Washington State’s Rocky Reach Is Now an Official AVA. Here’s Why That Matters.
“As we work to raise awareness and demand for Washington wine, each new AVA provides an opportunity to grow our educational content around the diversity and unique make-up of our state,” says Chris Stone, vice president of communications and marketing for Washington State Wine Commission.
Washington State winegrowers have long championed the wide array of growing conditions that help produce world-class bottlings. And a recent push to officially define the state’s vast diversity continues to pay dividends.
On June 3, Rocky Reach became the state’s newest American Viticultural Area (AVA), the result of years of campaigning by local growers and producers.
Rocky Reach is Washington’s 20th AVA, and the sixth appellation in the state to receive the designation since 2020. The recent wave of approvals highlights the recognition and innovation that exists within the state’s wine industry.
“Each AVA further defines our grape growing regions, and signifies our state as a whole.” —Chris Stone, vice president of marketing and communications, Washington State Wine Commission
At least one other AVA application in the state is underway.
Located within the greater Columbia Valley, Rocky Reach encompasses seven vineyards that lie on low-elevation gravel terraces in an ancient canyon carved by the Columbia River.
Why It Matters
“Each AVA further defines our grape growing regions, and signifies our state as a whole,” says Stone. “As we work to raise awareness and demand for Washington wine, each new AVA provides an opportunity to grow our educational content around the diversity and unique makeup of our state. Rocky Reach enhances the educational content we have on Washington’s terroir.”
Kevin Pogue, PhD, a professor of geology at Whitman College in Walla Walla, and who wrote the petition for the creation of Rocky Reach AVA and a handful of others in Washington and Oregon likes to create AVAs that he thinks are “terroir driven.”
But an AVA designation doesn’t necessarily equate to distinctive geologic terroir, says Pogue. Often, it encompasses a collection of terroirs that may also be affected by factors like slope, aspect, elevation, soil type, climate, or even politics among those petitioning to bring an AVA into being. Rocky Reach’s geologic makeup is particularly distinctive, which proponents point to as evidence of the area’s winemaking capabilities.
What It Means for Grape Growing
Rocky Reach sits on a composite of crystalline basement rocks, both deeper and older than the basalt that defines roughly 95% of the Columbia Valley.
“Rocky Reach has no basalt bedrock,” says Pogue. “It really is a unique area within the Columbia Valley that’s easy to differentiate from its surroundings based on things that really affect grape growing.”
The appellation includes a number of growers. However, the only producer located in Rocky Reach currently is Rocky Pond Estate Winery.
Elizabeth Keyser, head winemaker for Rocky Pond, says the area’s unique terroir expresses itself in the bottle.
“There’s a common thread from all the varietals that are grown at our two flagship vineyards in the Rocky Ridge AVA,” she says, which primarily include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. “They all have this baseline minerality. I know ‘minerality’ gets thrown around a lot in the wine world, but there is just this undertow between them.” Keyser points to the presence of minerals like quartz and mica, which are absent in the rest of Columbia Valley’s iron-rich basalt.
What It Means for Producers
Rocky Pond, as well as other producers that source grapes from the region, can include the AVA on their labels starting with the 2022 vintage. Yet, there isn’t necessarily a rush to do so.
“As we continue to discuss this AVA and what it means to our wines, in terms of telling people that this is a place of distinction…I think that we’re still holding off on putting Rocky Reach AVA on our labels until we’ve determined what we want to really identify ourselves with — Syrah, Merlot, or whatever varietals we ended up pushing going forward,” says Keyser. “But the [long-term] goal is to get to where everything could be labeled Rocky Reach.”
Shane Collins, the director of viticulture for Rocky Pond, agrees.
“Our hope is definitely that it becomes sought after and just as recognized as Red Mountain. Washington’s still small in the big picture, but a lot of people know where Red Mountain is now who didn’t 20 years ago. It takes a while, but I think for buyers who seek distinction and sense of place, the uniqueness of what we have going on in Rocky Reach is worth paying attention to.”