Wine

An Insider’s Look at 7 Potential New AVAs

Seven of the latest proposed American Viticulture Areas come from California, Washington, and Texas

A photograph of vines at the Cascade Cliffs Vineyard and Winery in Columbia Hills.
New proposed AVAs are stepping into the spotlight in 2024. Photo credit: Jared Germain.

The U.S. Tobacco and Trade Bureau is currently working its way through more than a dozen petitions for American Viticulture Areas (AVAs) throughout the country. Petitions may argue for AVA status based on a combination of soil, weather, elevation, wind, and even water volume and quality, an unusual consideration that has nonetheless cropped up in at least two of these applications. According to the petitions’ authors, all of these areas produce wines that are notable for their distinct combination of flavors, aromas, and textures. Here is a summary of seven areas that have recently submitted a petition to become an official AVA.

Columbia Hills AVA, Washington

If approved, the Columbia Hills AVA in south Washington’s Klickitat County will be sandwiched by the Columbia Gorge AVA to the west and the Burn of the Columbia AVA to the east. For its other boundaries, “you could say it’s the south-facing slopes of the Columbia Hills between Columbia River and the maximum height [900 feet] of the Missoula floods,” says Kevin Pogue, Ph.D., the owner of VinTerra Consulting, who wrote the petition. 

According to Dr. Pogue, the elevation is critical because everything below this demarcation line was profoundly impacted by the ancient Missoula floods. The rushing water brought in coarse gravel and created landslides, which brought hilltop soil down to lower levels. Layers of silt and sand blew in and landed on top, leading to a complex mix of soil types. 

The AVA will be 29,387 acres and has four wineries. Grapes currently grow on 338 acres. Though Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, and Grenache predominate, Bob Lorkowski, the owner and operator of Cascade Cliffs Vineyard & Winery and the driving force behind the petition, has always grown Italian varieties such as Barbera, Dolcetto, and Nebbiolo as well.  

Besides the dramatic elevation change, the thing that’s always been notable about the Columbia Hills is the longer growing season. Thanks to the thermal mass of the Columbia River, “our springs are very early and the fall is very late,” says Lorkowski. 

High winds are also common in this section of Washington State. “Wind makes the skins thicker on most grapes, and what that does is it adds intensity to the flavor and more extraction of color to the wines,” says Craig Leuthold, the owner of Maryhill Winery

Hickory Sands District AVA, Texas 

Millions of years ago, a portion of the sea floor in what is now Texas Hill Country lifted up and brought huge quantities of sand with it. Much of that sand flowed into the western part of present-day Mason County. The type of soil that’s now known as Hickory sand still makes up much of the area’s loamy soil, along with sandstone and decomposed granite, and is a major contributor to the area’s distinctiveness. 

Dan McLaughlin, the owner of Robert Clay Vineyards, also pointed to elevation and water when writing the petition. With elevations ranging from 1,500 to 1,980 feet above sea level, the Hickory Sands District has cooler evenings than the surrounding area. The region also sits atop one of Texas’s largest aquifers, which is a big benefit when the state experiences a dry season. “The water is very clear and very low in total dissolved solids—probably the lowest in the state,” says McLaughlin. 

Nine commercial vineyards cover approximately 190 acres and grow everything from Syrah and other Rhône grapes to Iberian varieties such as Touriga Nacional and Tempranillo. McLaughlin, however, is particularly excited about Merlot and Chardonnay. 

Winemaker Doug Lewis from Lewis Wines works with grapes from all over Texas and he finds that fruit from the Hickory Sands District produces wines with softer tannins, a notable mineral profile, and wonderful aromatics. “They’re less burly wines that seem pretty elegant to begin with and don’t need much in the way of tannin management,” he says. “Wines from there tend to be less chewy, more aromatic, and pretty.” His kindest words go to wines made with Rhône varieties, especially Mourvèdre and Viognier, which tends to be “restrained and elegant.” 

Don Pullum, who has been making wine at Sandstone Cellars Winery in the Hickory Sands District since 2004, describes the area’s wines as highly aromatic with complexity in both the bouquet and palate.

