Yakima Valley

Wine Press NorthwestMay 23, 2013 

Preconceived notions are insidious and can lead to some wrong-headed thinking. This has affected many things, and among the least discussed is how it works in the world of wine.

But it is a huge factor in how we see wine. For instance, assume a winery gets a score of 95 for a Cabernet Sauvignon one year, and then gets 94 for its next vintage. I have personally experienced situations where the third vintage of this wine was nowhere near the quality of the other two, yet still gets a 93 or 92.

Why? The answer is based around the notion that those who evaluate wine usually do so within sight of the label, and the preconditioning that occurs is almost impossible to avoid. We bring a lot of baggage to the tasting table when we can see the label. Such does not occur with blind tasting.

Another example: “Yakima Valley? Oh, it’s too cool to make classic Cabernet.” It’s a phrase I once heard decades ago, and it was so widely stated that some people assumed it was true.

The fact is it never was true. Indeed, it was an absurd statement since cooler climates are more likely to make classic Cabernets; warmer climates make Port. And the fact that Yakima has suffered some of the same fate as all other generalizations about wine, regions, wine makers, and other topics irks wine people, and especially the people of Yakima.

“Cool region? Yes, I’ve heard that, but usually it’s from people with incomplete information,” said Kay Simon, who with her husband, Clay Mackey, owns Chinook Wines.

Yakima, she pointed out, includes Red Mountain “which is a warm site, and we have some specific sites that are warmer than others.”

I asked where the notion came from that Yakima was cool. She said it may have come from an era when Washington State University’s Prosser research station was one of the only weather sites in the area. Today there are well over 100 such sites, and though there may still be some underground disparagement of the area, for the most part Yakima has shed its old image and is now one of the sites that wine lovers claim make wines that age quite nicely.

For if there is any part of the old lore that is correct it is that the red wines of Yakima Valley do not lose their acidity, and the pH levels don’t rise as quickly as in some other areas. And it’s well known that higher acidity and lower pH levels are associated with longer aging.

In particular, said Simon, “Merlot and Cabernet Franc here are essential for their distinctive varietal character.” What a novel idea: that red wine will show varietal character at all!

Years ago, in the late 1990s, when some people got the incorrect impression that any red wine with a trace of pyrazine (green, herbal notes) was a flawed wine, some Yakima wines were “guilty” of being varietally correct. Today, as younger, more adventuresome consumers understand that regional character isn’t a flaw but a bonus (!), some growers “ finally are claiming some of the credit,” said Simon.

She was struck by the fact that late last year, she received three separate e-mails. All three were similar, she said. “The subject line was about our 1992 Cabernet or Merlot, and I wanted to hold my breath before I read the second line.” However, she said, they all said they aged the wines for two decades and were struck “by how wonderfully they had aged.”

Another revelation: Yakima wines can live long and prosper.

Cabernet Sauvignon may be the most politically correct of red wines, but Simon and others I have spoken with say Yakima may be best for some of the other Bordeaux varieties. Recently on these pages I spoke of the excellent and balanced Malbecs of Paul Portteus. Chinook is not alone in seeing the other Bordeaux grapes as having great potential here.

In the early 1990s, Simon and Mackey planted a small Cab Franc vineyard because it appears to be a bit more winter-tolerant than Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. What they have found is that the variety, perhaps a tad challenging to deal with as a grapevine, still asserts itself best in the style of a classic Chinon from the Loire, aged in neutral puncheons, allowing it to really show the varietal nature.

Although better known for its red wines, Yakima has also made a move toward gaining recognition for its white wines, experimenting with different clones of different grapes.

The relatively new Mercer Estate has made some excellent strides with Pinot Gris, Riesling, and Chardonnay.

Moreover, the aforementioned Red Mountain AVA, one of the warmest sites in Washington, gives another view of Yakima with wines of depths and yet they still offer long age-ability based on excellent acid levels.

A reason for that is that after the middle of August, the valley is swathed in cooler nights, which slows down sugar accumulation and leads to long hang time with good acid levels.

A final comment about the valley’s old rep: global climate change is sure to alter any decades-old “truism” about Yakima and what it does best.

So the next time anyone parrots that saw about Yakima and its cool nature, just ignore the comment. You probably don’t have the time to read them these 903 words.

Dan Berger is a nationally renowned wine writer who lives in Santa Rosa, Calif. He publishes a weekly commentary Dan Berger’s Vintage Experiences (VintageExperiences.com).

Wine Press Northwest is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service