Senators from Washington and Idaho sent a bi-partisan letter Wednesday to the agency in charge of the nation’s wine industry, pushing for the approval of the proposed Lewis-Clark Valley American Viticultural Area by April 20.
Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) asked John Manfreda, administrator of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, “to move expeditiously to approve a final designation.”
The petition to establish the federally designated wine grape growing region, an area with a history of wine production stretching back to the 1870s, spans Clarkston, Wash., and Lewiston, Idaho. Manfreda’s agency, also known as the TTB, closed its second commenting period on the petition Nov. 27.
“I hope the letter does some good, and I hope it doesn’t make anyone upset,” Melissa Sanborn, winemaker/co-owner of Colter’s Creek Winery in Juliaetta, Idaho, told Great Northwest Wine. “It’s a long process, and everyone was really expecting everything would be approved by now. At this point, everyone is a little anxious to get it done.”
While the agency has accepted the petition, it states on its website that even if the petition meets the requirements “as perfected,” it is not a guarantee that TTB will proceed with rulemaking.
State lines complicate bi-state AVA petitions
Two recent AVA petitions in the Pacific Northwest – both involving state lines – have generated extensive comments and some controversy.
The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater AVA limits its use to only wineries in Oregon, even though it is a sub-AVA of the Walla Walla Valley, which includes Washington. The Lewis-Clark Valley AVA – at 306,658 acres – takes in both Idaho and Washington, and the original petition allowed for a portion of the proposed AVA to stay within the massive bi-state Columbia Valley AVA. However, the TTB subsequently required a modification to the Columbia Valley AVA that removes the portion included in the L-C Valley petition.
Alan Busacca, the prominent soil scientist who prepared both versions of the Lewis-Clark Valley AVA petition and the co-petition to modify the Columbia Valley AVA, wondered if The Rocks District controversy has played a role in the TTB’s delay of his 70-page petition.
Meanwhile, the Eagle Foothills AVA north of Boise – the Snake River Valley’s first sub-AVA – was established last November.
“This is a little more complicated than a straight-up AVA in an area that’s never had AVA before,” Busacca said. “The federal government will have to have two documents, including the border change to the Columbia Valley, but the Lewis-Clark Valley AVA is not as arcane and convoluted as The Rocks District.”
Basalt Cellars sites would drop from Columbia Valley
The redrawing and removal of 57,019 acres from the Columbia Valley – which stands at 11.3 million acres – would mean Basalt Cellars in Clarkston, Wash., can no longer use “Columbia Valley” on the label of wines made from its two small estate vineyards.
Rick Wasem, co-owner/co-winemaker of Basalt Cellars, said he would regret not being able to use Columbia Valley on the wines he makes from the 7 acres of vines that belong to him and Lynn DeVleming. His first such bottling came from the 2008 vintage, and lots from Wasem Vineyard generally have been from 50 to 100 cases. Basalt does not produce vineyard-designated wines from that vineyard every year, and the 2015 was the first commercial vintage from DeVleming’s site.
Wasem’s complaint about that Columbia Valley issue was one of two comments among the 35 published last spring that were not 100 percent in favor of the petition during the first commenting period, which closed June 15.
“I didn’t mean to hold up the process, and I’m certainly not opposed to the AVA,” Wasem said. “I was just hoping for an overlap, rather than taking the Washington side out of the Columbia Valley. I’ve already seen one news story referencing that we were in Idaho, so that’s a concern to me in the future. The Columbia Valley is so well known and really promoted.”
Wasem also said his own vineyard – which he began planting on the Washington side of the Snake River in 1997 – was not listed within the original petition. He said he was contacted immediately by the TTB when he brought that to the attention of Manfreda’s staff, and Wasem said he wonders if that ultimately sparked the modification and the subsequent delays.
“My vineyard was not included in the list of vineyards in the (first) petition,” Wasem said. “Maybe it was an oversight, but that’s water under the bridge at this point. I was in on the formation of the Lewis-Clark Valley Wine Alliance, and I realize there’s been a lot of hard work that’s gone into this.”
