The Alluring Ancient Lakes AVA

With the addition of four new AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) in the past two years, the ever-growing total of AVAs across the state of Washington currently numbers 20, and is expected to grow with more Washington AVAs currently proposed. Since our state wine regions continue to grow and expand I wanted to get back to sharing more about each of the unique and diverse areas of Washington.

If you have read some of my previous articles, like WASHINGTON’S SMALL BUT MIGHTY AVA, WASHINGTON’S ROYAL AVA-ROYAL SLOPE, and WINE EXPLORATION IN THE LEWIS AND CLARK VALLEY AVA you may remember I am covering all of the Washington AVAs (prior to 2021) in order from newest to oldest. This leads me to the Ancient Lakes of the Columbia Valley which became the 13th AVA in Washington state on Oct., 18, 2012.

The Ancient Lakes Region….

Just east of the Columbia River in Washington, you will find a small chain of lakes known as the Ancient Lakes. The Ancient Lakes takes its name from a series of 35 lakes that are remnants of floods that swept through the Columbia Basin at the end of the last ice age more than 10,000 years ago.

Map from Mountain Project’s Website

Carved by these ice age floods, here you will find some of the most dramatic land formations in Washington State, giving this area characteristics vastly different from other regions in the Evergreen state.

Here’s a great link to the Ancient Lakes of the Columbia Valley AVA website to read more about the Cordilleran Ice Sheet that helped shape this areas striking geological formations. The giant Cordilleran Ice Sheet to the north would periodically release great amounts of melt water that could supplement the floods from glacial Lake Missoula.

As mentioned in previous Washington AVA articles, the Missoula floods were cataclysmic glacial lake outburst floods that periodically swept across eastern Washington and down the Columbia River Gorge at the end of the last ice age. The multiple floods plowed through the land forming coulées as well as multiple ponds and lake.

What does the French word coulée mean?
Geologically speaking, a coulée is a ravine or a gully that is usually dry and was cut by water action. The term coulée comes from the Canadian French word coulée, derived from the French word couler, meaning “to flow.”

This ice age floods not only resulted in this desolate land of beauty and geological splendor, they are also responsible for much of the fertile top soils found here. The rocky cliffs and deep volcanic soils along the plateau above the Columbia River also offer unique mineral qualities to the water-seeking grape vines planted here.

Ancient Lakes AVA Soil….

Within the Ancient Lakes AVA there are 65 soil types , with 88 percent of the land containing 17 of the most common soils. The soils are aridisols (from Latin aridus, “dry”), which are formed in arid conditions and contain little organic matter. Aridisols contain subsurface horizons in which clays, calcium carbonate, silica, salts and/or gypsum have accumulated.

Quincy soil makes up 18.5% of the Ancient Lakes AVA area. This Quincy loam and windblown loess soils have significant deposits of caliche, which topped by a hard but rich layer of calcium carbonate. For grape growers wine grapes thrive here in these “poor” soils because less nitrogen in the dirt results in a smaller vineyard canopy and more intense flavors in the grapes.

In the Spring and early Summer before temperatures rise well into the 100 degree Fahrenheit range, wildflowers are beautifully scattered amongst the big sagebrush and bluebunch wheatgrass that grows above the cataract canyon walls.

Ancient Lakes AVA

The Ancient Lakes of the Columbia Valley AVA referred to locally as the Ancient Lakes AVA lies on the western edge of the Columbia Basin near the town of Quincy in Washington State. The wine region is entirely included within the larger Columbia Valley AVA.

Ancient Lakes AVA Facts:

Elevations range from highs of 1,600 in the north to 1,900 feet in the south with considerably lower lying areas in the middle.

Total area: 1629,153 acres

Size of planted vineyards: Approx. 2000 acres

Precipitation (annual average): < 8″ year

Primary Grapes produced: Riesling, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Syrah, Merlot

The appellation is bounded by the Columbia River to the west; the Winchester Wasteway to the east; the Beezeley Hills to the north and the Frenchman Hills to the south.

