Yakima Valley wine country is Washington’s oldest established winemaking and grape-growing region.
It is a region with a rich agricultural history and presence, where most of the nation’s hops and juice grapes are grown. And within its borders is Washington state’s largest concentration of wine grapes.
The Yakima Valley is Washington’s oldest American Viticultural Area, established by the federal government in 1983. But its roots go much further back.
Defining the Yakima Valley
The Yakima Valley stretches from the foothills of the Cascade Mountains in the west to Red Mountain in the east.
On the northern edge, the Yakima Valley is bordered by the Rattlesnake Hills, which stretch from Union Gap in the west to Red Mountain in the east. The most distinctive feature is Rattlesnake Mountain, purported to be the largest treeless mountain in the world. It is more than 3,500 feet high, putting it a few hundred feet higher than Snoqualmie Pass.
On the southern edge, the Yakima Valley is bordered by the Horse Heaven Hills.
The Yakima River runs through the Yakima Valley, creating irrigation for the region’s rich agriculture. Soon after wrapping around Red Mountain, the Yakima River merges into the Columbia River in Richland.
The westernmost vineyard in the Yakima Valley is Red Willow Vineyard, planted in 1973 by Mike Sauer. To the east, Red Mountain holds a number of vineyards. Kiona Vineyards is the oldest planting in that end of the valley, dating to 1975.
The main towns and cities in the Yakima Valley include, from west to east, Wapato, Zillah, Toppenish, Granger, Outlook, Sunnyside, Grandview, Prosser and Benton City.
Geological history of Yakima Valley wine country
The basalt bedrock that is the foundation for much of Eastern Washington was created about 15 million years ago, while active volcanoes in the Cascade range to the west added lava and ash. Movements in the earth’s tectonic plates helped create two ridges: the Rattlesnake Hills and the Horse Heaven Hills. Between them runs the Yakima River from the Cascades.
In more recent times – around 12,000 years ago, near the end of the last ice age – another cataclysmic event occurred. A lobe of ice from the Cordilleran Ice Sheet that covered much of western Canada created a dam in the Clark Fork River in northern Idaho. This caused water to back up into western Montana, creating what is now known as Glacial Lake Missoula.
When the ice dam failed, the lake drained, causing massive floods to careen through the Columbia Basin. It helped create the coulees and such geological wonders as Dry Falls. When the water reached the bottom of the basin, it had no place to go because it bumped into the Horse Heaven Hills. Thus it formed Glacial Lake Lewis, the epicenter of which is where the Tri-Cities is today. The temporary lake backed up into the Blue Mountains in the east and all the way to the city of Yakima in the west.
This helped form the terrain of Red Mountain and dropped sediment into the Yakima Valley all the way to the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. Within a couple of days, the water drained through the Wallula Gap east of Tri-Cities, flowed down the Columbia Gorge and flooded the Willamette Valley as far south as Eugene, Ore. Then it followed the course of the Columbia, emptying into the Pacific Ocean at Astoria, Ore.
Then that ice lobe blocked the Clark Fork River again, and the process repeated itself. In fact, geologists believe Glacial Lake Missoula and Glacial Lake Lewis formed 80 to 100 times through the course of several hundred years.
In the 12,000 years since, dust has blown in from the south and west to create layers of sand throughout the Columbia Valley and provide the young soils unique to the region. In the Yakima Valley, this wind-blown loess soil melds with the sediment left by the Ice Age floods.
The 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens coated Eastern Washington with ash, a modern reminder of the region’s violent past – and an added bit of complexity to Washington wine country’s soil.
Viticultural and winemaking history of Yakima Valley wine country
The earliest record of grapes being planted in or near the Yakima Valley is 1869 near Union Gap, according to The Wine Project by Ron Irvine, and Concords were planted near the town of Outlook in 1904. The first winery in the Yakima Valley, according to Irvine’s book, was Stone House Winery near Grandview, which opened in 1905 and made wine from Concord, White Diamond, Zinfandel and Black Prince.
In 1914, William B. Bridgman began planting grapes on Harrison Hill near Sunnyside. Three years later, he planted vinifera grapes on nearby Snipes Mountain, including Carignane, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Thompson Seedless, Zinfandel and Muscat of Alexandria. Some of these grapes – the Thompson Seedless and Muscat of Alexandria, remain today and continue to produce grapes.
Also in 1917, the state legislature approved funding for Washington State College to establish the Irrigation Experiment Station north of Prosser. It has been a cornerstone for the wine industry since.
In 1934, Bridgman opened the first post-Prohibition winery in the Yakima Valley when he established Upland Winery on Snipes Mountain. It operated until 1972. A few other wineries, most notably National Wine Co. (Nawico, which later became part of the winery that became Chateau Ste. Michelle) operated in the Yakima Valley. But the next winery to start in the Yakima Valley was Boordy Vineyards in 1971 in Prosser. It lasted until 1976, the same year Mike Wallace launched Hinzerling Winery in Prosser.
Yakima River Winery opened in 1978 in Prosser, and Kiona Vineyards Winery launched the next year in 1979. Kiona’s vineyards were on Red Mountain, and its winery was in nearby West Richland.
