Road Trippin’ with WineGuyMike™ to the Columbia Valley in the incredible wine country of Washington State

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This week’s question was submitted by Urban Bear Don’t Walk

Q. Urban asks; Mike what is a good “quick and dirty” trip to Washington wine country?

A. Well my friend Urban I’m going to have to immediately recommend the Columbia Valley in Washington State.  When I was young I used to dream of living in the wine country, of California that is.  Here I am a “few years” later and you know what I do live near the wine country, in the Northwest United States.  Oregon and Washington are arguably some of the best wine regions in the world.  Quick and dirty Urban for me is the Columbia Valley, just a short trip from Western Montana.  Almost right in our backyard, oh that’s right it is our backyard.  Back when Missoula was Lake Missoula and flooded and took its alluvial soils with it to Washington.  Layers of soil blessed with the alluvial soil material and layers of volcanic ash and rock that have created amazing soil to grow grapes in.  The days are warm to hot and the night air is cool, perfect for growing world class grapes that make fabulous wines.  There are well over 100 hundred wineries to visit within a 60 mile radius of the immediate Columbia Valley.  Urban if you really want something down and dirty try a short road trip to Spokane, there are 27 tasting rooms in Spokane featuring the wines of the Columbia Valley and other viticultural regions within the greater Columbia Valley.  Once you get there I think this may qualify as a wine trail hike to move from one tasting room to another, all kidding aside a road trip is well worth a small effort for those of us residing in Western Montana.

The Columbia Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA) is the largest in the state of Washington.  It includes the Yakima Valley, Red Mountain, Walla Walla, and Horse Heaven Hill AVAs within its boundaries. 

The Columbia Valley AVA was established in 1984 and it is Washington State’s largest viticultural region covering 11 million acres and which is nearly one third of the state’s land mass.  99% of the grapes that are grown in Washington State come from the Columbia Valley.  There are many meso-climates and micro-climates within this vast valley.  Most of the vineyards in the valley are planted on south facing slopes which provide better sun exposure and allows the air currents to flow through the vineyards during the sometimes harsh winter months.  The varietals that are most prevalent in the Columbia Valley are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Riesling.  The Columbia Valley is home to the American Viticultural Regions of Red Mountain, Yakima and Walla Walla Valleys, Wahluke Slope, Rattlesnake Hills, Horse Heaven Hills, Snipes Mountain, and Lake Chelan.

An AVA is a grape-growing region that is defined unique geographic features.  These regions are designated by The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) at the request of wineries and other petitioners.

America’s counterparts overseas known as European appellations dictate the type of grapes grown, how the wines are made, and in some cases the amount of grapes harvested. AVA’s do not interfere with grape growing, picking, or wine making.

Now we’ll travel through the other viticultural regions of the Columbia Valley that are also AVA’s because of their distinguishable geographic features that were identified by the petitioners and recognized by The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.

The Yakima Valley AVA was established in 1983 and was Washington State’s first appellation recognized by the Federal Government.  There are more than 60 wineries in the Yakima Valley.  Vineyards are planted on 16,042 acres, this is more than one third of the states vineyard acres.  Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Riesling are the most popular varitals in this AVA but Syrah is really on the rise.  The Yakima Valley has soil that contains silt and loam is very favorable for grape vines as it allows for the type of drainage necessary to grow great grapes.  The Yakima Valley is also noted for great fruit production other than grapes as well.

 In the Walla Walla Valley AVA that was established in 1984 grape growing began in the 1850s by Italian immigrants, what does that tell you? There are over 100 wineries in this region that have planted vines on over 1,600 acres.  The predominant varietals are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Syrah.  Sangiovese grows very well in Walla Walla which is why the Italians chose this area I can promise you.  But here are some of the other varietals that are becoming known in this region; Gewurztraminer, Cabernet Franc, Grenache, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Tempranillo, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillion, and Viognier.  The soil in this region like others in the Columbia Valley are the result of layers of alluvial soil from the Lake Missoula floods and volcanic eruptions.  This type of bedrock creates incredible growing grounds for grapes.

The Puget Sound AVA which was established in 1995 is very small encompassing only 69 acres of planted grapes, but there are 45 wineries within this region which makes wine tasting easily accessible and fun.  This region due to the maritime influence has mild summers and mild winters.  This appellation whose main varietals are Madeleine Angevine, Siegerebbe and Muller-Thurgau with Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir looking promising is drier and has more sun then other comparable grape growing regions in Europe.  Beneath the top layer of soil is a semi-permeable sub-soil that allows these deep rooted varietals to survive the late summer soil moisture deficit.

