Washington state has two new wine appellations to brag about. Within the past few months, the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) has approved two American Viticultural Areas (AVA)—Lake Chelan and Snipes Mountain. But the federal agency rejected another proposed appellation further down the Pacific Coast, Paso Robles Westside, leaving local producers debating the future of possible subappellations to California's largest undivided AVA.
Lake Chelan winemakers hope Washington's newest appellation will gain a reputation for world-class Rieslings and other cool-climate wines that challenge Germany, Austria and Alsace. The new AVA, located 112 miles east of Seattle on the eastern side of the Cascades, already draws flocks of tourists for its spectacular scenery and outdoor activities. Now the Lake Chelan AVA designation, effective May 29, promises to lure more people to the area's 15 wineries.
The AVA, a subappellation within the Columbia Valley, is Washington's 11th appellation. In February, the TTB approved the Snipes Mountain AVA, a small subappellation further south in the middle of the Yakima Valley. One other Washington AVA application is pending, Naches Heights, in the hills just northwest of Yakima.
Modern growers first planted wine grapes in the Lake Chelan area about 10 years ago. The first bonded producer, Lake Chelan Winery, opened in 2000. The new AVA covers the southernmost 12 miles above the eastern shore of the 55-mile-long glacial lake. Only 300 acres are planted so far, at elevations ranging from 1,200 to 2,000 feet. The main grapes are Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, Viognier and Chardonnay, with some Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir. The TTB found that the area differs from the overlapping Columbia Valley AVA because of its volcanic pumice soils and the temperature-moderating effect of the 1,500-foot-deep lake.
Ray Sandidge, the winemaker at C.R. Sandidge Wines and two other producers, said Lake Chelan's growing conditions are not ideally suited to varietals that require a long growing season. But he's bullish on the white wines. "Our whites, which we'll become very well-known for, are great wines to pair with food because of their natural acidity level," he said. The new designation, Sandidge said, gives consumers and wine writers more information about how Lake Chelan wines differ from other Columbia Valley products. He anticipates that Lake Chelan eventually will bifurcate into separate AVAs on the north and south shores.
But Michael Veseth, a wine economist and professor of international political economy at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, argues that the profusion of appellations and subappellations—now more than 190 nationally—is counterproductive. "While each new AVA benefits winemakers in that area by drawing attention to their products, the proliferation of AVAs generally risks making wine even more confusing for consumers and thus devaluating AVAs generally," said Veseth.
In 2007, the TTB proposed a rule more clearly defining what it would take to establish a new AVA within an existing AVA. But that's on hold pending review by the Obama administration.
But taking a harder look at proposed AVAs may already be the agency's new modus operandi. The TTB announced April 30 that it was denying a petition to establish a new Paso Robles Westside AVA within the existing Paso Robles AVA in California's Central Coast, citing conflicting information in the application. The petition, originally submitted in 2005 by Doug Beckett, owner of Peachy Canyon Winery, would have separated those wineries west of the Salinas River (and Highway 101) from those to the east.
"I'm very, very disappointed," said Beckett. "The Westside has been recognized as a winegrowing region for well over 100 years. The first vineyards in [Paso Robles], Dusi and Pesenti, for instance, were planted on the Westside." Beckett noted that of the 220 comments received by the TTB, 144 were in favor of the new AVA, while only 61 were opposed.
Opponents of the petition, headed by Jerry Lohr of J. Lohr Winery, claimed that the proposed appellation contained significant variations in rainfall, temperature, elevation, topography and soils, and that the petition was based upon marketing considerations rather than science. In 2007, the then-newly formed Paso Robles AVA Committee, headed by Lohr, whose winery is on the east side of the divide, filed a petition to form 11 subappellations within the existing Paso Robles AVA.