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News / Business / Clark County Business

A Southwest Washington viticultural area would boost wines’ value in region

Plan has pending status from federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau

By Sarah Wolf, Columbian staff writer
Published: October 26, 2023, 6:03am

With a new “pending” status from the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, Southwest Washington’s vintners are on their way to joining Washington’s growing list of official American Viticultural Areas.

The Southwest Washington Winery Association submitted its petition to form an AVA in August 2022, hoping to boost the area’s viticultural notoriety.

An American Viticultural Area is a region that the federal government has recognized as having unique characteristics for growing grapes. There are 20 AVAs in Washington, mostly in the central and eastern parts of the state.

Yakima Valley, the state’s first American Viticultural Area, was given the designation in 1983. More regions have sought a viticultural designation since then, especially over the past few years.

Roger Rezabek is co-owner of Rezabek Vineyards in Battle Ground and chair of the region’s AVA task force.

One of the primary goals for the Southwest Washington Winery Association when it formed in 2016 was creating an AVA for the region.

“It’s great to be at this point,” said Rezabek.

Nationwide, there are 269 established AVAs with more than half in California, according to the U.S. Treasury Department’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. Of the 23 that have come online since 2020, six were in Washington.

The bureau, which manages the AVA designation process, recently told the Southwest Washington Winery Association that the group’s petition to form its Mount St. Helens American Viticultural Area met the agency’s regulatory requirements. Next, the bureau will start its proposed rulemaking process.

There are 20 proposed viticultural areas that are listed as pending on the bureau’s website. Two are in Washington — Klickitat and Walla Walla.

With so many AVAs in the pipeline, the bureau expects the Mount St. Helens AVA proposed rules could be more than a year away. Then, there will be a 60-day comment period.

Winemakers believe the proposed designation will be a boon for their businesses, though it could impact some wineries more than others, said Tom Aspitarte, owner of Martha’s Vineyard of Skamania in Washougal.

Having an AVA would allow wineries like Martha’s Vineyard of Skamania that grow their grapes and make their wines on site to legally label their bottles “Estate Grown.”

“I do expect that when I put ‘Estate Grown’ on my bottles, I will be able to charge more,” said Aspitarte. He guessed his wine would increase in value by around 10 percent.

Aspitarte expects more people will be interested in the region’s wines when the AVA is approved.

“It becomes more of a destination,” he said, pointing to other areas in the state with strong agritourism, like Walla Walla.

Grape-growing in Southwest Washington dates back to 1825, when the state’s first vines were planted at Fort Vancouver, according to the 1997 book by Ronald Irvine and Walter Clore, “The Wine Project: Washington State’s Winemaking History.”

Today, the region is home to about 140 acres of wine grapes and 30 licensed wineries, as well as a number of tasting rooms. Vineyards are growing 20 different varieties of grapes in Southwest Washington.

Like Aspitarte, Rezabek too expects the AVA to raise awareness of the wineries in the region.

Having the Mount St. Helens AVA label on bottles of wine will be a big deal, he said.