On Wednesday Washington received its 12th American Viticultural Area (AVA) – Naches Heights. Here’s an in depth look at the state’s newest growing region.

Naches Heights is situated in Yakima County, lying between the small towns of Naches and Tieton, northwest of the city of Yakima. A million year old andesite lava flow, originating from the Goat Rocks, formed the region.

A subregion of the Columbia Valley viticultural area, Naches Heights is bounded by the Naches River to the north and east; the lower Tieton River to the west; and Cowiche Creek to the south and west. Andesite cliffs also help form the boundary to the north, east, and south. The area is 13,254 acres in size.

Elevations at Naches Heights range from 1,200 to 2,100 feet, making it considerably raised from much of the surrounding area. The plateau is generally flat, increasingly gently in elevation from southeast to northwest. The elevation and gentle grade help colder air drain into lower lying areas.

Naches Heights is distinct from a number of Washington’s growing regions in that it is above the level of the Missoula Floods, a series of cataclysmic events that occurred repeatedly 10,000 years ago. Unlike these areas, which have alluvial soils, Naches Heights is all windblown soil, or loess (pronounced ‘luss’), which continues to accumulate. The soil also contains a significant amount of clay, helping to retain water.

As a vinifera grape growing region, Naches Heights had its commercial start less than ten years ago when Phil Cline, a third generation farmer, decided it was time to get out of the tree fruit business. He sold off much of his land but kept a parcel in Naches Heights that had been in the family for three generations. A neighbor suggested he use the land to plant a vineyard. Cline decided to take the plunge.

In 2002 Cline planted Naches Heights Vineyard. The site is 24 acres with 7.5 acres planted to wine grapes. The vineyard is planted to Pinot Gris, Riesling, and Syrah (“I took a leap,” Cline says of the latter). Cline produced his first wines from his vineyard in 2005, a Pinot Gris and Riesling. “This was my way of staying in agriculture,” Cline says.

Meanwhile, winemaker Paul Beveridge of Wilridge Winery had been looking to buy a piece of vineyard property for five or six years, ideally something that would cut down on his commute back and forth to Seattle. When he ran into Phil Cline at a wine event, Cline suggested he look at property in Naches Heights. Beveridge says of his vineyard site, “I took one look at it and said, ‘This is just incredible!’ We bought it the next day.”

Vineyard plantings at Wilridge Vineyard began in 2007, and 12 acres are currently planted to 23 different varieties as a test block. So far, Beveridge, who got his first fruit off the vineyard in 2009, has been pleased with the results, saying, “Anything cold hardy does well.”

Though Wilridge and Naches Heights are currently the only two wineries in the area, other winemakers and growers have begun moving in. Robert Goodfriend of Harlequin Wine Cellars has a seven-acre piece of property with 2.5 acres planted to Sauvignon Blanc, Gruner Veltliner (an extreme rarity in Washington), Malbec, and Grenache in 2008. That same year, Strand Vineyard was planted to five-acre of Graciano, Syrah, Tempranillo, Malbec, and Cinsault. In 2009 three additional acres were planted to Gewurztraminer, Riesling, and Pinot Gris. Aecetia Vineyard, owned by Doug MacKinnon, is 7.3 acres planted to five different varietals. Keller Vineyard is planted to one acre of Syrah. Finally, there are small plantings of Chenin Blanc and Marquette near Tieton.

This brings total plantings in Naches Heights to about 40 acres at present – less than a single vineyard in some areas. Cline currently manages all of these properties.

Intriguingly, all of the Naches Heights AVA vineyards are farmed sustainably, biodynamically, or organically (see Table 1).

Table 1
Organic and Biodynamically farmed. LIVE and Salmon Safe certified.
Demeter Certified Organic and Biodynamic
Demeter Organic and Biodynamic not certified yet
Currently Salmon Safe certified LIVE Certification expect 2012
No certification at present
Certification process starts 2012 for LIVE and Salmon Safe
Paul Beveridge says of his decision to farm biodynamically, “I came from a wine quality standpoint. Some of the most exciting and delicious wines I tried were from biodynamic vineyards.”

As a growing region, Naches Heights is dry due to a rain shadow caused by the Cascade Mountains. The area receives 10 to 13 inches of precipitation annually. Naches Heights is also quite cool due to its elevation. “Some years we’re barely in the region of being able to get grapes ripe,” Cline says.

Below is a Growing Degree Day comparison of Naches Heights to other Washington AVAs for 2010 and 2011, both cool years. GDDs for 2005 to 2009 ranged from 2560 to 2945.

Table 2
Growing Degree Days
Naches Heights
Red Mtn
Walla Walla
Yakima Valley
Lake Chelan
Wahluke Slope

Cline began laying the groundwork for AVA designation in 2008. “It’s a lot of work,” he says of the process. Beveridge, a Seattle lawyer, eagerly joined in and became a driving force. Two students from Yakima Valley Community College were also instrumental in the project. The application was filed in January of 2009, almost a full two years ago.

So, now the important question. How does this new area express itself in the wines? These are, obviously, very early days with few vineyards planted and none that have seen more than a handful of vintages. Still, Cline and Beveridge believe they have started to see hallmarks of the area.

“The wines all have very distinct aromatics, more so than I find in some of the other areas,” Cline says. “The aromatics are all very big.” He also notes that the grapes retain their acidity. Beveridge agrees, saying, “We get nice preservation of acidity and great fruit expression due to the cooler nights.”

Now that the AVA is approved – it will be published in the Federal Register on January 13 – wineries will be able to label any wines that are currently in tank or barrel with the Naches Heights designation as long as at least 85% of the fruit is from the area.

While Cline is excited about receiving AVA designation, an early Christmas present, he says there is another side to it. “Now the pressure is on Paul and I to produce!”

Picture 1: Digital Elevation Model of Naches Heights, courtesy of Kevin Pogue, Whitman College
Picture 2: Andesite cliffs on Naches Heights, courtesy of Paul Beveridge
Picture 3: Aerial view of Wilridge Vineyard, couresty of Paul Beveridge