The Red Mountain AVA was established in 2001 on the eastern edge of the Yakima Valley.  There are 1,199 acres of grapes planted in this region on steep slopes that face Southwest toward the Yakima River.  There are 15 or so wineries in this area and their focus are on the Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Sangiovese, Malbec, and Petit Verdot varietals.  This is a desert climate with growing season daytime temperatures average 90 °F with night time temperatures dropping below 50 °F.

 The Columbia Gorge AVA was established in 2004 includes areas in Washington State and Oregon with more than 20 wineries in the area.  This is a 300 square mile area with 191,000 acres. There are only 500 planted acres on vines.  The region parallels the Columbia River in both Washington and Oregon.  The Columbia Gorge and the southwestern part of the Columbia Valley American Viticultural Areas are in this region.   The Columbia Gorge is dramatic transition from high eastern desert to cool maritime climate as the Columbia River runs through Cascade Mountain Range on its way to the Pacific Ocean.  The Columbia Gorge provides perfect soil, climate, and geography with distinct micro-climates that host almost every varietal imaginable.   As rainfall diminishes at almost an inch per mile in this region sunshine increases at exponentially.  The Western vineyards have a maritime influence perfect for cool weather varietals like Pinot Noir, Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Riesling.  The high desert Eastern vineyards are home to varietals that thrive with less rain and hot sun Bordeaux, Rhone and Italian varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Zinfandel and Barbera.  Here is the extensive list of varietals grown in the Columbia Gorge; Albarino, Aglianico, Barbera, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet  Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Dolcetto, Gamay,Gewurtztraminer, Grenache, Gruner Vertliner, Lemberger, Malbec, Marsanne, Merlot, Mourvedre, Muscat, Nebbiolo, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Primitivo, Riesling, Roussanne, Sangiovese, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, Tempranillo, Viognier, White Riesling and Zinfandel.  All I can say is wow and let’s hit the road Urban.

The Horse Heaven Hills AVA was established in 2005 is located in Southeast Washington State bordered by the Yakima Valley to the North and the Columbia River on the South.  25% of Washington State’s grape production comes from this region which is planted with 10,130 acres of grapes.  Predominate grape varietals include Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Syrah, and Riesling.  There are 37 total varietals represented is this region the vines are on steep south facing slopes that have sandy-loam type soil that provides great drainage for the vines.  Because of the proximity to the Columbia River this region receives constant brezes that moderate the temperatures.  The elevations in this region range from 1,880 feet in th North to 300 feet in the southern portion.

When visiting this area these are a few of the outstanding wine properties you should make a point of visiting; Alder Ridge, Andrews-Horse Heaven Vineyard, Canoe Ridge, Champoux Vineyards and Wallula Gap Vineyard.  There are 25 vineyards and 6 large commercial grape growing operations.  It is important to note that this region produced the first three “100 point” wines for the state.

The Wahluke Slope AVA was established in 2006 with its boundaries are the Columbia River on the west and south, the Saddle Mountains to the north, and the Hanford Reach National Monument to the east.  This AVA is entirely within the Columbia Valley appellation and home to more than 20 wineries.  There are 5,652 planted grape acres in this area which represents about 15% of the wine grape acres in Washington State.  The Wahluke Slope has one of the driest, warmest climates in the state, allowing nearly complete control of vine vigor and ripening through irrigation.  Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Chardonnay, and Chenin Blanc are the main varietals being produced in this area.  I personally love what the grapes extract from the soil in this region, a true sense of place.

The Rattlesnake Hills AVA was established in 2006 and is only four miles southeast of Yakima.  There are 1,566 planted grape acres in this area.  The Rattlesnake Hills AVA lies within both the established Columbia Valley and Yakima Valley appellations with an elevation beginning 850 feet and rising up to 3,085 feet.  There are 17 wineries and 29 vineyards which are typically located on ridges and terraces.  This provides good air drainage that protects the vineyards from late spring and early fall frost and winter kill.  The primary varietals you’ll find in this area are Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay and Riesling which are sourced by producers from around the state.

