Story of Washington’s Columbia Valley Soils

Fifteen thousand years ago, during the last Ice Age, an enormous two thousand foot high ice dam formed near what is now the northern border of Montana and Idaho. When the ice dam weakened and erupted due to the enormous pressure from Lake Missoula, a giant wall of water equal to ten times all of the world’s rivers — the Missoula Floods — ripped through what are now central Idaho, eastern Washington and northeastern Oregon.

A rich brew of minerals and silts were created as these waters churned toward the Pacific Ocean. Easterly-blowing winds then lifted these deposits from western Oregon and Washington back to what is now the Columbia Valley. Thus the soils for our Riesling Vineyards were born. There’s a reason that Pacific Rim’s home is in the Columbia Valley — the region provides ideal terroir for Riesling. Soils found nowhere else in the world combined with an arid climate with cool evenings year-round are the perfect ingredients for growing world-class Riesling.

Washington Wine FACTS

  • 700+ wineries producing over 12 million cases
  • More than 43,000 vineyard acres and 13 American Viticultural Areas (AVAs)
  • Economic impact of US: $8 billion
  • #2 wine producer in the U.S.
  • #1 Riesling producer in the U.S.
  • Riesling #1 varietal in Washington
  • Continental climate influenced by Cascade range
  • Mineral soils created by the Missoula Floods
  • Managed irrigation due to 8” of annual rains


  • Columbia Valley River basin
  • Snow run-off to feed rivers and canals
  • Underground aquifers (wells)


  • 40° F difference from day to night
  • Grapes ripen during the day, vines rest at night
  • Natural balance of sugars (alcohol) and acids


  • 17 hours per day during the growing season
  • “Burgundy in the desert”
  • 300 days per year
  • High-intensity light
  • Warm=Ripe grapes


Washington State is a premium wine producing region located in the northwest corner of the United States with over 36,000 (31,000 vinifera) acres of vineyards. Incredibly diversified climate and ideal geography offer perfect conditions for producing quality wines, year in and year out. Grapes are Washington’s fourth largest fruit crop.

Washington is the nation’s second largest wine producer and rated among the world’s top wine regions though it is a relatively young wine industry. According to Washingtonwines.org, the first wine grapes were planted at Fort Vancouver by the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1925. By 1910, wine grapes were growing in many areas of the state. Hybrid varieties arrived in nurseries in the Puget Sound Region as early as 1854 and by 1860 wine grapes were planted in the Walla Walla Valley.

While grapes were being grown in Washington, it was not until large scale irrigation from runoff of the melting snows of the Cascade Mountains, was winemaking in the east kicked into high gear in the Yakima Valley. As Italian and German varietals began to be planted in the Yakima and Columbia Valleys, wine grape growing rapidly expanded. While Prohibition in 1920 may have put a damper on commercial production, it created an interest in home winemaking. As Prohibition ended, the first bonded winery in the northwest was founded on Puget Sound’s Stretch Island. A few short years later, in 1938, there were 42 wineries to be found throughout the state.

Large plantings, through the efforts of early producers like Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia Winery in the 1960s, attracted the attention of wine writer and historian Leon Adams and famed winemaker Andre’ Tchelistcheff who, in turn, gave their stamp of approval to this new area. Rapid winery expansion occurred in the 1970s and continues today.

To promote their wines, Washington State founded the Washington Wine Commission, a marketing and trade organization in 1987. The Commission also established a Washington Wine Quality Alliance in 1999 to develop industry standards in winemaking and labeling. Washington is the first state in the U.S. to define standards for reserve wines. In 1999 the Washington Wine Quality Alliance (WWQA) was formed by a diverse committee of wine industry members within the state to spearhead development of industry standards in winemaking and labeling. Under the WWQA umbrella, the nation’s first definition of the term “reserve” was defined. In Washington this will translate to no more than 3,000 cases or 10% of a winery’s production as a reserve wine and indicates the winemaker’s designation of this wine as higher quality than most wines from the winery.

Wines labeled as being from Washington State must be 100% from the state or a Washington American Viticultural Area (AVA) or the label must identify the percentage of wine from each source. Varietal labeling will require that wines contain at least 75% of that varietal. In addition, the generic use of Champagne, Burgundy, Bordeaux and Chablis on labels will be disbanded. Participation in the WWQA by Washington wineries is voluntary and began with the 2000 vintage. Wineries following WWQA guidelines are identified by use of the WWQA logo.

Washington produces more than 30 different wine grape varieties, about 52 percent white to 48 percent red, in its 12 different AVAs (American Viticultural Areas – the TTB {Alcohol, Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau} defines an AVA as “a delimited grape-growing region distinguishable by geographic features {in order to} allow vintners and consumers to attribute a given quality, reputation or other characteristic of a wine made from grapes grown in an area to its geographical origin.”)

The AVAs are:

1. Puget Sound – offers a temperate climate with rare freezes and long, mild, dry summers. The core of this AVA has a drier and sunnier growing season than many of the classic wine regions of Europe. Precipitation averages about 15 inches, mostly falling in the winter, with a growing season of over 180 days. Madeline Angevine, Siegerebbe and Muller-Thurgau are the predominant varietals and Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir seem to do well here, too.

