Deep Roots in the Yakima Valley

Roots run deep in the Yakima Valley. This is true for both the vines and the multi generational farming families that are beginning the 2014 harvest.

This week’s blog is a “hats off” to those who have dedicated 30 plus years in the dirt growing Washington’s award winning wine. Some of the vines being farmed in the AVA date back to before prohibition…those are some deep roots.

In 1917, William Bridgman planted a vinifera vineyard on Snipes Mountain, near the center of the valley. Remarkably, his original vines are still bearing fruit! They now form part of Upland Vineyards, which have been farmed by three generations of the Newhouse family since 1972.


Newhouse Family | Upland Vineyards

Newhouse Family | Upland Vineyards

During those same four decades, the Sauer family has been tending the Red Willow Vineyard at the far western edge of the Yakima Valley, in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. Mike Sauer worked with Washington State University scientist Dr. Walter Clore to plant Cabernet Sauvignon vines here in 1973. And grape clusters are still harvested from those old vines, as well as from another 140 acres that Mike and his son Jonathan now farm for two dozen of Washington State’s finest wineries.

Sauer Family | Red Willow Vineyard

Sauer Family | Red Willow Vineyard

At the far eastern end of the valley, John Williams planted the first vineyard on Red Mountain in 1975. Those initial 10 or 12 acres were surrounded by nothing but sagebrush and cheatgrass. But they expanded to more than 300 acres now farmed by John, his son Scott, and grandson J.J. for their own winery (Kiona) and for many other leading labels across the region.

JJ., John, & Scott Williams | Kiona Vineyard

JJ., John, & Scott Williams | Kiona Vineyard

Of course, these are just a few of many families who have made the Yakima Valley not only the first—but also the largest and best—wine-growing appellation in Washington. Other famous names here include Olsen, Boushey, Shiels (DuBrul), Gelles (Klipsun), and Holmes (Ciel du Cheval). Each of them has helped to make this area the backbone of our state wine industry.

Our farming families have achieved much from hard work and a lot of pioneering trial and error. But they also have benefited from a mutually productive relationship with Washington State University’s agricultural research station in the local city of Prosser. The WSU Irrigated Agriculture Research & Extension Center (IAREC) began test-planting hundreds of grape varieties in the Yakima Valley back in 1937. Subsequent research during the 1950s extended to advancing pruning techniques.

During the 1980s, the center developed strategies to support vine hardiness during colder conditions, which some years can make the difference between a successful crop and no crop at all. The 1990s then delivered remarkable research into deficit irrigation methods, which both improved wine quality and reduced the industry’s water usage by as much as 30 percent. More recently, the center’s work has successfully tackled vine bacteria and viral problems, as well as dramatically decreased the need for insecticides—the usage of which dropped 80 percent during the decade to 2005. These are just a handful of many substantial accomplishments that have helped make the Yakima Valley grape-growing industry such a triumph; and progress continues in both the field and the lab.

So what do these venerable vineyards and local scientific research mean to the wines of the Yakima Valley? Well, it might be more appropriate to ask what they mean to the wines of Washington State as a whole. Look at back labels on bottles produced anywhere from Woodinville to Walla Walla, and you will discover that top Washington wineries have grown to greatness with Yakima Valley grapes. To put it another way, the largest concentration of the most famous vineyards in the Pacific Northwest are found right here.

This valley’s special confluence of topography, climate, farming families, and viticultural research are like almost nowhere else on Earth. They result in wines that look and smell and taste distinctly of their amazing origins. Most remarkably, these vineyard-specific characters are notable across multiple styles. For example, with a little practice, almost anyone can distinguish a bold red wine from Boushey versus one from Klipsun, or a rich white from Red Willow versus one from DuBrul. They all appeal in different ways, yet they all are expressions of Yakima Valley. See for yourself, and discover our landscape in your glass. Of course, the experience is even better in person.



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