In our vino-rich, buy-local-driven state, it's easy to take our vast wine selection for granted, not to mention our myriad opportunities to go straight to the source. Whether you're cozied up in a tasting room this time of year or picnicking at vineyards in the warmer months, Washington has more than 700 wineries to choose from, but few sites embody our community like Horse Heaven Hills.
This Throwback Thursday, we honor ten years of the local American Viticultural Area (AVA), which boasts five wineries of its own between the areas of Alderdale and Patterson, and supplies 25 percent of the state's wine.
Horse Heaven Hills gained AVA distinction in July 2005, but its history as a grape growing region started much earlier. Named by cowboy James Kinney after he found his horses munching grass contentedly on the grounds, Horse Heaven Hills has been home to two winegrowing families for generations, the Andrewses and Mercers.
The Andrews family drilled for irrigation water in 1956 and the Mercers installed a pumping station on the Columbia River in 1968, then eventually planted the first vineyard in 1972. They worked under the counsel of Dr. Walter Clore, a Washington State University researcher popularly known as the “Father of Washington Viticulture” and chose the plot for its hot climate (ideal for grape-growing) and its wind and sandy soil—which, according to Mimi Nye, vineyard manager for Canoe Ridge Estate, “creates stress in the vines, which is positive for wine quality and character.”
McKinley Springs Vineyard at Horse Heaven Hills AVA
Today there are 12,444 acres of grapes on Horse Heaven Hills and the AVA produces 35 varieties on site, specializing in Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah among reds, and Chardonnay, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc among whites. In addition, Horse Heaven Hills distributes fruit to 250 wineries throughout Washington, and Nye estimates the total wine made from Horse Heaven Hills grapes comes to more than 3 million cases of wine per year.
In 2002, Washington state won its first 100-point wine distinction from a Horse Heaven Hills-sourced wine and three more have earned perfect scores since. (Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator magazines among others use a 100-point scale to evaluate wines.)
Ready for a sample? Columbia Crest winery in Prosser, Wash., offers daily complimentary tours and tastings from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.—either guided (reservations preferred) or self-guided (you’re invited to bring your own picnic)—and an optional 45-minute wine and food pairing experience for $25 per person. McKinley Springs and Alexandria Nicole (both Prosser locations) wineries are also open by appointment.
Horse Heaven Hills winemaker Doug Rowell barbeques on the grounds
According to Nye, the best way for visitors to see all the wineries is to attend the Horse Heaven Hills Trail Drive the third Saturday of July each year.
At this four- to five-hour event, visitors meet Horse Heaven Hills growers and vintners and receive a wine tasting from all stops, a complimentary logo glass and an optional BBQ lunch (various packages are available). Ticket proceeds support annual scholarships that the AVA offers to university students based in Horse Heaven Hills, Benton, Yakima and Klickitat counties who are studying viticulture and enology in a certified program. The AVA has awarded 16 scholarships to date to promote education about the industry.
Watch the trail drive site here to make reservations and taste for yourself what Nye calls the “balanced wine, with powdery tannins and bright fruit" that Horse Heaven Hills is known for. "The region is hot so it can ripen grapes fully, resulting in high quality wines,” she says.