While you may not see many vineyards on your drives around the West Side, just across the Cascades are some of the best wine-growing regions in the country.
Although California is king when it comes to wine production in the United States, Washington trails second with an impressive collection of American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) spread throughout the eastern portions of the state.
Here’s a bit about Washington’s wine industry and why the arid East Side is perfect for wine-making!
What makes WA a good place to grow wine?
Wine grapes need a very specific climate to survive their delicate flower phase and mature into grapes, not to mention good soils in which to grow and absorb flavor. There needs to be a perfect balance of sun, rain and heat to create a decent bottle of wine, and even more precise balances to make an exceptional one.
Luckily, Eastern Washington has an ideal climate and topography for wine-making!
Washington soil is perfect for growing wine
It all started a few million years ago — more specifically, 17-15 million years ago. Deep fissures in the ground spewed layer after layer of molten magma over the surface of Eastern Washington and northeastern Oregon, covering nearly all of southeastern Washington in hundreds of layers of cooled lava over 81,000 square miles! Crazy!
The cooled basalt became so thick and heavy that the very ground itself was pushed down, creating the low desert environment that distinguishes the East Side so well from the West Side.
Much, much later, ice age floods sent a constant barrage of floods from Montana through Eastern Washington and into the Columbia Valley. Some of the waves in these floods reached a height of 400 feet and moved up to 60 miles per hour! If that’s hard to picture, just think about a wave two-thirds the size of the Space Needle barreling down I-90 at you. Just try to surf on that!
Anyway, these floods deposited a lot of silt, sand and gravel on top of that impenetrable basalt rock, creating a loose and porous soil.
After that, there were some layers of volcanic ash from the constant Cascade volcano eruptions, some windblown silt from strong winds across the West Coast and more erosion-related activity. The final result is a soil that is porous thanks to the ice age floods, nutritious thanks to the volcanic ash and can hold aquifer water fairly well thanks to the solid layer of basalt beneath it all.
Eastern Washington weather is warm and dry
Any moisture that travels from the Pacific Ocean into the Inland Northwest has to go over two separate mountain ranges to get to Eastern Washington: first the Olympics, then the Cascades. These mountains trap most of the moisture and keep Eastern Washington nice and dry — an effect called a rain shadow.
Grapevines must first bloom flowers before any grapes can grow, but these flowers are delicate and can tumble off the vine with even the slightest amount of rain. If it rains too much at this crucial state, an entire harvest’s worth of grapes could be ruined. Being able to rely on near-total drought means farmers can count on their flowers maturing into fruit.
This also means that many wine-growers need to use irrigation methods to keep their grapes alive, which in turn gives them more control over the qualities and health of the grapes.
There’s plenty of water
Just because it doesn't rain much in Eastern Washington, it doesn’t mean there’s a lack of water.
Those massive ice age floods we talked about earlier left behind powerful rivers and tributaries that provide constant sources of water to farms along their banks. Most of Washington’s wine grapes grow along the Columbia River and its offshoots, and since that river is the fourth-largest in the United States, there’s no shortage of irrigation water to keep grapes nice and healthy.
Temperature fluctuations create acidic and fruity wines
Warm weather and sunlight allow the natural sugars levels in the grapes to increase, creating sweet and fruity grapes that, if left to ripen properly, will be plump and juicy at harvest.
Though Eastern Washington summers are by no means chilly, the temperature fluctuations in early and late summer still range between 35 to 45 degrees difference from day to night — much more than other wine growing regions like California and Oregon. These temperature fluctuations are ideal for creating a certain type of wine, because cooler nights allow the grapes to cool enough to stop the grapes from becoming too sweet.
The warm, dry summer days add sweetness to the grapes, while the cool nights around harvest preserve some of the natural acidity that’s present in wine grapes. Many high-elevation and coastal wines in Argentina, South Africa and Spain have similar characteristics!
A perfect combination of soils and water
The nutrient rich soils created by the floods, volcanic eruptions, wind storms and molten lava floods created the perfect environment and soil structure for grapes to thrive. The abundance of water from the Columbia River and its tributaries provides reliable water sources all year long. And, of course, those gorgeously long summer days mean there’s plenty of sunshine for the grapes to get nice and ripe while not getting too sweet.
Washington State really does have an ideal environment in which to grow and produce wine, and it would be a shame to miss out on some of the best wine in the country. Ask your local winery if they have any special Washington wines available to try, and maybe try them alongside similar Californian wines to really see the difference in taste, texture and structure.
Or, better yet, if you live in our luxury Seattle apartment for rent, head over to an Eastern Washington vineyard and try the nectar of the gods right from the source! You’re sure to enjoy the rolling hills covered in vineyards and the bright sun shining over the endless, ancient landscape.
Featured photo courtesy Pixabay/Counselling