COOL IS relative.
When you’re driving between the Columbia Basin towns of George and Quincy in July and August, it doesn’t seem cool at all. This is rugged land with basalt outcroppings, steep cliffs, dramatic canyons and endless miles of farmland.
It’s also one of the coolest areas of Washington wine country.
It’s called the Ancient Lakes of Columbia Valley and is Washington’s newest American Viticultural Area. Recognized by the federal government in 2012, the Ancient Lakes includes 162,762 acres in Grant, Douglas and Kittitas counties. The main action is around the towns of George and Quincy, where most of the 1,400 acres of vineyards are planted.
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It gets its name from several small lakes — 35 in all — that were formed 12,000 years ago by the Ice Age floods that shaped this land. In the ensuing millennia, winds have blown in soils to cover the craggy ground, and by the 1950s, the Grand Coulee Dam supplied irrigation for agriculture.
Some of the oldest vines here are at Cave B Estate Winery. Seattle neurosurgeon Vince Bryan came here in 1980 and began planting vineyards. He created a winery called Champs de Brionne and, to help draw people to the middle of nowhere, created a concert venue next door, now known as the Gorge Amphitheatre.
Eventually, music won out over wine, and Bryan shuttered the winery and sold the amphitheater. In 2000, he built Cave B, a magnificent winery, restaurant and lodge atop a cliff that overlooks the Columbia River some 1,000 feet below.
By that time, others had discovered what Bryan found in 1980: prime vineyard land. Brothers Butch and Jerry Milbrandt, who grew up here, began planting grapes in 1998. They own Evergreen Vineyard, considered one of the finest in the state. And Jack Jones, who owns Jones of Washington Winery in Quincy, owns three vineyards.
Despite the occasional triple-digit temperatures in the height of summer, few areas of the Ancient Lakes would be considered red-wine country. Instead, the focus is on white varieties, particularly riesling, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay.
Chateau Ste. Michelle, Washington’s largest winery, relies heavily on these vineyards for its white wines, particularly Eroica, its top-tier riesling made with German winemaker Ernst Loosen. In some years, more than half the grapes for Eroica come from the Ancient Lakes.
White wines are extremely important in Washington, and the Ancient Lakes is an emerging region that is delivering world-class grapes to winemakers.
That’s pretty cool.
Andy Perdue is editor and publisher of Great Northwest Wine, a news and information company. Learn more at www.greatnorthwestwine.com.