Growing Conditions: The Ancient Lakes AVA arid, continental climate, receives an average of 6 inches of rainfall annually so irrigation is required to grow vinifera grapes there. In regards to temperatures, being more northerly than many of Washington’s grape growing regions, heat accumulation begins later in the Ancient Lakes and ends sooner, making it one of the cooler growing regions in the state. The average elevation is higher than most AVAs, which contributes to a little cooler and wider diurnal temperatures during the fall. The Columbia River, which defines the appellation’s western boundary, protects many of the areas from early and late season frost, which can affect nearby regions.

The wild beauty of its high windswept plateaus, severe coulée drops and sheer basalt cliffs makes this region an attractive destination for hikers.

Grape Growing History in the Ancient Lakes AVA….

Vineyards in the Ancient Lakes of Columbia Valley were planted as early as the 1970s.Thanks to the attention of focused wine-farmers and winemakers, wine grapes are successfully being grown here, and these grapes are producing some of the best-known wines in Washington and the Northwest. Both whites and reds claim the rocky Central Washington area around Quincy as their home vineyard source.

Here is some information about a few of the grape growing pioneers in the Ancient Lakes AVA area:

Cave B Estate Vineyard

Vince and Carol Bryan, owners of Champs de Brionne Winery becomes the first to plant grapes in the Ancient Lakes region, their first grapes were harvested in 1984. The Bryans later sold that property, then about a decade later they launched the boutique Cave B Estates Winery and vineyards.

White Heron Cellars

Cameron Fries launched White Heron Cellars located in Trinidad with grapes grown by others, including Wenatchee Valley Vintners, an early vineyard planted by Mike and Debbie Hanson. This vineyard was later killed by frost and Fries re-planted the vineyard with his first grapes in 1990. Fries is also the grape grower who played an important part in getting the Ancient Lakes AVA established and approved.

During an interview I asked Fries if he could tell me about this whole process, who else was involved and how difficult was it to get the Ancient Lakes approved as an AVA? Here is his story:

“The Quincy Basin was so called because the railroad needed a stop and pulled the name Quincy quite literally out of a hat. I felt strongly that an AVA should not have a name that came out of a hat. The Ancient Lakes are a geological formation created by the Ice Age Floods in the middle of the AVA. It came to me in the middle of the night as a name for the AVA and the other growers were on board. I wrote most of the initial application with some grammatical help from Cave B and it was rejected. We were having a hard getting the energy together on the rewrite and went to the Port of Quincy who supplied financial support. We then hired Dr. Joan Davenport, soils scientist at WSU, who rewrote the application with her expertise added in and much of what I had written included. I also answered all TTB questions after the application submittal so Dr Davenport and I are listed as co-authors in the
Federal Register. Probably took five years in total but the efforts were of course sporadic.”

Cameron Fries. White Heron Cellars

Planted in 1997 by longtime farmer Jerry Milbrandt, Evergreen Vineyard has symbolic status in the Ancient Lakes, because at the time in the 1990s, few people believed that the landscape could truly support grapevines. Today it represents about 60 percent of the planted acreage in the AVA and much of the fruit in the early years, was sold to Chateau Ste. Michelle.

Ancient Lakes AVA includes a vast number of vineyards owned by the Jones of Washington and the Milbrandt family who together make wine for dozens of labels in addition to their own. Milbrandt not only has vineyards in the Ancient Lakes AVA, but also in the Wahluke Slope AVA (established in 2006). Wahluke Slope is especially ideal for red wines and Ancient Lakes for white wines.

Milbrandt Website for image

Because of the climate, most vineyard acres in the AVA are planted to white varieties where the cooler weather lets the grapes hang on the vines a couple weeks later. This extra time means varietals such as Riesling, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris and Albariño are crisp with acid and have a unique complex minerality.

