Wine Exploration in The Lewis and Clark Valley AVA

Today I continue my series of the Washington state AVA’s with a wine exploration of the Lewis and Clark Valley. The AVAs are being covered in order from newest to oldest and if you haven’t already done so, I encourage you to read the previous two posts; Washington’s Small but Mighty AVA-Candy Mountain and Washington’s Royal AVA-Royal Slope. Let’s begin our journey through the Lewis and Clark AVA, an area that is considered to be the new frontier of wine grape growing in the United States.

Image Credit: Lewis and Clark Valley Wine Alliance

In 2016, the bi-state Lewis and Clark Valley AVA which is Washington’s 14th AVA and Idaho’s 3rd AVA, was established. This AVA is the first and only AVA located in both Idaho and Washington, it’s location is largely nestled in the unique mountainous backbone of north Idaho’s Bitterroot Mountains. Idaho holds 72% of the area of this bi-state AVA, a split that was only allowed to occur after new rules were modified by the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) which previously prevented overlapping the boundary of the existing Columbia Valley AVA with the new Lewis–Clark Valley AVA.

The forming of this new AVA was based on science which included the areas geography and geology, not on boundaries or state lines. The AVA which is 306,658 acres in size includes parts of seven counties located in Idaho and Washington. The landscape is a blend of bending lands, low plateaus and a 40-mile stretch of canyons formed by the Clearwater and Snake Rivers.

Photo: View from atop Rivaura’s Vineyard of the Clearwater River in Juliaetta, Idaho.

Geology, Geography and Climate

My previous blog post on Exploring the Lewis and Clark Valley has information about what shaped this part of the United States and made it an ideal area for growing grapes. In addition, I want to share another major event which also contributed to this regions formation, the Bonneville Flood. I invite you to watch this 15 minute video, Ice Age Floods-Lake Bonneville Flood that does a wonderful job in depicting what happened during the Bonneville Flood to the Snake River and its surrounding area.

Map of Pleistocene lakes in the Western US, showing the path of the Bonneville Flood along the Snake River.

The majority of soils in the Lewis and Clark Valley contain loess, or wind-deposited, nutrient-rich silt and is comprised of decomposing grass roots and perennial grasses with aids in water retention. The boundaries of the AVA include contains steep slopes with stony, shallow surfaces that result in for both classic and characteristically unique vineyard sites.

Presently there are 16 vineyards growing more than 80 acres of grapes in this “Banana Belt”, named because the appellation sits in a geographic region that is noted for its high temperatures compared with surrounding areas. Temperatures are cooler and rainfall is higher in the area surrounding the Lewis-Clark AVA, rugged mountains on the west, east and south along with the rolling hills of the Palouse region to the north encircle and shelter the valley.

Grape Growing History in the Lewis and Clark Valley

(Photo Supplied by Steven Branting, Institutional Historian Lewis-Clark State College, Lewiston ID)

Idaho may not be known around the world as a wine producing state, yet surprisingly in 1864 the first wine grapes were planted in Lewiston, ID, earlier than both Washington and Oregon. The first humble plantings were a few acres of Royal Muscadine, but the area soon saw an increase in wine grape acreage thanks to two Frenchmen, Louis Desol and Robert Schleicher who brought grapes to the then ‘Clearwater Valley’. Early grape pioneer Robert Schleicher planted 130 acres of wine grapes in 1883 near Lewiston he received wine competition awards from around the country including Missouri, New York and Oregon.

A few years later in 1896 a German immigrant, Jacob Schaefer also contributed to the regions grape growing boom when he purchased 160 acres just outside of Lewiston and planted 60 acres in vines. Schaefer built his winery, one of Washington’s earlier wineries in Clarkston, just across the river, it was in operation from 1906 to 1911.

These settlers saw the potential of the regions landscape and their established vineyards and wineries would go on to gather attention internationally and the wines would receive critical acclaim. During this time two of the largest wineries in the area one in Clarkston, WA and one in Lewiston, ID were producing as much as 60,000 cases of wine a year.

By 1908 there were more than 40 varieties of grapes planted in the valley on approximately 80 acres, and today an area of Clarkston is still called ‘Vineland’, a tribute to its grape-­producing days. However, just like other areas of the United States Prohibition began to spread two years later and by 1916 the Idaho wine industry that showed so much promise went dry. (Photo Supplied by Steven Branting, Institutional Historian Lewis-Clark State College, Lewiston ID)

For over 55 years the Lewis and Clark Valley forgot its wine making past and it would have remained that way if not for the work of the late Robert Wing, a professional weatherman, historian, writer and backyard hobby viticulturist. In 1972 while traveling throughout the state of Washington in search of suitable sites for growing wine grapes, Dr. Walter Clore visited the Lewis-Clark Valley and convinced Wing to plant a small trial vineyard on the Lewiston side.