Llano Uplift AVA, Texas

Much of the soil in Texas Hill County is limestone based, but in the proposed 1.3 million-acre Llano Uplift AVA, granite is the basis of the soil where grapes are planted. As in the Hickory Sands District, the region’s soil is the result of a massive uplift of Precambrian granite from the seafloor, which came to the Earth’s surface millions of years ago. “One of characteristics is the soil is more on the acidic side,” says Justin Scheiner, an associate professor and extension viticulture specialist at the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. There are also large pieces of exposed pink granite called enchanted rock scattered throughout the region. 

The Llano Uplift AVA also made the unusual move of pointing to water quality and availability in its petition. “Underneath our area are sub-aquifers that are high yielding and have water with low dissolved salts and minerals,” says Scheiner. The region’s location in the northern part of Hill Country makes it cooler and drier than areas closer to the warming influence of the Gulf of Mexico. 

An aerial view of a Llano Uplift vineyard
Llano Uplift’s soil is unique from other Texas AVAs. Photo credit: Texas Ranch Photography.

Though it’s possible to find some Rhône varieties, including Malbec and Viognier, many growers have eschewed French grapes in favor of Italian varieties such as Sangiovese and Aglianico. 

Kelsey Kramer, the director of education at Hill Country Wine Academy, finds many notable characteristics in the area’s bottlings. “Wines from the proposed Llano Uplift AVA show ripe fruit characteristics, sometimes in a cola-like fashion with sarsaparilla root, ripe black cherry, and strong spice notes like anise,” she says. “This all is accompanied by a strong herbaceous vein from aromas like dried rosemary, menthol, black tea, and delicate dried lavender. The structure of the wines truly depends on the vintage, but tannins can range from gentle and supple to thick and tight. Expect depth, liveliness, and what I call a bold elegance.” 

Mill Creek-Walla Walla Valley AVA, Washington

Mill Creek-Walla Walla Valley sits at the eastern edge of the Walla Walla Valley AVA and will be the only nested AVA on the Washington side (The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater is entirely contained within Oregon). Vineyards must be between 1,200 and 2,000 feet above sea level because this elevation has none of the alluvial soils brought in by the ancient Missoula floods, according to Pogue. Instead, the area has such thick layers of loess soil that vines cannot penetrate the basalt and gravel-heavy soil that lies beneath. 

“One of the most distinctive features of the area is that it’s generally the south-facing slopes of the lower Mill Creek Valley, which is this massive drainage basin for the Blue Mountains,” says Pogue. “It captures a whole lot of cool air, so in the summer, cool air comes rushing down the valley. You get lower evening temperatures much more quickly, which means you have a more distinctive diurnal pattern. This sort of natural air conditioning means a longer, gentler season than in some other parts of the valley.” These conditions are ideal for Merlot and Cabernet Franc, both of which grow well in the area. 

Doug Frost, MW, MS, is one of two investors in Echolands Winery, which made wine from purchased fruit until their own vines were ready in 2022. Grapes from the cooler Mill Creek area are a perfect match with some of the warmer vineyards he works with in Walla Walla. While he says it’s too early for him to give a complete evaluation of the notable features from the area’s wines, “There’s a plushness to the tannins that I’ve seen so far that really appeals to me,” he says. 

Daniel Wampfler, the winemaker and general manager of Abeja Winery, makes Chardonnay, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Viognier from estate-grown grapes. “There is a consistent purity of fruit and concentration of ripe flavors throughout each of these wines,” he says. “The texture is consistently balanced, yielding beautiful, silky, and velvety characters while not being rough or gritty. A clean acidity also is a consistent identifier to these wines,” along with a salinity that comes across on the finish. 

Mount St. Helens AVA, Washington

Eastern Washington is the state’s best-known area for viticulture, but a collection of wineries have been producing wine in southwest Washington since the 1970s (though the earliest record of vinifera in the region actually dates back to 1825, when the Hudson’s Bay Company reported that grapes were growing at Fort Vancouver). 