Grapes Grown: Over 20 different vinifera varieties are planted in this region but Riesling grapes rule in the Ancient Lakes, representing about 45 percent of the planted acreage. Chardonnay makes up another 38 percent, and the remainder is mostly Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc.

Ancient Lakes AVA Wineries….

With a name as alluring as Ancient Lakes American Viticultural Area, you can’t help but to be enchanted by the stunning views and the geological magic of this region. There are also a few wineries and tasting rooms to be found in the Ancient Lakes AVA that are worth seeking out.

You really can’t talk about the Ancient Lakes AVA without mentioning the historic and elegant Cave B Estate Winery.

Along with their noteworthy whites, the vineyards of Ancient Lakes AVA also are producing some beautiful reds, including Barbera and Malbec grown by the Bryan family and crafted into wine by their son-in-law, Freddy Arredondo.

This Washington Estate Winery has noteworthy wines and some incredibly gorgeous views.

Visit Cave B Estate Winery to learn more about their wines, history and how to plan a visit.

A Word with the Winemaker….

Errant Cellars, owned by Winemaker Megan Couture, was a favorite stop on my last trip to the Ancient Lakes. Not only did I get a chance to try Megan’s wines I got a chance to talk with her about the AVA and learn more about how and why she chose to be a winemaker.

This is what Megan shared with me during my interview with her:

Is there a pivotal moment when you realized that to become a winemaker was what you wanted to
do? How did that moment shape the steps that you took to study the art of winemaking?

“When I was 21 I went on a group wine tour to Walla Walla WA, I fell in love with every part of winery life-I was at the time a college junior and not really sure what I planned to do when I finished school. I wanted to quit school and move to Walla Walla. At the time there were not as many opportunities as there are now to get into the industry. I didn’t know anyone who made wine, I had no idea how to learn (there was a program at Walla Walla Community College at the time and I believe it was the only one in the state). It several years before the opportunities to get into the industry were opened to me with a clear path.”

Can you share a brief history of your training to become a winemaker?

“I met Pete Beaumont of Beaumont Cellars when he was in the first few years of his winery, I went to work for him as a cellar helper and assistant learning everything I could and I also took any opportunity to meet other wine makers a glean knowledge from them. One of my favorite things about winemaking is there is so much to learn by doing, reading, drinking one can never know everything so I am always learning.”

Where did the name Errant come from?

“Errant basically means to wander without cause or reason. I was a wanderer for a lot of years. I moved from place to place and job to job and traveled as much as I could. When it came time to name the winery it just seemed to fit.”

When did you decide to venture out and start a winery on your own?

“After a few years of working with Pete he kept encouraging me to start my own winery. Eventually I was able to get together the bare necessities needed to start a small winery. It started with one barrel of wine-a blend I would eventually name Henry’s Red after my grandpa who was an amazing man, his encouragement, love and financial gift helped get me off the ground. Errant Cellars started about as simply and basic as a winery can. A few thousand dollars, a couple basic pieces of used equipment, a small garage space in the middle of construction storage area and the best friends and family anyone could ever ask for helping me literally bucket my first few vintages from fermenting bin to press.”

Why did you choose the Ancient Lakes area for your winery?

“Quincy is in the heart of the Ancient Lakes area and Quincy is my home. I grew up here and when I was in my mid 20’s and unsure of what I wanted to do next I came back here-I thought for a year or so but that was over a decade ago. It has grown into an exceptional wine region.”

Can you share why you choose to source certain grape varieties from the Ancient Lakes AVA for your wines?

“Washington state has such a great climate for growing grapes and each AVA has its unique gifts and challenges. At first where I sourced was mostly based on availability. Now I have established relationships with my growers. I source primarily from smaller growers. I always wanted to source grapes from Central WA and stay as close to the Quincy area as I could. I know this area; the weather, a general knowledge of the geology and I wanted to bring attention to areas I loved with my wine. Most of my grapes from Ancient Lakes and Wahluke slope with a couple from the Rattlesnake hills areas.