Taking on the challenge Wing recorded every detail of each vintage and over the following decades he researched, collected and catalogued the history of wine production in the valley. Wing’s preservation of records, newspaper clippings and photographs along with his own vineyard statistics and documentation proved to be valuable information to the new generation of winemaking pioneers that gravitated to the region in the early 2000s.

The Forming of The Lewis and Clark Valley AVA

Photo: Spiral Rock Vineyard, Old Spiral Highway, Lewiston, ID

Visiting the Lewis-Clark Valley and experiencing its diverse and rugged landscape really makes you appreciate the wines that are produced in this region. Two wineries on the Idaho side of the Lewis-Clark Valley AVA were instrumental in getting the AVA approved, Colter’s Creek Vineyard and Clearwater Canyon Cellars. During a visit to Clearwater Canyon I had the opportunity to speak with owners Coco and Karl Umiker about how they along with Mike Pearson and Melissa Sanborn, owners of Colter’s Creek worked on getting the AVA approved.

Joining forces the two wineries used grant money that they received to hire Dr. Alan Busacca, a geologist, to do the research and be the author of their Lewis-Clark Valley AVA petition. During my visit to Clearwater Canyon Cellars I asked Coco if she could share more about the AVA approval process, here’s what she told me.

” Ourselves and the Colter’s were kind of pushing to get this done, we wrote a grant and we actually got it. A development grant to fund the research to establish the AVA. They required a whole justification. It’s a huge process, you need a geologist, a soil scientist (Carl is a soil scientist). It is such a rigorous process. The Colter’s are science dudes too, we’re all a bunch of nerds, but none of us had the time to work on this individually. So we hired Alan Busacca, (a leading expert on geology and soils), who had written a couple of successful proposals like Chelan and a couple of others. Alan is the one who wrote the document.” Coco Umiker

Photo: Karl and Coco Umiker owners of Colter’s Creek Cellars

Getting approval for an AVA requires showing how a region can set itself apart from its surrounding areas, when I spoke with Coco she told me that “The cool thing about our AVA is that it is so easy to explain”, she went on to share;

“The squirrelly boundary line of the AVA is literally the elevation contour line. The reason it looks like that is because it is literally following the 600 meter contour line. Not to say that you can’t grow grapes above this contour line, but what they found out is that the elevation and the change of it so quickly in these deep canyons really makes a huge difference in the sustainability of the vineyard.” With the grape growing boundaries clearly drawn Coco added that this AVA was “all about the science.”

Image Credit: Idaho Wines

One thing that Coco added about the formation of this AVA was that the there were only a handful of wineries and vineyards in the area while the research was being compiled for the petition. Coco shared that this was beneficial because;

We were able to get this done before there were a lot of wineries her, so politics really did not play a part in the boundaries of the AVA. So, if the line was being drawn here, it wasn’t like someone could ask, couldn’t you just move it a little further my way so I can be in the AVA too. A lot of that happens sometimes and it can be a real world problem, it’s not to say that that shouldn’t be done but is is just hard.”

The process to establish the Lewis and Clark Valley AVA began in 2009 and the first petition was submitted in 2011 yet it was rejected with suggested revisions by the TTB. After a delay and resubmission the AVA was finally approved on April 20, 2016. More information about the delay in the petitions acceptance can be found in the article “Senators ‘urge’ TTB to approve Lewis-Clark Valley AVA” from Great Northwest Wine and the article “TTB Approves Lewis-Clark Valley AVA” from Wines & Vines.

Within the AVA plantings on the Idaho side include Colter’s Creek Vineyards (Juliaetta), Rivaura Estate Vineyards (Juliaetta), Spiral Rock Vineyard (Lewiston), Two Bad Labs Vineyard (Lewiston), and Umiker Vineyard (Lewiston Orchards) Lindsey Creek Vineyards (Lewiston). On the Washington side plantings include Rock ‘n’ J Vineyard (Rogersburg, Wash.), DeVleming Vineyard (Clarkston), Wasem Estate Vineyard (Clarkston) and Arnett Vineyard (Clarkston).