Bridgman was the early promoter of viticulture in the Yakima Valley. After Dr. Walter Clore arrived at WSC’s Prosser campus in 1937, Bridgman got him interested in European grape varieties and gave him some early cuttings. Clore went on to champion wine grapes throughout the Columbia Valley and is now hailed as “the father of Washington wine.” Bridgman died in 1968, and Clore died in 2003.
Sub-AVAs of the Yakima Valley
The Yakima Valley contains three other American Viticultural Areas. They are:
- Red Mountain: Approved in 2001, Red Mountain is the smallest AVA in Washington state – and the second smallest in the Pacific Northwest after Oregon’s Ribbon Ridge. The entire AVA is just 4,040 acres in size, of which fewer than 1,000 acres are planted. Red Mountain is on the far eastern edge of the Yakima Valley, near the towns of Benton City and West Richland. Traditionally, Red Mountain is the warmest area in Washington to grow wine grapes. It is most famous for red grapes, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. The first vineyard on Red Mountain was Kiona, planted in 1975 by John Williams and Jim Holmes.
- Rattlesnake Hills: This area of the Yakima Valley is in the northwestern corner, around the towns of Zillah, Wapato and Outlook. It was approved by the federal government in 2006 and is 68,500 acres in size, of which about 1,600 acres are planted. It is a somewhat warmer area of the Yakima Valley and rises in elevation from 850 feet to more than 3,000. Wine grapes have been planted here since the late 1960s
- Snipes Mountain: One of the smallest AVAs in Washington, Snipes Mountain has a lot of history behind it. Wine grapes were first planted here in 1917 by William B. Bridgman – and some of those grapes continue to provide fruit today. Bridgman opened Upland Winery here soon after Prohibition was repealed, and he operated it late into his life. Today, his vineyards are owned by the Newhouse family, which has resurrected Upland and is winning top awards with its wines. The AVA was approved in early 2009 by the federal government. It is 4,145 acres in size, of which nearly 800 acres are covered in vines. The AVA is an upthrust in the middle of the Yakima Valley near the city of Sunnyside. Across the highway is a landform called Harrison Hill, which is part of the Snipes Mountain AVA.
Key vineyards in the Yakima Valley
Some of Washington’s most important vineyards are in the Yakima Valley. Here are a few key vineyards:
- Red Willow Vineyard: Planted in the early 1970s, this is in the far western edge of the Yakima Valley.
- Upland Vineyards: William Bridgman began planting grapes here in 1917. Today, it is the largest vineyard on Snipes Mountain.
- Harrison Hill: Also part of William Bridgman’s plantings, Harrison Hill is owned by the Newhouse family, and the grapes go to DeLille Cellars.
- Crawford Vineyard: This vineyard is near Prosser and supplies grapes to many wineries across Washington state.
- Klipsun Vineyard: One of the earliest and most famous plantings on Red Mountain, Klipsun is known for producing big, bold, tannic reds.
- Ciel du Cheval Vineyard: On Sunset Road, Ciel du Cheval is owned by Jim Holmes, one of Red Mountain’s pioneer grape growers.
- Boushey Vineyard: Dick Boushey is one of the top grape growers in Washington. His vineyard is north of the town of Grandview.
- Otis Vineyard: Otis Harlan planted this vineyard in 1957, and it has supplied grapes to top wineries ever since.
- Chandler Reach Vineyard: This 42-acre vineyard near Interstate 82 is on a north-facing slope near Red Mountain and is owned by Len Parris.
- Elerding Vineyard: Steve Elerding owns this highly acclaimed vineyard near Prosser, where he grows Cab, Syrah, Grenache and Petit Verdot.
- Elephant Mountain Vineyard: This high-elevation site in the Rattlesnake Hills was planted by the Hattrup family and is best known for its Syrah.
- Viewcrest Vineyard: This cool vineyard is highly prized for its Riesling, and the grapes often make the cut for the famous Eroica Riesling from Chateau Ste. Michelle and Dr. Loosen.
- DuBrul Vineyard: This is the estate vineyard for Cote Bonneville. It was planted by the Shiels family in 1992 and grows Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Riesling and Chardonnay.
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Yakima Valley wineries
- 14 Hands
- Agate Field Vineyard
- Airfield Estates
- AntoLin Cellars
- Barrel Springs Winery
- Chandler Reach Vineyards
- Claar Cellars
- Col Solare
- Cooper Wine Co.
- Cote Bonneville
- Cultura Wine
- Desert Wind Winery
- Dineen Vineyards
- Fidelitas Wines
- Gamache Vintners
- Gilbert Cellars
- Hedges Family Estate
- Hightower Cellars
- Hinzerling Winery
- Hogue Cellars
- Horizon’s Edge
- Kana Winery
- Kestrel Vintners
- Kiona Vineyards Winery
- Knight Hill Winery
- Maison de Padgett
- Mercer Estates
- Milbrandt Vineyards
- Oakwood Cellars
- Pontin del Roza
- Severino Cellars
- Silver Lake Winery
- Sleeping Dog Wines
- Southard Winery
- Steppe Cellars
- Tapteil Vineyard Winery
- Terra Blanca
- Thurston Wolfe Winery
- Treveri Sparkling Cellars
- Two Mountain Winery
- Upland Estates Winery
- Wineglass Cellars