Ben Snipes was a rancher who built a house and settled his cattle operation on a Yakima Valley mountain north of the Yakima River in the 1850’s, which later known as Snipes Mountain.  The Snipes Mountain AVA was established in 2009 and this area also includes Harrison Hill to the east.  Both of these slopes have rocky soils at elevation.  There are 759 of planted grape acres in this area that is home to 30 different grape varietals used by 25 wineries.  Six Wineries are located in the Snipes Mountain AVA.  The topography, elevation, and soil are unique within the Yakima Valley AVA.

Lake Chelan is a very desirable summer destination in Washington State who’s AVA was established in 2009.  This AVA is situated at a high elevation with a moderate lake effect climate that is more temperate than AVA’s located in the southern portion of the Columbia Valley.  Soils in this area are a result of glacial alluvial soil matter that is coarse, sandy sediment with significant quartz and mica minerals.  The result is wine with distinct textures and minerality. 

The Lake Chelan AVA includes southern and eastern portions that surround the lake and shares a northern border with the Columbia Valley AVA.  I have enjoyed a incredible Viognier from this area.  There are 227 of planted grape acres in this area that was originally farmed by Native Americans and Italian immigrants at the beginning of the 20th Century.  15 wineries are located in this AVA producing wines from the Syrah, Merlot, Malbec, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir varietals.

The Cold Creek sub-region benefits from a southerly facing slope of the Columbia River which enjoys one of the longest growing seasons in the Columbia Valley.  Little rainfall and soil consisting of silt loam produce very intense and concentrated fruit.  Cold Creek is part of a high plateau that runs along the south side of the Columbia River and is particularly noted for its Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.

The Columbia Basin/Snake River sub-region is where the Columbia, Yakima and Snake rivers meet.  The area surrounding the Tri-Cities, which includes the broad hills bordering each side of the Snake River, is benefited by a good climate and ample irrigation.  Several large vineyards have achieved reputations for excellent Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and other varietals.

A few wine recommendations from WineGuyMike

2008 Sharecropper’s Cabernet Sauvignon $16.99


2008 Sharecropper's Cabernet Sauvignon from Owen Roe

2008 Sharecropper's Cabernet Sauvignon from Owen Roe


The fruit for the 2008 Sharecropper Cabernet Sauvignon is all Columbia Valley AVA. With a beautifully long Indian summer the 2008 vintage yielded perfectly ripe fruit with lithe bright acidity.  This wine has a beautiful nose ripe with blueberries, black currants, dark cherries and wild strawberries. A nice long finish lingers with flavors of licorice, olives and cedar.  Muscular, but not a brute, firm tannins and elegant structure will let this wine age beautifully over 4-6 years.

Reininger “Helix” Red Wine 2005  $21.95 


Reininger Helix Red Wine 2005

Reininger Helix Red Wine 2005


Chuck Reininger on is 2005 Helix Cabernet Sauvignon: “Yoga for the Palate! Permit this wine to reelaxxx for awhile.  While sitting straight up with eyes closed, focus on the Helix (the wine and the shape) by swirling the Cabernet around on your palate.  Without swallowing, gently inhale once or twice to unravel the fruit in this wine.  You’ll discover black raspberry, plum and cassis layered with caramelized oak, a barely perceptible hint of clove and very fine tannins. Swallow. Exhale.  Life is gooood.” With only 784 cases made, and riding on the platinum lined shirt-tails of the 2004 Helix Cab, this wine is bound to vanish quickly.

2008 Firehouse Red $16.00


Tamarack Cellars 2008 Firehouse Red

Tamarack Cellars 2008 Firehouse Red

 Rated as one of the top 100 WS wines for 2010 it tastes like really, really good red wine. This wine is rounded, lush, layered and lovely, the ultimate food wine, pairing well with everything from pasta and pizza to grilled meat and roasted chicken.  Bright with fruits of raspberry, currant, mocha, a touch of pepper spice, soft tannins and a lingering finish… year in and year out, it’s like partying with an old friend.

  • 37% Cabernet Sauvignon
  • 30% Syrah
  • 16% Merlot
  • 7% Cabernet Franc

14 Hands Hot to Trot Red Blend  $12.00


14 Hands Hot to Trot Red Blend

14 Hands Hot to Trot Red Blend


Generous aromas of ripe berries and dark stone fruits open this ruby-hued wine. Fleshy flavors of cherries and plum are met with soft and velvety tannins, finishing with a hint of mocha.  This wine is made predominantly from the varietals Syrah, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Mourvedre.

"from my table to yours"

"from my table to yours"