What to Drink from Washington State: Rattlesnake Hills AVA

When I stepped out of the Tri Cities Airport in Pasco, Washington, I noticed right away the vast openness of the countryside.  Looking out as far as your eyes can see, you view multiple mountain ridges and often have a 360 degree view. The Yakima Valley Wine Association arranged for attendees of the Wine Bloggers Conference to venture to a crest in the middle of Elephant Mountain Vineyard at 1466 feet of elevation (some of the highest in Yakima Valley), surrounded by vines on all side.  It was an incredible view – we could even see Mt. Rainer in the distance. Elephant Mountain Vineyard (which is named for the ridge that looks like an Elephant lying on its side) is located in Rattlesnake Hills AVA and has well-draining sandy silt loam soil. The vines are planted in a north to south direction so they get consistent, direct sun every morning (it rains less than 5 inches a year and there was barely a cloud in sight). We got an incredible view of the sun rising on the eastside and slowly moving around the south facing slopes as it warmed up the Valley. Due to the unique micro-climate of the Vineyard, it is able to successfully grow a variety of grapes, including Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Mourvèdre, Petit Verdot, Cinsault, Counoise, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Viongier, Sangiovese, Marsanne, Rousanne, and Barbara (fresh picked grapes from the vineyard shown in the featured image), all of which require unique vineyard management, including irrigation, canopy management, and pruning programs. While we were visiting, Merlot had just been picked while Cabernet still hung on the vine.

Fresh picked merlot grapes, the merlot portion of the vineyard, and a view of Mount Rainer in the distance

Elephant Mountain Vineyard is owned by Joe Hattrup. Joe sells his fruit to different wine makers, including Co Dinn. As they spoke about what makes the grapes from Elephant Mountain so special, Joe noted that wine is not a commodity industry like apples or pears where quantity is the driving factor for profits. You have to work to develop your fruit so it has time to develop phenolic traits. As Co Dinn says “grapes don’t do too well if the are happy or unhappy.” There is a balance you have to achieve. Joe has figured out how to keep grapes consistently “somewhat stressed.” That takes an extraordinary amount of patience and knowledge of every nuance of the vineyard.

Elephant Mountain Vineyard with Elephant Mountain Ridge in the background

Joe offered us a variety of wines to taste that were made with his grapes under various labels. My favorite of the ones we tried was made by Co Dinn. Co had a beautiful red blend (58% Cabernet Sauvignon, 16% Petit Verdot, 15% Merlot and 11% Malbec). The palate was very soft with baking spice and earthy notes of pencil lead, blue and red berries, slate and herbs. Co explained that he chooses when to pick his grapes based on the development of acid levels balanced with brix. Brix alone can be affected by water levels and is not necessarily indicative of phenolics.

Wines made with grapes grown in Elephant Mountain Vineyard; Winemaker Co Dinn.

We tried several wines, each having restrained fruit, structured acidity and present tannins. Standouts included Saviah GSM blend with thyme, savory soft red raspberry, and earthiness; Icon Cellars du Pape 2015 GSM blend, and Kevin White en Homage 2014 Syrah with strong black pepper notes.  As we walked down the hilltop we passed rows of sagebrush – not surprising that I found a herbious notes in so many of the wines. So if you come across Rattlesnake Hills or Yakima Valley on a label – trust me, you’re in for a treat.


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