Winemakers across Southwest Washington hope to federally recognize the region for its grape-growing and production.
On Aug. 15, the Southwest Washington Winery Association announced it had submitted a petition to be recognized as an American Viticultural Area (AVA.) The distinction comes through the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which is part of the Department of the U.S. Treasury. It would allow wineries in the area to mark their labels with a federally-recognized origin.
If the petition is accepted, the region would be known as the Mount St. Helens AVA in homage to the mountain that overlooks the span of the region. Roger Rezabek, co-owner of Rezabek Vineyards and Winery in Battle Ground and chair of the association’s AVA task force, said the area’s boundary would extend up to the Thurston County border and include parts of Clark, Cowlitz, Lewis and Skamania counties.
Rezabek had been a home winemaker for decades before he moved to the area in 2005. He, and his wife Donna, received a winery license in 2012, and began growing pinot noir grapes before diversifying to the 15 different varieties they currently have.
The Southwest Washington Winery Association formed in 2016 with one of its goals being the AVA recognition, Rezabek said. The distinction would help fill a gap, since to the north there is the Puget Sound AVA, the Willamette Valley AVA is to the south and the Columbia Gorge AVA is to the east.
If it’s approved, the Mount St. Helens AVA would make a contiguous line of such areas from the Canadian border to the California border, Rezabek said.
Rezabek said writing the petition took several years and the effort dates back to some of the first to plant wine grapes in the area. He said Carl English, of English Estates Vineyard and Winery in Vancouver, first planted grapes in the late 1970s.
Rezabek said English started to write a petition before his death in 2010. Much of what English was able to find out about the region made it into what the winery association ultimately submitted.
Rezabek said a lot of the work for the petition included research. That included finding the region’s growing degree days, a metric based on daily temperatures used to determine how much time a place has to grow a crop.
From April through the end of September, the region has about 2,000 of those growing degree days on average, Rezabek said. That is well above the minimum 1,500 needed to grow good wine grapes. He said lower elevations like Vancouver and Ridgefield usually have the highest numbers in the region.
“We have the soils, we have climate, we have the geography. … It’s an ideal place to plant and grow wine grapes,” Rezabek said.
Rezabek noted the petition was a team effort. He mentioned Tom Aspitarte, of Washougal-based Martha’s Vineyard, and Teresa Hanna, a geologist from Warren, Oregon, who helped with soils and geology research. The association’s AVA task force also includes vintners from Battle Ground’s Buckeye Vineyard, Stavalaura Vineyard and Winery in Ridgefield and Mason Creek Vineyard in La Center, among others.
Rezabek said JC Fulper, of Fernscape Estate Vineyard in Washougal, helped with historical data.
Although new AVAs are often spun off from existing geographic areas, the Mount St. Helens AVA would cover brand-new ground, Rezabek noted. He said the association’s petition has been acknowledged by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, though the final approval could potentially take years.
“It could be that they ask us to change part of it, enhance part of it, add more information to support something,” Rezabek said.
Rezabek said the region is good for growing grape varieties best suited for cooler climates than that of California and eastern Washington. For this season, grapes were ripening a few weeks behind the average, with only a few berries having changed color as of late August.
Though becoming an AVA is mostly about the recognition, Rezabek said being able to federally recognize Southwest Washington for its wine is huge.
“If we can get federal designation of an AVA here, that is a big feather in our cap,” Rezabek said. “It literally puts us on the map. That’s a big deal.”