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.

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