle came along with professional quality wines under the Columbia Valley AVA. Walla Walla had some talented wine makers using the Walla Walla AVA and then Red Mountain came along with good wines and the Yakima Valley faded into ‘not very good’. A Seattle wine writer once wrote, “The wine gets better the further east you go.”
Then there is the reputation of Yakima (not in the AVA) for being a gang-bang city, but we don’t want to go there. I consider it as safe as, well maybe safer than, downtown Seattle.
I can name five well-known wineries investing heavily in the Rattlesnake Hills AVA, but are ashamed to market their wines labeled with the AVA. Their wines are labeled under the generic Yakima Valley AVA.
So what is it about rattlesnakes that bothers you? Every place in eastern Washington less than 4000 feet elevation is rattlesnake country. If you are looking for rattlesnakes, don’t bother looking in the AVA. They are few and far between. Try anywhere along the Columbia River.
The Rattlesnake Hills AVA was carved out of the Yakima Valley for the reason of defining an area similar to the Horse Heaven Hills and Walla Walla in terms of heat units (growing degree days). It is recognized for its ability to produce high quality Bordeaux-style red wines. The Yakima Valley is known for somewhat vegetative reds in many years.
There is even a prestigious wine from California from the Rattlesnake Hill Vineyard. It got a 96 in the Spectator and sells for $110 a bottle. The name is catchy and it sells – much better than Yakima.
Maryhill Winery is one that uses Rattlesnake Hills on award winning wines. They currently have three releases from the Rattlesnake Hills.
The marketing power is there should you plan to use it. If you are not going to use Rattlesnake Hills, you would be better off with the more generic Columbia Valley and thereby drop any negative connotations associated with Yakima.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Arctic Outbreak or Déjà Vu All Over Again

I hate to say it, but I told you so. This is the second Arctic Outbreak this year and we are only in November. Let's hope it gets it out of its system before things get really cold up north.
Tuesday night, November 11/12 temperatures dipped into the teens across Eastern Washington.
Buena Station (WSU recorded a low of 18.9o. Buena is the coldest station in the Rattlesnake Hills AVA. Walla Walla was a chilly 16.1o. Patterson recorded 17.0 o.
Since the vines still had green leaves  WSU had not started cold hardiness testing yet, so we don't know at what temperature bud loss starts to occur.
According to the WSU model, we should be fine with no loss. Of course the tip buds are toast, but those are not used in Washington to produce fruit since most everyone uses spur pruning instead of cane pruning.
The rest of the week is forecast to be near or below freezing. This means good cold hardiness will develop quickly.
Am I going out to check for dead buds? No way. It's freezing out there. It's not important information until pruning time at the end of February at which time pruning can be adjusted for damage.
Let's all hope the Grumpy Winemaker is wrong and this really isn't a pattern for the rest of the winter.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Growing Degrees days for 2014. And the Winner is..

The Wahluke Slope, but there was plenty of heat to go around this summer. Even the Yakima Valley, known for cool climate grapes, came up with enough heat units to ripen Bordeaux reds this year.
There was little to complain about this year, except maybe high sugars. The season started normally with no frost here in the Rattlesnake Hills. Early season was normal with little hint of the heat to come and stay. Because of the sustained high temperatures, powdery mildew was not a problem. Veraison occurred about ten days early followed by a dry, beautiful, sunny fall. The harvest was a wrap by mid October - then is started to rain and is raining still - great moisture for heading into winter.

2014 Degree Day Summary (WSU
Red Mountain
Horse Heaven
Rattlesnake Hills
Walla Walla
Yakima Valley

How much warmer was it? Well here is the average of the last six years which includes 2011, the coldest on record. (WSU
Horse Heaven
Red Mountain
Rattlesnake Hills
Walla Walla
Yakima Valley

It is interesting to note that Horse Heaven edged out (though not statistically significant) Red Mountain over the six year period.
In conclusion, if you are growing heat-loving vines like Zinfandel or Italian varieties, Wahluke is the place to be. On the other hand, for cool climate Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Chardonnay, head for Prosser. For Bordeaux Reds stay in the middle.