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Feature Article from the April 2016 Magazine Issue

TTB Approves Lewis-Clark Valley AVA

Northwest hones regional identity with latest wine grape growing region, but not everyone is happy

by Peter Mitham
Lewis-Clark AVA Idaho Washington Colter’s Creek vineyard TTB
Colter’s Creek is located inside the new Lewis-Clark Valley viticultural area. Photo source: Mike Beiser Photography
Juliaetta, Idaho—Weeks after tweaking the boundaries of the Willamette Valley AVA in Oregon, federal regulators have approved an adjustment to the Columbia Valley AVA in Washington state that will allow for creation of the Lewis-Clark Valley AVA.

The new AVA has been seven years in the making. Research began in 2009 in collaboration with Alan Busacca of Vinitas Consultants LLC, and a petition was first submitted in June 2011. However, federal regulators requested that it address an overlap with the Columbia Valley AVA.

The proposal was resubmitted in 2013 with modifications to the boundaries of the Columbia Valley AVA that allow the new interstate AVA to exist as a viticultural area in its own right, independent of both the Columbia Valley and Idaho’s Snake River Valley AVA.

Lewis-Clark Valley comprises approximately 307,000 acres, including approximately 57,020 acres seceded from the Columbia Valley to avoid an overlap with the new AVA, which is home to just 80 acres of vineyard. The plantings are small, being spread among 16 vineyards, and comprised of a wide range of grapes—23 varieties in all—primarily red varieties such as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, with Riesling being the leader among white varieties.

Beyond ‘Idaho’
“Typical Northwest,” quipped Mike Pearson, co-owner with Melissa Sanborn of Colter’s Creek Winery. Both Pearson and Sanborn have been involved with the application since the start.

The new AVA is a boon for most of the wineries and vineyards it encompasses, as those on the Idaho side were never before within a designated viticultural area.

“Our designation just had to be ‘Idaho,’ so it gives us some branding,” Pearson told Wines & Vines. “We grow most of our own fruit, and we were not in an AVA before, so being in an AVA allows us to label our production as estate.”

He took delivery of plant material that will allow him to plant an additional 5 acres this year, and a neighbor will be adding 25 acres, boosting acreage on the Idaho side of the AVA to more than 110 acres.

“It’s one of the biggest planting years the valley has ever seen,” he said.

Another dozen acres are planted on the Washington side of the AVA.

Idaho boasts three wineries in the AVA, with another license pending and a fifth planned for next year. Another handful sit just outside the AVA’s boundaries.

Not everyone is happy

In addition, Basalt Cellars is the AVA’s flag-bearer on the Washington side, though proprietor Rick Wasem wasn’t wholly comfortable being removed from the Columbia Valley AVA in the process.

Although the Lewis-Clark Valley proposal crosses state lines, the majority of its wineries use fruit from their own state, meaning they’ll avoid the angst precipitated by approval of the Rocks District of Milton-Freewater AVA in Oregon last year.

What bothers Wasem is the loss of name recognition he enjoyed with the Columbia Valley designation, something the new AVA will have to develop.

“The Columbia Valley is a well-known and well-promoted AVA, and I feel it is beneficial to be part of it,” he wrote to the TTB during its review of the appellation change. “I am in favor of establishing the new AVA, but at the same time, very reluctant to lose the benefits of being part of the Columbia Valley.”

Potential confusion?
Wasem told Wines & Vines that the new designation already has prompted some writers to identify him as being in Idaho, notwithstanding his address in Clarkston, Wash.

Wasem would have preferred the overlap ruled out by the TTB, and he hasn’t ruled out a new application to return his area to the Columbia Valley AVA.

“Whether or not we proceed with that, I don’t know,” he told Wines & Vines, noting that local wineries have good working relationships, and the potential to develop a local identity is good.

Removing the area from the Columbia Valley was a wise move, according to Wade Wolfe, who was involved in the original Columbia Valley AVA application and urged the TTB to approve the new appellation.

“Considering what we know today, the Columbia Valley AVA should have been limited on its east side to a location near the Columbia and Garfield County line about 30 miles west of Pullman, Wash.,” Wolfe wrote last fall, citing differences in elevation, rainfall and other elements.

But the creation of the new AVA goes beyond science.

Friends in high places
U.S. Sens. Maria Cantwell of Washington and Mike Crapo of Idaho urged the TTB in a letter dated April 6 to rule in favor of the new AVA to coincide with an April 20 economic development event in the Lewis-Clark Valley.

“We urge that the designation be made final before April 20 to provide clarity and certainty for grapegrowers, wine producers and community stakeholders throughout the covered regions in Washington and Idaho,” the senators wrote, noting that stakeholders had “worked tirelessly” to secure $135,000 in government funding in support of vineyard development, infrastructure and marketing for local wineries.

“The funding for these important activities have been put at risk as we wait for the Lewis-Clark AVA designation to become final,” the senators pleaded. “A loss of these resources…would be a major setback for economic development in the region. In order to prevent this economic loss from being realized, we strongly urge you to move quickly to approve the AVA designation of the Lewis-Clark Valley before April 20.”

Approval came April 15 with an official announcement timed to coincide with an event in Lewiston to celebrate local econo mic development, including the local wine industry.

Speaking en route to the event, Moya Shatz Dolsby, executive director of the Idaho Wine Commission, said that with 51 wineries and 1,300 acres of vineyard, the Idaho wine industry is building the state’s viticultural muscle.

“I am very excited to see where the next five years take us,” she told Wines & Vines. “Having three AVAs puts Idaho on the map as a credible grapegrowing region.”

Steve Warner, president of the Washington State Wine Commission was equally bullish, remarking in a statement that the new AVA (Washington’s 14th) will “elevate the entire region.”

Neighbors to the north

Meanwhile, in British Columbia, the process regarding new geographical indications (GIs) continues.

Proposals that included a vision for up to 15 new geographical indications set forth by the B.C. Wine Appellation Task Group have been tabled, but consultations have led to changes in the run-up to an industry plebiscite.

Details of the changes are forthcoming, but task group chair Ezra Cipes told Wines & Vines it was clear from open houses held in February that the full docket of proposals wouldn’t have received the double-majority required for the B.C. Wine Authority (BCWA) to forward them to government for approval.

With respect to GIs and sub-GIs, the revamped proposals recommend that registered growers rather than wineries drive the process leading to the creation of new appellations. In addition, wines from proposed appellations need not demonstrate unique characters.

“It’s just too hard to prove scientifically, and it would block the development of new sub-GIs,” Cipes said.

With respect to the protection of GIs, the task group is proposing a two-year window for industry to register new appellations, following which the BCWA will be able to clamp down on monikers that resemble GIs, even if they’re not.

“Right now, the BCWA only has the authority to regulate terms that are registered, meaningful terms,” Cipes explained. “They can stop people from saying ‘Okanagan Valley,’ but they can’t stop people from saying ‘Naramata Bench.’”

That will change in 2019 if industry approves the new proposals, with the BCWA gaining the ability to clamp down on non-registered terms.

Of course, new appellations will also be welcome post-2019, as the industry evolves.

“We’re putting forward a vision, we’re not putting forward final boundaries,” Cipes said.

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