Do you have a favorite grape varietal from the Ancient Lakes AVA that you love to work with?

“Cab Franc! I always get asked which of my wines is my favorite and I usually jokingly tell people it is like asking a person to choose a favorite child. However, Cab Franc was one of the first varietals I ever really appreciated and loved. I have been sourcing grapes from a small grower in the area since 2013 it is always my last grapes to be ready for Harvest and as our Fall weather can be unpredictable they often raise my stress level and worry but every year they are wonderful.”

Can you share your thoughts on the Ancient Lakes AVA, what are some of the more distinctive geological, geographical and climate elements that set this region apart from other AVAs in Washington?

“This area was carved out by the Missoula floods which is so easy to see if you take a hike down to the Lakes area or the rock wall and basalt columns referred to as the “feathers” along the old vantage hwy. It has given us a unique and beautiful landscape as well as an interesting soil with basalt and caliche that allows this area to grow a wide variety of crops. We get a lot of heat units in the Summer which allows the maturing plants and fruit thrive and the low rainfall offers several benefits to grape growing.”

What are you most excited about when it comes to the future of this AVA?

“I think as we get more and more attention people are realizing that this is a great area to visit. I am hoping to see some more wineries open up in the area that use local grapes and I am looking forward to watching a few new vineyards mature to see how the fruit changes. The wineries in this area work together to help each other. We are constantly sending people from our tasting rooms to another often with a suggestion about certain wines that shouldn’t be missed. It is a great community of wine makers and winery employees.”

Sampling each one of the Errant Cellars wines was really a great way to experience the wines available from the Ancient Lakes AVA. I highly recommend Errant Cellars when you are in the area and have time to set aside for a wine tasting.

Other Ancient Lakes AVA wineries & tasting rooms include:

Jones of Washington

Beaumont Cellars Winery

Chris Daniel Winery

White Heron Cellars

Things to do in the Ancient Lakes AVA Region

Aside from wine tasting there is a lot of outdoor activities to keep you busy when visiting the Ancient Lakes AVA region. As you travel through the interesting geology of the desert, pass by basalt walls, and around the lakes, you may also discover the Ancient Lakes waterfall.

  • This Eastern Washington desert offers many hiking and backpacking options ranging from 5 to 20 miles.
  • Bike packing is also very popular in this area with trails that have rocky to sandy options for more challenging routes. Visit the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance’s “Ancient Lakes” web page for more information.
  • Scattered amongst the several charming lakes in the area (known as potholes) there are plenty of spots for overnight camping. Good overnight camping options are by the three Ancient Lakes and by Dusty Lake.
  • Also, if timed right, I can’t think of a better activity than seeing a concert at the the famous Gorge Amphitheater on the western edge of the AVA.

Important Notes:
ALWAYS Carry All Your Own Water. There are NO options for filtering drinking water, because water from the lakes is contaminated by agricultural run-off. Also, when exploring this regions make note that a Discover Pass is required in most areas, including parking areas.

Where to stay – Sagecliffe Resort & Spa

In addition to Sagecliffe, there is also a couple of Air BnBs in the area.

I hope you enjoyed learning more about the Ancient Lakes AVA, next up in the Washington AVA series is the Naches Heights AVA, which is situated between the small towns of Naches and Tieton, northwest of the city of Yakima, in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains in Eastern Washington.

If you want to learn more about Washington state wine history you can read my articles; WASHINGTON WINE: THE SHAPING OF A REGION, WASHINGTON WINE: THE EARLY YEARS and WASHINGTON WINE: THE EVOLUTION OF THE INDUSTRY.

Thanks for reading and please drop me a comment if you have any questions about Washington Wines or the Washington AVAs. Cheers Everyone!

Images and content © Drink In Nature Photography and Drink In Life Blog.

One Comment on “The Alluring Ancient Lakes AVA

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