Work on Lewis-Clark Valley AVA began in 2009
Sanborn, her husband, Mike Pearson, and Clearwater Canyon Cellars owners Karl and Coco Umiker in Lewiston, Idaho, began working with the Clearwater Economic Development Association on the establishment of the Lewis-Clark Valley AVA in 2009.
A joint news release issued today by Cantwell and Crapo included comments by Steve Warner, president of the Washington State Wine Commission, and Moya Dolsby, executive director of the Idaho Wine Commission.
“Washington wine growers appreciate Sens. Cantwell and Crapo’s help in getting our petition approved,” Warner said. “The Lewis-Clark Valley AVA will be Washington state’s 14th AVA and is important to the continued strong growth of the Washington state wine industry. By securing this designation, we can help ensure the success of our great wines and the jobs it supports.”
Dolsby said, “The proposed Lewis-Clark Valley AVA has a distinct terroir encompassing more than 300,000 acres in which 81 acres are made up of vineyards. The potential economic impact of the AVA could provide a great boost to the local economy, in addition to shining a light on the high-quality wines coming from this region. I am happy to see both Senator Cantwell and Senator Crapo support this proposal.”
One of the factors driving the senators’ letter is an April 20 economic development event in the Lewis-Clark Valley called “A Toast to the Emerging Wine Industry.” The date for that ribbon-cutting celebration was scheduled several months ago, based on the end of the second commenting period – which was Nov. 27.
“It would be like throwing a birthday party and then the person whose birthday it is doesn’t show,” Busacca said.
Economic group appealed to TTB in March
Last month, Deb Smith of the Clearwater Economic Development Association also sent a letter to Manfreda.
“The delay of the AVA designation hampers CEDA and the Lewis Clark Wine Alliance’s ability to fully execute already awarded grants as we cannot market the AVA until it is formally designated,” Smith wrote in a letter dated March 23.
Grants and matching funds related to promoting a newly established Lewis-Clark Valley AVA stand at $126,894 and include the Idaho State Department of Agriculture, the Idaho Wine Commission, the city of Clarkston, Asotin County, Latah County, Nez Perce County, the Port of Lewiston and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“The area growers, winemakers, industry partners, tourism representatives and wine supporters appreciate the effort and due diligence by TTB but would encourage the publication of the ruling as soon as possible,” Smith wrote.
Meanwhile, the TTB has approved three other AVAs and expanded Oregon’s Willamette Valley so far in 2016. Sanborn said she fears the second commenting period moved the Lewis-Clark Valley petition to the back of the line.
“It’s neat to see the support of the senators for the AVA, and they realize the economic importance of the AVA to both states,” Sanborn said. “Rick is very on board with the Lewis-Clark Valley Wine Alliance, and Lynn is on board with promoting the AVA and trying to get things going.”
Delay affects bottling decisions in Lewis-Clark Valley
Earlier this year, 3 Horse Ranch Vineyards began selling wine using the new Eagle Foothills AVA. At the same time, there’s disappointment in the cellars at Clearwater Canyon, Colter’s Creek, nearby Lindsay Creek and other wine-related businesses.
“We were trying to hold off on bottling our wines this spring until we got approval, but we can’t wait any longer,” Sanborn said. “We can’t get our new labels approved with the AVA on them until the AVA is established. Now we’re running out of wine to sell, so we’re going to miss the Lewis-Clark Valley for this bottling cycle.”
The letter co-signed by Cantwell and Crapo references not only the wineries but also marketing and tourism opportunities for 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,” they wrote.
Sanborn said she’d thrilled if the TTB approved the petition by April 20 – about a week before she’s due to give birth to twins. Official establishment would be 30 days beyond the approval.
“This petition has just been a long journey that we started in 2009,” she said. “A year ago, we thought we’d be approved by April. I have confidence that it’s going to happen, but at this point, I’m ready to be done with it.”
Busacca, who has successfully petitioned the TTB to create both the Wahluke Slope and Lake Chelan AVAs, said he appreciates the support of the U.S. Senate.
“The TTB folks are not bad people,” Busacca said. “They’ve always been solid to work with, and I think they’ve been consumed with what are they going to do about The Rocks District and any future AVAs that would have a similarly complicated geography.
“And then we resubmitted this in 2014 when they started getting flooded with other petitions and having to deal with budget cuts and staff cuts,” Busacca added.