The climate and soils inside the proposed Mount St. Helens AVA are very similar to those found in Oregon’s Willamette Valley—and perhaps not surprising given the area’s proximity to one of America’s most famous volcanoes. Bedrock that’s volcanic in nature is topped mostly with volcanic soil, although “from Clark County up to the Longview area was all part of the flow of the glacial Lake Missoula,” says Roger Rezabek, the co-owner of Rezabek Vineyards in Battle Ground. Cool, wet winters are followed by long, dry summers that are typically very mild. 

Growers can plant up to 1,200 feet and still be inside the AVA. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are the top grapes grown in the area, although it’s possible to find other varieties, including Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, Sémillon, and Sauvignon Blanc. Rezabek is among the local producers making sparkling wine. 

Jennifer English Wallenberg, part of the fifth generation of farmers at English Estate, confirmed that the wines from this region—which is only a stone’s throw from Portland—are much more on par with products made in the Willamette Valley than the rest of Washington State. “That shouldn’t be surprising, as our soils and climate are very similar,” she says. 

Sebastopol Hills AVA, California

Sebastopol Hills has been a distinct neighborhood in southwest Sonoma County since 1999, but it was only in the past few years that vineyard owners decided to apply for an AVA. The area is 10,320 acres with roughly 1,000 acres under vine. It is home to 50 vineyards and two wineries: Littorai Wines and Reichwage Winery. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are the principal grape varieties. 

“The really salient point is that it is by far the coolest part of the Russian River Valley,” said Joe Rogoway, the managing partner of Rogoway Law Group, who wrote the petition. The land’s proximity to the Petaluma Gap, as well as vineyards that can stretch up to 600 feet, mean “the majority of the area is bathed in the marine layer. There’s no part that is consistently out of it.” 

An aerial shot of Balletto winery’s Cider Ridge vineyard, located in the Sebastopol Hills. Sunny, blue skies, surrounded by greenary.
Sebastopol Hills is home to many unique vineyards, such as Balletto’s Cider Ridge vineyard, pictured above. Photo courtesy of Balleto Vineyards.

The soil composition is also part of the area’s distinctiveness. “We have the highest percentage of Goldridge sandy loam soil in the Russian River Valley,” says Ted Lemon, the founder and winemaker at Littorai, with 71 percent of the soil fitting in this category. There are a few spots with high concentrations of Sebastopol fine sandy loam and Cotati fine sandy loam.

According to Rogoway, the soils, climate, and elevation in the Sebastopol Hills leads to wines with elevated acidity, fresh aromatic profiles, and notable red fruit flavors. For Lemon, “the most prominent flavor is wild raspberry, with maybe a little bit of cola and a little tart cherry,” he says. 

Suscol District AVA, California 

The Suscol Junction AVA will be one of the smallest in the Napa Valley at 3,394 acres, 890 of which are under vine. The north boundary runs along the unincorporated town of Shipyard Acres and Skyline Wilderness Park; the south boundary abuts Jameson Canyon. There are no wineries currently in the area. 

“The area is dominated by Hambright soils, which are thin soils that are derived from basalt,” said Patrick Shabram, who owns a geographic consulting business. The soil is fairly homogenous when compared to other parts of Napa. 

The word suscol originated with the native Patwin community and means ‘wet and green.’ Shabram describes the area as having a transitory climate, which tends to be cooler than Coombsville but warmer than Los Carneros.

The area was well known for grape growing for many years. “By some accounts, it was responsible for some of the viticulture that developed in Napa in the 19th century,” says Shabram. “Then it all went away during Prohibition, and now it’s back.”  

Eric Pooler, the vice president of viticulture, winery relations, and bulk wine sales for Nuveen Natural Capital, reported that Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot are the main grapes produced, along with Sauvignon Blanc that can be quite racy when grown in the Suscol District’s lower elevations. Pooler describes the red wines as “deeply hued garnet with evolved, finely grained tannins. They have brilliant acidity that supports age-worthiness.”

Dispatch

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Sophia McDonald is a freelance writer who lives in Eugene, Oregon. Her work has appeared in numerous publications and on websites, including Wine Enthusiast, Eating Well, Sip Northwest, and 1859 Oregon’s Magazine.

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