Washington, The State of Wine

Washington State is the second largest producer of wine in the United States, a fair distance behind California. So, what is unique about Washington wine country? First, there two distinct sides to Washington State: Eastern Washington, where most of the vinifera (or wine) grapes are grown, and which has desert-like conditions and sparse population; and Western Washington where the temperate conditions are more conducive to growing cooler climate vinifera and non-vinifera grape varieties, but where most of the state’s population resides. Visit our Winery Regions page to find wineries on each side of the state.

The individual soils of Washington State vineyards vary, but overall it is said that Washington has sandy, silty, loam soils as a result of ancient cataclysmic flooding, volcanic and glacial action. These soils drain well and are conducive to deep root growth – important for vines to make it through cyclical freeze events in Eastern Washington. These soils also stop the vineyard pest phylloxera from spreading, allowing our vinifera vines to be planted on their own rootstock (California and Europe by contrast are planted on American rootstocks which is resistant to the insect.)Another unique aspect of Washington wine country is that while a winery may be in one town, their source of grapes may be from far away vineyards.
Most wineries of Seattle and Woodinville source their grapes from Eastern Washington, trucking grapes into Western Washington where the winemaking magic happens. Because Walla Walla gets hit hard with freeze events, the wineries here historically sourced their grapes from all reaches of the state rather than planting vineyards there, although their vineyard acreage is growing.

Washington Wine, a very short history

Washington’s wine industry started with cooler climate grapes such as Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Lemberger and even fruits to make wine. Early growers thought that vinifera grapes would be unable to withstand the harsh winter conditions of Eastern Washington, and planted commercial vineyards in parts of Western Washington. The climate in Western Washington better ripened cool climate white grapes, gaining Washington a reputation for producing sweet white wines.

It wasn’t until the middle of the twentieth century that farmers learned techniques that allowed grapes to thrive in Eastern Washington, losing fewer vines to freeze events that historically decimated vineyards. More commercial vineyards were planted in the 1970′s and the modern Washington wine industry was born. Early wineries that raised the winemaking bar were Leonetti Cellars, Chateau Ste Michelle, Woodward Canyon, Columbia Winery and L’Ecole No. 41.

Washington State AVA Information

Washington state currently boasts 14 designated wine growing regions (called AVA’s or American Viticultural Areas) in order of their creation;

Yakima Valley AVA

Established in 1983, this wine growing region has about 12,000 vineyard acres and is home to over 60 wineries just waiting for you to visit. Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are the most widely planted grapes in this region with the Syrah grape catching up. The Yakima Valley gets about 8 inches of annual rain fall and sits within the Columbia Valley AVA. Some of the more renowned vineyards in the Yakima Valley are: DuBrul Vineyard, Red Willow Vineyard, Boushey Vineyard, Sheridan Vineyard and Dineen Vineyard.

Columbia Valley AVA

Established in 1984, this is the largest AVA in Washington State spanning over 11 million acres, 6,693 acres of which are planted to grapes. Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay are the most widely planted grapes with significant amounts of Riesling and Syrah as well. The Columbia Valley gets about 6 to 8 inches of annual rain fall. The Yakima Valley, Red Mountain, Walla Walla Valley, Wahluke Slope, Rattlesnake Hills and Horse Heaven Hills AVA’s all sit within the Columbia Valley AVA. Renowned vineyards that sit within the Columbia Valley (and not in other AVA’s inside of it) include: Bacchus Vineyard and Sagemoor Vineyard.

Walla Walla Valley AVA

Established in 1984, the Walla Walla Valley AVA has a rich history of wine grape growing by the immigrants who settled this area. Walla Walla was once the largest city in the Washington territory so plantings go back to the 1800′s. This area only has about 1,600 acres of vineyard due to the threat of “freeze events”. Historically, wineries established in Walla Walla (over 100 now call Walla Walla home) sourced their wine grapes from the Yakima and Columbia Valleys, but that is changing as growing practices improve. In fact, Walla Walla is on the forefront of sustainable wine grape growing establishing organizations such as the Walla Walla Valley Vinea, The Winegrowers Sustainable Trust. The most widely planted grapes grown here are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Syrah. Walla Walla gets a bit more rain than other wine growing areas with about 12 inches of annual rain fall. Renowned vineyards here include: Pepperbridge Vineyard, Seven Hills Vineyard.

Puget Sound AVA

Established in 1995, Puget Sound is where Washington’s commercial wine industry began. Before farmers fully understood how to withstand cyclical freeze events in Eastern Washington, vinifera and non-vinifera varieties of grapes were grown in western Washington. Currently there are over 80 acres planted to grapes in Puget Sound and over 45 wineries. There are 15 to 30 inches of annual rain fall in this area, mostly in the winter months when the grape plants are dormant. There is little worry for hard freeze events here, and during the growing season the weather is generally mild. Predominant grape varieties grown here are Madeleine Angevine, Siegerebbe and Muller-Thurgau, which may not be as well known but which are better “cool climate” varieties. Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir are getting more popular here as well.

