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Wednesday, February 22, 2006 - Page updated at 07:39 AM

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New wine grape-growing region recognized

The Associated Press

YAKIMA — The Rattlesnake Hills, a sweeping area southeast of Yakima in central Washington, soon will be designated the state's ninth federally recognized wine grape-growing region.

The recognition marks another step in the industry's effort to distinguish specific wine regions within the state. But for the first time in Washington, the proposal came with organized opposition — a sign that heated competition might soon accompany the feel-good atmosphere that has come to represent the state's growing wine industry.

The U.S. Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau announced last week it had approved the Rattlesnake Hills for appellation status, effective March 20. The federal bureau awards appellation status to regions, also known as American Viticultural Areas, to recognize their distinct climate and soil features.

The 68,500-acre Rattlesnake Hills region lies within the Yakima Valley appellation, stretching from Union Gap, just south of Yakima, to north of Sunnyside about 45 miles to the east.

The region's silty, loam soils hold moisture better than some of the soils of other wine grape-growing regions in Washington. In addition, the area receives warmer temperatures than other parts of the Yakima Valley appellation, said Gail Puryear, owner and winemaker of Bonair Winery in Zillah.

Puryear and his wife, Shirley, had been among those pushing the new appellation.

"We can ripen the warmest varieties, the sun-loving varieties like syrah and nebbiolo, but we have micro-climates because of the varying topography. Riesling does well in the cool micro-climates," he said. "We grow everything in between."

Puryear sees the growing number of appellation requests as the industry's natural progression to recognize where grapes actually grow in Washington — on hillsides — beyond the Yakima and Columbia valleys that were first recognized as wine grape-growing regions.

Thus, the latest appellations to be recognized: Red Mountain, Horse Heaven Hills and Wahluke Slope, which was awarded appellation status Jan. 6.

But of the 26 people who submitted comments to the federal government about the proposal, nearly half were opposed. They included several wineries and vineyards, who argued the region's climate and soil were no different than other areas inside the Yakima Valley appellation.

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Opponents also argued that a different name, if any, should be used to define the area, because the Rattlesnake Hills extend farther east than the proposed boundary of the appellation.

Dick Boushey, a Grandview grower who opposed the appellation request, said the issue had become divisive in some corners.

"It just shows I don't really understand what it takes to be an AVA, and I guess I have a little bit less regard for what an AVA is," he said. "Whatever happens, we all need to work together. There probably will be more AVAs in the future, and I think we all want the same thing: to promote the area in any way we can."

If the application met all the criteria to be named an appellation, it just gives the Washington wine industry one more opportunity to market itself, said Robin Pollard, executive director of the Washington Wine Commission, a promotion agency funded by member fees on growers and wineries.

Meanwhile, two other regions are seeking appellation status. The Chelan area in north-central Washington and the Ancient Lake region near Moses Lake in central Washington, which submitted its proposal only recently, are less likely to see opposition because they would be the first appellations in their regions.

"It's really going to be on a case-by-case basis," Pollard said. "I suppose there is that danger of diluting the overall message and creating some confusion. From where I sit, we certainly are placing a priority on branding Washington state as the wine region."

Washington is the nation's second-largest producer of premium wine, after California. More than 350 wineries, 350 wine-grape growers and 30,000 vineyard acres support the more than $2.5 billion annual industry.

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