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Originally published Wednesday, September 24, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Wine Adviser

High expectations for Rattlesnake Hills, Washington's newest AVA

Wine writer Paul Gregutt visits Rattlesnake Hills and talks to Gail Puryear, the man most responsible for the region's application to become an official AVA.

Special to the Seattle Times

Pick of the Week

Bonair 2007 Dry Gewürztraminer; $11. This unusual gewürztraminer puts the flavor focus squarely on grapefruit and pineapple, with a bone-dry, high-acid underpinning. It has moderate concentration and length, with alcohol rated at just 12.5 percent. Time to practice your new turkey recipe for the coming holidays — here's your wine.

It's a late-summer morning, just ahead of the wine-grape harvest, and I'm cruising the Rattlesnake Hills with Gail Puryear, the man most responsible for the region's application to become an official AVA.

It's Washington's ninth and newest (as of this writing) appellation, a broad swath of land north of the Sunnyside canal in the center of the Yakima Valley. Which is why it's a bit surprising when, as we stand upon a hill overlooking the land just south of the new AVA, Puryear dismisses it as "bottomland. The central Yakima Valley," he continues, "is 240,000 acres with no wine grapes. Absolutely no grapes can come from that part of the Yakima Valley; trust me."

Whether or not that statement is accurate depends on where you draw the lines, of course. But drawing the lines is what has fascinated — some might say obsessed — Puryear for much of the past five years. A native of the Yakima Valley and a grape grower and winemaker since 1980, he has the street cred to make his case. He's done the homework also, in the form of a petition for the establishment of the Rattlesnake Hills AVA that was submitted and revised in 2004 and approved in 2006.

As we drive across the heart of the appellation, from Puryear's Bonair winery just outside of Buena to the massive power lines that are its eastern boundary, many familiar winery and vineyard names come into view. Not all of them are supporters of either the name or the borders that were approved.

Puryear is unfazed — unrattled? — by the criticism. He launches a volley of statistics: soil types, elevation, heat unit accumulations, buttressed with anecdotal accounts of failed vineyards located in the bottomlands. When I ask why some excellent vineyards just a bit farther east were excluded, even though they can clearly see those same Rattlesnake Hills, he drives into the area so I can see for myself. In fact, his arguments are compelling.

Just past the power lines the land drops significantly, and there is a large stretch of scrub desert. Where there are vineyards they are Concord grapes, not wine grapes. The wine-grape vineyards begin again in what Puryear calls the lower Yakima Valley, or Prosser Flats.

You will start to see the name Rattlesnake Hills on more and more wines, including some from wineries located outside the region who source grapes there. Among the more well-known vineyards are Elephant Mountain, DuBrul, Dineen and Outlook. The Morrison vineyard, planted in 1968, is the region's oldest, and now belongs to Puryear and his wife, Shirley, who feature the grapes in vineyard-designated Bonair cabernets.

The marketing value of any new appellation takes time to establish. There is no question that vineyards in the Rattlesnake Hills AVA can grow some mighty fine grapes, and the fact that wineries such as Andrew Will, Brian Carter Cellars, McCrea, O• S, Owen Roe, Sheridan, Stevens, William Church and Woodhouse Family (to name just a few) source those grapes speaks volumes.

But convincing the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) that your application is valid is a different task than establishing credibility in the minds of consumers and the trade. That depends upon the wines that carry your name. At the moment, it's too soon to make the call, but the Rattlesnake Hills designation seems to be missing from many of the best wines sourced here. Some simply say Yakima Valley; others use the still more generic Columbia Valley. Some rely on the name of the vineyard to make the case for the quality in the bottle. Until the best wines proudly use the name of the AVA, it will be a difficult sell in many quarters.

The corollary is that a new AVA is more likely to be judged by its worst wines rather than its best. That may be unfair, but it's the reality. Winemakers across the Northwest, despite the region's growing national reputation, are still in the shadow of California. In order to press the many advantages that make Washington wines so distinctive, it is essential to know and understand the broader wine market. Who is your competition? How does your $10 or $20 or $30 chardonnay or merlot or cabernet compare with others at the same price?

Now that the Rattlesnake Hills AVA is a legal reality, ongoing efforts to continue to elevate overall winemaking standards are more important than ever. We who are fortunate enough to live in or near wine country have the chance to watch it happen right before our eyes. For information on tasting rooms, special events and wine touring in the Rattlesnake Hills, visit www.rattlesnakehills.com. For a taste of the terroir, here's a mixed case for sampling.

Bonair 2006 Chateau Puryear Vineyard Chardonnay; $20. From the estate vines, this soft and toasty wine will have great appeal to those who love a buttery style of chardonnay.

Bonair 2006 Morrison Vineyard cabernet sauvignon; $30. Tight, tart and wrapped up in a core of smoky black-currant fruit, this is a clean and well-defined cabernet from the oldest in the Rattlesnake Hills.

Hyatt 2005 Merlot; $10. Simple but substantial, with powerful herbal flavors, prune, cassis and a little pepper from aging in American oak.

Hyatt 2005 cabernet sauvignon; $10. Dark and tannic flavors suggest purple plum and black cherry.

Brian Carter Cellars 2006 Oriana White Blend; $24. A unique blend of roussanne, viognier and riesling, bursting with citrus, stone fruits and ripe tropical flavors.

WilRidge 2006 Viognier; $16. Light and dry, this hints at beeswax and citrus, with a soft mouthfeel and a curious mix of toasted almond, banana and butter cookies in the finish.

Silver Lake 2006 Merlot; $12. Oddly, Silver Lake's least expensive merlot is its best. It's a straight-ahead varietal wine, with a core of black olive and currant, followed by stiff tannins.

Hudson• Shah 2006 chardonnay; $45. Tropical and stone fruits, wrapped in thick, buttery, oaky barrel flavors.

Tamarack Cellars 2005 DuBrul Vineyard Reserve Red; $45. Yummy, toasty and sharp, with bright berry fruit and a lovely chocolate-malt coating over polished tannins.

Tefft Cellars 2006 Syrah; $16. Very tart cranberry fruit, peppery and spicy, with green-tea flavored tannins.

Pleasant Hill Winery 2006 Elephant Mountain Vineyard cabernet sauvignon; $29. Blackberry and black-cherry fruit under toasty oak flavors of smoke and coffee.

Eaton Hill 2005 Konnowac Vineyards cabernet sauvignon; $23. Full and broad fruit flavors, along with softening, earthy, smoky tannins.

Paul Gregutt's column appears weekly in the Wine section. He can be reached at wine@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Wine Adviser
My column, Wednesdays in Northwest Life, is all about sharing the joy of exploring all the world of wine. I want to guide people to make inspired choices, and encourage them to try as many different styles of wine as they can. I will always seek out the best wines at the best prices.
wine@seattletimes.com

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