Red Mountain AVA

Established in 2001, Red Mountain holds some of the state’s most sought after grapes due to the hot and windy conditions that toughen grape skins and produce super concentrated and flavorful wines. The average annual rain fall is only 5 inches and temperatures average in the 90′s during the summer growing months. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Sangiovese, Malbec, and Petit Verdot are the predominate grapes grown here. Renowned vineyards in this area include: Kiona Vineyard, Ciel du Cheval, Klipsun Vineyard.

Columbia Gorge AVA

Established in 2004, this wine grape growing region straddles the Oregon/ Washington border running along the Columbia River (and down into Oregon) covering about 300 square miles. This area includes both Washington and Oregon, with about 500 acres of vineyard and partially lays within the Columbia Valley. There are more than 20 wineries that call the Columbia Gorge home (don’t confuse it with the Gorge, located several hundred miles north which is also on the Columbia River). The climate from one end to the other within this area ranges drastically creating micro unique microclimates. Annual rain fall averages from 10 to 40 inches, altitudes vary from sea level to 2,000 feet, soils range widely as well as the variety of grapes grown here such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Zinfandel and Barbera on the hot Eastern side to Pinot Noir, Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Riesling on the cool climate marine influenced side. Other interesting varieties growing in this region are Albarino, Tempranillo, Barbara and Nebbiolo.

Horse Heaven Hills AVA

Established in 2005, vineyards have been planted here since 1972 and it contains some of the State’s oldest and largest. There are about 8,400 acres of grapes planted over 570,000 acres- but don’t let the vastness of the vineyards fool you- the first three “100 point” wines were made from grapes sourced from vineyards here. Although there are 37 total varieties planted on the Horse Heaven Hills, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Riesling, and Syrah are the primary varieties. Renowned vineyards here include: Canoe Ridge, Champoux Vineyards, Alder Ridge, Andrews-Horse Heaven Vineyard and Wallula Gap Vineyard.

Wahluke Slope AVA

Established in 2006, this is one of the hottest and driest grape growing regions in Washington State. There are a lot of vineyards here, over 5,200 acres of grapes planted over 81,000 acres. The primary grape varieties grown here are Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and despite the heat Riesling, Chardonnay, and Chenin Blanc are widespread. Renowned wineries in this region include: Connor Lee Vineyard and Weinbau Vineyard.

Rattlesnake Hills AVA

Established in 2006, the higher elevation in this region sets it apart from the Yakima Valley AVA, which is lays within. There are about 1,500 acres of planted vineyards in 68,500 acres and it contains some of the oldest commercial vineyards in the state. There are about 17 wineries in this region many in the town of Zillah, where the “Fruit Loop” provides a scenic winery tour through vineyards and orchards. Renowned vineyards in this area include: Sheridan Vineyard and Dineen Vineyard.

Snipes Mountain AVA

Established in 2009, this area lays within the Yakima Valley, but contains unique soils and topography not found there. This is the Washington’s 2nd smallest AVA with about 665 acres of planted vineyards within 4,145 acres and with only 6 wineries. Predominant grape varieties grown here are Cabernet Sauvignon. Vineyards have been planted in this region since 1914.

Lake Chelan AVA

Established in 2009. There are about 260 acres of planted grape vines within this 24,040 acre area. This AVA has a rich history of wine grape growing reaching back to the turn of the 20th century; however that ended and didn’t pick back up again until the new millennium. There are about 15 wineries established in this popular summer destination. The lake effects create a more mild climate and lower risk of freeze events in winter. Predominant grape varieties grown here are Syrah, Merlot, Malbec, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay, and a variety not widely grown in Washington State, Pinot Noir.

Naches Heights

Established in 2011. Located just northwest of Yakima, Naches Heights AVA sits at a higher elevation on a relatively flat plateau consisting of ancient lava flows and is considered a cooler grape growing region, with heavier soils and slightly higher precipitation than other AVA's in Washington State. There are about 41 acres planted to wine grapes and all vineyards in this AVA are either organic, biodynamic, or salmon safe.

Ancient Lakes AVA

Established in 2012. Bordered by the Columbia River, and located in Central Washington, the Ancient Lakes region is wholly contained within the Columbia Valley AVA. Because of the shorter and cooler growing season due to its northerly location, the Ancient Lakes AVA has a focus on white grapes such as Riesling and Chardonnay, but also grow red grapes. There are fewer than 10 wineries within the AVA boundaries, however vintners outside the area, such as L'Ecole No. 41 and Milbrandt Vineyards, are producing award-winning wines from Ancient Lakes distinctive fruit.

Lewis-Clark Valley AVA

Established in 2016. Located primarily in Idaho, this cross-state AVA spills over the Southeast corner of Washington State Northeast of Walla Walla. The Lewis-Clark Valley AVA has a temperate climate with enough precipitation to require minimal irrigation. The newest AVA also boasts a long-running grape growing tradition- since 1872, and contains 16 vineyards (only 9 acres in WA), and 9 wineries (4 within WA).