Arnett Vineyard

Right now there are 14 varieties of red wine grapes and 9 varieties of white wine grapes are being grown and sold in the vineyards of the Lewis and Clark Valley AVA. Some of those grapes come from Arnett Vineyard in Clarkston, WA, a vineyard that was started back in 1999 by Jim Arnett and his wife Dana.

Jim and Dana Arnett (March 2021)

Situated on an East facing slope overlooking the Snake River, Arnett’s 5-acre vineyard is one of the oldest post prohibition-era plantings in the Lewis-Clark Valley. Jim and Dana designed and began planting the vineyard themselves in 1999, after Jim decided that growing grapes and managing the vineyard would be a good “retirement job”.

Before that the couple did research, Dana for her job as a waitress in a high end restaurant to help the customers pick the perfect wine and Jim for the grape growing perspective. Jim told me; “We would go to the Columbia Basin and Walla Walla and do all the wine tastings over there. Dana would do all the tasting and I would go out back and talk to the growers and vineyard managers.” Since 1999 Jim has learned a lot about the varietals that grow well on his site, mostly reds because the whites are not happy with the amount of heat that the vineyard receives.

“We are the lowest vineyard in the AVA and the closest to the river but my problem here is I have probably the hottest site of all the vineyards in the AVA. We can typically get 100 degree days for 3-4 weeks and we have seen temperatures here reach 115 degrees for a stretch as well.”

With the knowledge of what grows best Jim considers Arnett Vineyard “The little supporter of local wineries in the AVA that need more grapes.” Presently Clearwater Canyon Cellars gets the Cabernet Sauvignon from the vineyard and Jovinea Cellars receives all the whites (Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer) as well as a little Merlot and Malbec.

Wineries in the Lewis and Clark Valley AVA

There are currently two wineries located in Clarkston on the Washington side, Basalt Cellars and a satellite tasting room for Parejas Cellars. During my time in the Lewis and Clark AVA Parejas Cellars was closed, however I did have the opportunity to visit Balsalt Cellars and sample a few of their wines.

Basalt Cellars

Pharmacist Rick Wasem and his business partner Lynn DeVleming may have opened Basalt Cellars in 2003, but Rick had been crafting wine in his basement for three decades. With a history of winemaking in the family, to include his grandfather and relatives in Germany and California who work in wineries, Rick’s goal was to bring locally produced wine back to this once thriving region.

After locating the perfect site for a vineyard in the 1990’s, Rick took on the task of clearing the weed and grass covered site and started the planting that would become one Washington’s first easternmost vineyards in Clarkston. Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Syrah, Zinfandel, Petit Verdot, Merlot and Chardonnay made up the first three acres of Basalt Cellars Estate Vineyard which today covers 5.75 acres. Basalt Cellars also sources from other vineyards in the Lewis and Clark AVA, such as Bacchus, Weinbau and Willard as well as vineyards from the Columbia Valley.

My visit to Basalt Cellars was a great way to experience Washington wines being produced in this largely Idaho winery AVA. The impressive selection from Basalt Cellars includes carefully crafted small lot wines that are handled with Rick’s winemaking expertise from harvest to barrel to bottle resulting in rock solid, age worthy wines.

I am really happy that I brought home a bottle of Basalt Cellars 2019 Viognier, because now they are sold out! This creamy and lush Viognier was my first sip of Basalt Cellars wines and I was instantly impressed with it’s crisp freshness and intriguing minerality. Ripe fruit aromas and flavors combine with floral and vanilla notes making this the perfect white wine to sip year round.

Basalt Cellars 2017 Wasem Estate Stone Garden Lewis and Clark Valley Red wine is an Estate grown Bordeaux-style blend with enticing notes of red and black fruit, spiced vanilla, oak, and whispers of dark chocolate. If you are curious about the grapes grown in the Lewis and Clark AVA, this delicious red blend will tell you all you need to know.

Seven wineries reside within the Idaho boundaries of the AVA and with the increasing popularity and accolades from this region that number is sure to increase over the coming years. In two upcoming posts, I will be sharing more about the Lewis and Clark Valley AVA Idaho wineries, including Colter’s Creek Vineyard, Clearwater Canyon Cellars, Jovinea Cellars, Rivera Vineyard, Spiral Rock Vineyard and Lindsey Creek Vineyard.

I hope you enjoyed learning more about the Lewis and Clark Valley AVA, next up in the Washington AVA series is the Ancient Lakes AVA, which is located near the Columbia River Gorge in Eastern Washington.

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

One Comment on “Wine Exploration in The Lewis and Clark Valley AVA

  1. Great blog post! So informative and we had no idea that area of Idaho had such a production history. Can’t wait to visit!

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