YAKIMA, Wash. - Several wineries and vineyard owners in Eastern Washington are banding together to garner recognition for a specific wine-grape growing region northwest of Yakima.
Washington state already has nine such American Viticultural Areas - or appelations - that are federally recognized on the basis of their distinct climates and soil features.
The difference this time around: All of the vineyards in Naches Heights are going organic.
"I don't think there's any way we could force anybody to be organic," said Phil Cline of NHV Winery in Naches. "It's kind of fun that the people up here are going that direction. We're hoping that by leading, we can all go that way in the future."
"It's probably an ambitious goal, but I think it's a worthy one," he said.
Harlequin Cellars, NHV Winery and Wilridge Winery, which all own vineyard land in the Naches Heights area, petitioned the federal government for AVA recognition in August. The federal government initially rejected that request, seeking more information, and the group is correcting their proposal to submit for a second try.
Cline says they're hopeful the Naches Heights area will become the state's 10th appellation sometime next year.
"Most of the areas in the state have multiple layers of different soil types," he said. "This area is special because it's all one type of dirt. It's all volcanic - Andesite lava rather than basalt - and that makes it fairly unique."
Andesite lava, when it cools, forms crystals in a round, soft pattern, whereas basalt forms lava with straight crystals, he said. There's no evidence the former is necessarily better for growing wine grapes; it's just different.
At 13,254 acres, the proposed appellation would run from the confluence of the Naches River and Cowiche Creek to the confluence of the Naches and Tieton rivers, all northwest of Yakima in central Washington. The elevation ranges from 1,182 feet on the eastern border to 2,100 feet on the western tip, making it one of the highest appellations in Washington state.
The lava at those high elevations acts as a heat sink, warming the vineyards during the day and continuing to radiate heat in the cool evenings and helping to regulate the temperature, Cline said.
"Don't get me wrong, this isn't the banana belt up here," he said. "But it is as warm as some places in the Yakima Valley that you would think would be a lot warmer."
Appellation status can be significant to wineries that may be looking to change their labels to reflect where they get the grapes that go into their wine. At least one other region in the state has been seeking appellation status: the Chelan area in north-central Washington.
Wilridge Winery owner and winemaker Paul Beveridge said he purchased grapes from some of the best vineyards across Washington for the past 20 years.
"I decided to plant grapes on Naches Heights because I think it has the potential to produce the finest wines in Washington state," he said.
Only about 20 acres are in grapes in the Naches Heights area right now, but at least two more vineyards, or about 10 acres, are being planted.
A 40-acre organic raspberry patch and a 10-acre blueberry patch also sit in the area, as well as acres of orchards, but Cline said he expects to see even more wine grapes planted in the future.
A lifelong farmer in the area, he first planted grapes in 2002.
"Everybody was very skeptical about it, but I lived here all my life, and I kind of knew where I could plant grapes to make it work," he said. "The wine quality has been very exceptional. That's why it's not Phil's follies anymore."