2. Columbia Gorge – includes areas in Washington State and Oregon; it is located sixty miles east of Portland, Oregon/Vancouver, Washington. The Columbia Gorge Wine Region is defined by the Columbia River Gorge, a narrow passage that marks the dramatic transition from eastern desert to cool maritime as the Columbia River cuts its way through the Cascades to the Pacific. The region encompasses the corridor flanking the river in both Washington and Oregon and includes the Columbia Gorge and the southwestern part of the Columbia Valley American Viticultural Areas (AVA). The different microclimates are perfect for growing every grape from Albarino to Zinfandel. As you travel from east to west the rainfall increases, while the sunshine decreases dramatically. Eastern vineyards have a continental high desert climate with just 10 inches of rain per year to ripen varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Zinfandel and Barbera. Western vineyards have a cool marine climate where it rains 40 inches a year. This is a haven for cool climate varietals like Pinot Noir, Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Riesling. Other varietals grown in the Columbia Gorge include Albarino, Aglianico, Barbera, Cabernet Franc, Dolcetto, Gamay, Grenache, Gruner Veltliner, Lemberger, Malbec, Marsanne, Merlot, Mourvedre, Muscat, Nebbiolo, Pinot Blanc, Primitivo, Rousanne, Sangiovese, Sauvignon Blanc, Tempranillo, Viognier, White Riesling and Zinfandel.

3. Columbia Valley – is Washington’s largest viticultural region. It represents one third of Washington States’ land and contains the AVAs of Horse Heaven Hills, Rattlesnake Hills, Red Mountain, Snipes Mountain, Yakima, Wahluke Slope and Walla Walla within its designation. The vast size of this zone allows for a number of different micro and meso climates. Merlot is the most widely planted grape followed by Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Riesling and Syrah. Their growing season runs about 180-200 days.

4. Lake Chelan – is the 11th AVA located completely within the large Columbia Valley AVA. However, Lake Chelan has a higher elevation and more temperate climate than the more southern AVAs contained in the Columbia Valley. The AVA includes the southern and eastern portions of land surrounding the lake and shares a northern border with the Columbia Valley. The soil of Lake Chelan is distinctive due to the ice age glaciers that formed the lake. This AVA is distinguished by “lake effect” which creates mild and favorable temperatures, resulting in a longer growing season and reduced risk of frost.

5. Horse Heaven Hills – is bounded in the north by the Yakima Valley appellation and on the south by the Columbia River. Located in the Southeast, this area represents approximately 26% of Washington’s total grape production. Predominant varieties include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Riesling and Syrah with 37 total varieties planted. The zones’ proximity to the Columbia River creates wind which moderates temperature extremes. Elevations range from 1800 feet in the north to 300 feet in the south. Grapes have been grown here since 1972.

6. Red Mountain – was established in 2001 on the eastern edge of the Yakima Valley. It is not really a mountain but, instead, a steep slope with a southwest exposure near the Yakima River. Primary grape varieties include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Sangiovese, Malbec and Petit Verdot. The area has a desert clime with average rainfall of five inches a year. During the growing season daytime temperatures average about 90 degrees while night temperatures drop to below 50 degrees F.

7. Snipes Mountain – was named after rancher Ben Snipes who, in the 1850s, bought a house and started a cattle operation on the Yakima Valley Mountain north of the Yakima River. It became known as Snipes Mountain. Snipes Mountain AVA became Washington State’s 10th official AVA in 2009. It includes its prominent landmark and its eastern neighbor Harrison Hill as well. Snipes Mountain is the 2nd smallest AVA in Washington. Just slightly larger than Red Mountain. Vineyards have been planted here since 1914 and Washington State’s second oldest Cabernet Sauvignon vines have been producing grapes here for more than 40 years. 30 other different grape varieties also find a home here. The uniqueness of Snipes Mountain comes from its elevated topography and unique soils found nowhere else in the Yakima Valley AVA.

8. Wahluke Slope – is bounded by the Columbia River to the west and south, by the Saddle Mountains on the north and on the east by the Hanford Reach National Monument. The Wahluke Slope AVA lies entirely within the Columbia Valley appellation. The most important grape varieties of the zone include Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc. The zone represents almost 20% of the total wine acreage in the state. Wahluke Slope has one of the driest and warmest climates in the state.

9. Walla Walla Valley – grape growing began here in the 1850s as Italian immigrants began planting grapes and producing wine. Cabernet Sauvignon is the leader here while Merlot, Chardonnay and Syrah are other widely planted varietals. A wide range of other varietals including Gewurztraminer, Cabernet Franc, Sangiovese, Grenache, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Tempranillo, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Viognier also find a home here. Precipitation averages about 12.5 inches while the growing season runs from 190 to 220 days.

10. Yakima Valley – Yakima Valley was Washington State’s first federally recognized appellation. Today this AVA contains over one-third of the state’s vineyards. The most widely planted grapes in this zone are Chardonnay followed by Merlot and then Cabernet Sauvignon. Riesling and Syrah also represent significant acreage. Precipitation averages 8 inches and the growing season is approximately 190 days.

11. Rattlesnake Hills – is located approximately four miles southeast of Yakima and offers varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay and Riesling. Rattlesnake Hills’ AVA lies within both the Columbia Valley and Yakima Valley Appellations. The zone begins at 850 feet and rises to 3,085 feet, making it higher in elevation than the surrounding Yakima Valley region. Vineyards tend to be located on airy ridges and terraces, thus irrigating late spring and early fall frosts and winter kill.

12. Naches Heights – located on a volcanic plateau west of Yakima town in Washington becomes the state’s 12th AVA.