Idaho, California Winemakers Hope for Federal Recognition

WASHINGTON (McClatchy Washington Bureau/TNS) -

Winemakers from northwestern Idaho to the foothills of California’s Fresno County produce distinct vintages but share a common dream of seeing benefits flow from federal recognition.

The different groups of winemakers have sought designation of their respective regions as viticultural areas. It can be a years-long ordeal that proponents hope will result in marketing fizz.

“This area has a lot of viticultural history,” Karl Umiker, co-owner of the Lewiston, Idaho-based Clearwater Canyon Cellars, said in an interview. “And this will be a way we can draw people’s attention to it.”

If approved, the proposed 306,650-acre Lewis-Clark Valley Viticultural Area at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers would be Idaho’s second federally recognized winemaking region. A Snake River Valley area, straddling southwestern Idaho and parts of Oregon, was established in 2007.

In contrast, the new 44,690-acre Squaw Valley-Miramonte Viticultural Area located 40 miles east of Fresno, Calif., is relatively commonplace in the state already home to more than 120 designated viticultural areas.

Recognition from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau enables winemakers to use the viticultural area designation on their labels for wines made from the area’s grapes. More than 230 areas have been recognized so far.

A viticultural area is supposed to be distinctive geographically, climatically and historically. Three wineries and five vineyards reside in the Squaw Valley-Miramonte area, which is characterized by steep terrain at elevations between 1,600 and 3,500 feet.

“The cool daytime temperatures and warm nighttime temperatures during the growing season produce higher levels of sugar … at harvest than occur in grapes grown in the warmer San Joaquin Valley,” federal officials said.

Federal officials in August routinely approved the proposal for California’s latest viticultural area, sometimes called an AVA, after receiving no public comments on the idea.

Distinctive temperatures likewise mark the Lewis-Clark Valley, with viticultural area proponents declaring that the unusual daytime warmth has earned the region the title of “Banana Belt of the Pacific Northwest.”

In the works since 2009, the Lewis-Clark Valley proposal spanning four counties in Idaho and three counties in Washington is now in the final stages of an extended public comment period that ends Nov. 27.

“It’s good for Idaho, having more than one AVA,” said Shelley Bennett, community relations manager for the Idaho Wine Commission.

Kathy Martin, a dean at Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston, added in a letter supporting the proposal that “this designation should help maintain continuity and name recognition for branding and marketing purposes.”

Still, it’s not all sweetness and light. As part of the proposal, 57,020 acres in Washington state would be removed from the current, well-established Columbia Valley Viticultural Area in order to avoid overlap. This worries some.

“I am in favor of establishing the new (area) but, at the same time, very reluctant to lose the benefits of being part of the Columbia Valley,” cautioned Rick Wasem, co-owner of Basalt Cellars in Clarkston, Wash.

Citing Wasem’s concerns, federal officials reopened the public-comment period for further consideration of the proposal to shrink the 11.3 million-acre Columbia Valley Viticultural Area as part of establishing the new Lewis-Clark Valley area.

“We knew going in that it was going to take quite a bit of time,” Umiker said, allowing with a laugh that “it’s been a journey.”