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Thursday, Jan. 22, 2009

Washington's Snipes Mountain AVA among oldest wine regions

SUNNYSIDE -- One of Washington's first grape-growing regions has received federal approval to become its 10th appellation or American Viticultural Area.

Establishment of the Snipes Mountain AVA in Yakima County was published in the Federal Register on Wednesday and becomes official Feb. 20.

The 4,145-acre area needed its own designation, said Todd Newhouse, owner of Upland Estates Winery on the mountain. It allows wines made from grapes grown on Snipes Mountain to put the name on their labels.

"I think it just gives consumers a bit more education on where their grapes come from," said Newhouse, who submitted the AVA petition to the Alcohol at Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau nearly two years ago.

The newest AVA is among smallest in the Northwest and the second-smallest in Washington. The Red Mountain AVA is 4,040 acres, but less than a quarter of it is under cultivation.

Joan Davenport, a Washington State University soil scientist and professor based in Prosser, helped Newhouse with the research and writing of the petition, which required information about the area's history, geographical features and more.

"I'm so excited about the fact that we have an AVA," Davenport said.

She researched the area's geology and used geographic information systems to compile information about topography, soil types, elevation and more.

It's the first AVA petition that Davenport has worked on, and it offered a chance to do different work than her day job.

Plus, the area differs from its surroundings in many ways, she said, and, "I'm really excited that we get to recognize that."

Growers first planted vineyards on Snipes Mountain between 1914 and 1917, according to the federal document, which cites Ron Irvine's The Wine Project: Washington State's Winemaking History.

Upland Winery operated from 1934-72, and Newhouse said using the name for his winery revives a piece of history.

And while Newhouse is building on the past, the new designation gives another distinction to the state's growing wine industry.

"I think it's a big deal because as the industry moves forward, one of the things we hope to accomplish is to develop some geographic branding," said Alan Busacca, a former WSU professor and owner of Vinitas Vineyards Consultants.

Several features distinguish Eastern Washington, including its location in the rain shadow of the Cascade Mountain range and the effects the Lake Missoula floods had on the soils where many grapes are grown, said Busacca, who has worked on petitions for several other AVAs in Washington.

But on Snipes Mountain and neighboring Harrison Hill, the soils are different.

"It's a modest-sized hill that sticks up right in the middle of the Yakima Valley," he said. "The climate is different than surrounding lands, and the geology is different."

The mountain was created by ancient fault activity, Busacca said, and is covered in many areas with fist- and melon-sized gravel deposited by the ancient flow of the Columbia River.

"The soils are more dominated by these really ancient river sediments," he said.

The climate also allows for water drainage, so there's no stagnating moisture, and cold air can flow down hill, he said.

Wade Wolfe, owner/winemaker of Thurston Wolfe Winery in Prosser, who has made wine from Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from Snipes Mountain for about six years, called the area "one of the gems of the valley."

"I think there's going to be a lot of great things that come from the appellation," he said. "It offers a great opportunity to show off the characteristics of the fruit and wine that come from those areas."

A petition for the Lake Chelan AVA is pending. The TTB continues to work on it, spokesman Art Resnick said.

The AVAs give growers and winemakers a chance to further distinguish their product, said Robin Pollard, executive director of the Washington Wine Commission.

"The proliferation of AVAs really speaks to the growth of the Washington wine industry," she said. "We put so much emphasis on the climate and the soils of the various regions within the state. It gives us more to talk about when we're describing the wines from Washington."