When people talk about American wines, they’re usually talking about West Coast wines – after all, more than 90 percent of this country’s wines are produced in California, Oregon and Washington.
More often than not, they’re talking about the biggies: The Napa and Sonoma wines of northern California, the Willamette Valley and Columbia River wines of Oregon and the Walla Walla and Yakima Valley wines of eastern Washington.
What most people aren’t talking about – but probably should be – are the emerging wine regions in the Pacific Northwest. As it happens, one such region is right here in Clark County.
“We have the same weather as the Willamette Valley and we have land available to put vines in the ground. There is no reason why this area cannot be a destination region for wine,” says Wes Parker, owner of the Koi Pond Cellars winery in Ridgefield.
Parker, 36, has been around wine his entire life. His family worked with vineyard and winery owners in Northern California for many decades and Parker moved to the Willamette Valley in the early 1990s, just as that region was emerging as a major contender in the world of wine. He sees Southwest Washington as having the same potential as some of the world’s most recognized wine regions.
Already, there are 16 wineries, vineyards and tasting rooms in Clark County. That’s nothing compared to regions like the Willamette Valley, which has several dozen wineries, but it’s a strong showing. Lately, winemakers and vineyard owners in the region have been trying to band together and form an association. Most say cooperation is key if the area is ever going to be known as a destination for great wines.
“What’s the future for this area? I think it’s going to grow and grow and grow,” says Walt Houser, owner of Bethany Vineyards and Winery in Ridgefield. “But having an association would really move us forward.”
Currently, say winemakers throughout Clark County, the area has a slight recognition problem.
“People are always surprised that we’re here and that there are so many wineries in Clark County,” says Joe Millea, owner of the Moulton Falls Winery in Yacolt. “People just don’t know about it yet.”
Parker, along with his wife, Michelle, at Koi Pond Cellars, has been urging other Clark County winery, vineyard and tasting room owners to work cooperatively. Forming a winemakers’ association has been discussed before – Houser remembers talking about an association more than a decade ago – but growing grapes and making wine is a time-consuming lifestyle.
“There’s no vacation time, no sick pay,” Parker says. “You give up your free time in this industry. It takes a lot of perseverance.”
Finding people who are willing to lead such an association can be tricky, but the Parkers – along with several other winery owners in Ridgefield, Battle Ground, Vancouver and Yacolt – have said they’re willing to devote their spare time to the project.
“We know that (forming an association) has to happen,” Parker says. “We can’t just put it off, we have to do it.”
In November, the wineries, vineyards and tasting rooms of Clark County joined together for a Thanksgiving wine-tasting and food-pairing tour.
Millea, of the Yacolt-based Moulton Falls Winery, says the event was a huge success.
“We had one of the best weekends we’ve ever had,” Millea says. “People saw the ads we did as a group in the newspaper and on Facebook. We saw a lot of new faces that weekend and heard from people who said they never knew there were so many wineries in this area.”
Having a formal association would help area winemakers and vineyard owners pool their limited resources. They could buy in bulk, take advantage of the association’s nonprofit status, chip in for a concentrated marketing campaign and, perhaps, hire an employee to tackle marketing and advertising issues.
Michelle Parker says the region is close to forming a winery/vineyard association. “I’d say we’ll probably have one by the end of 2015.”
The association is a critical step toward being recognized as a player in the wine world, says Andee Mowrey, marketing and tasting room manager for the area’s oldest winery and vineyard, English Estates Winery in Vancouver.
“Having an association will give us better rates on everything. We’ll have nonprofit status … and we’ll start getting recognized as a (wine-producing) area,” Mowrey says. “Our group wants to do it. All of the wineries want to do it. It’s important that we move forward on this.”
The future of Clark County’s wine region
Having an association is wonderful, but what many winemakers and vineyard owners want is full legitimacy for Clark County’s wine region. This means getting the vaunted American Viticultural Area (AVA) designation. A federally recognized designation, the AVA adds prestige to a winemaking region and can bolster prices on wine made from that particular AVA’s grapes. There are more than 200 AVAs in the U.S. right now, including 13 in Washington and 18 in Oregon.
“Right now, we’re not even on the map,” Houser, of Bethany Vineyards and Winery, says. “Having an AVA would put us on the map. People would recognize this area.”
Many winemakers in Clark County agree that having an AVA would be great, but how to get there is a point of contention. Some think the area is ready to go for it now. Others say Clark County can’t think about AVA until there are more grape vines in the ground. And some believe the AVA is a long way off.
Gary Gougér, of Gougér Winery, believes Clark County’s AVA designation is a long way off.
“The AVA is a very interesting and important topic,” Gougér says. “But that is many, many years down the line.”
First, Gougér says, the region needs to research which grapes will grow best in this area, stand up to potential diseases and be unique enough that Clark County isn’t competing with bigger, better-funded AVAs in Washington and Oregon.
“If we’re going to do an AVA we need to determine what is the varietal we’re going to be known for,” Gougér says. “Our pinot noir could be just as wonderful as the pinot noir in the Willamette Valley, but if we’re competing with the best pinot noir in the world, we’ll never be out of the Willamette Valley’s shadow.”
Having trained as a pharmacist and optometrist before winemaking school in Australia, Gougér sees the value of education. In his opinion, Clark County needs educational partners like Clark College or Washington State University to help decide which grape varietals will do best in this region.
“I’d love to see the educational community establish a test area to help determine which varietals (grow best) here,” Gougér says.
Figuring out which varietals the region wants to be known for – some winemakers say Clark County is a prime location for white wines such as Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc – and then testing them isn’t something that will happen overnight.
Gougér has proposed his idea of a test vineyard to experts at Washington State University and says he would love to see the test area be somewhere public, perhaps on acreage near the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, where people could see the grapes growing and begin to recognize Clark County as a serious wine-producing region. Still, even if a test area is established, it would take five or six years until the grapes were ready to be made into wine and then you have to let the wine – mostly the red wine – mature before tasting it.
“Realistically, in my opinion, we’re probably about 10 to 15 years away from deciding what we want to grow in this area … and then it would be another few years before getting an AVA established,” Gougér says.
That may seem like a long way down the road, but Gougér says he sees a rosy outlook for the region’s wineries.
“This region is very much an up-and-coming area,” Gougér says. “And I think we’ll be very successful as long as we prepare the groundwork now for the people who will follow in our footsteps. I predict that, in the next year or two, we’ll see another 10 wineries here. I can see this becoming a destination area for wine. And, once that happens, we could see hotels, restaurants and spas coming in around this industry. It has the potential to bring a tremendous income into the county.”
For more information about the various wineries, tasting rooms and vineyards throughout Clark County, or to look for upcoming events like the group’s Wine and Chocolate Tour on Valentine’s Day weekend, Feb. 14-15, visit www.clarkcountywine.com.
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