Naches Heights’ Distinctive Terroir

Dispatches from Washington state's newest wine region.

Wilridge Winery and Vineyard’s 80-acre estate on Naches Heights near Yakima is most likely the only vineyard site in the state—maybe even the world—that shares a border with a popular rock-climbing cliff.

“We usually suggest people get their rock climbing in before they visit our tasting room,” jokes Wilridge’s Paul Beveridge, who bought the former fruit orchard, two and a half hours east of Seattle, in 2007. Arrive by climbing the rock wall or on foot via a scenic trail; you won’t have to pack out bottles—Wilridge offers free shipping for visitors to the co-op tasting room, which it shares with Harlequin Wine Cellars and Naches Heights Vineyard.

The rock climbing is just one reason Naches Heights, named the state’s 12th American viticultural area (AVA) in January, is such an uncommon grape-growing region. The windswept plateau some 2,000 feet above the Yakima Valley gives geology geeks goose bumps. It’s home to the world’s longest andesite flow, a volcanic spill that occurred millions of years ago, pouring from the nearby Goat Rocks in the foothills of the Cascades and leaving dramatic outcroppings. And while much of the Columbia Valley was awash in the prehistoric Missoula Floods, Naches Heights was above it all.

“It was an island,” says Phil Cline, owner of Naches Heights Vineyard (NHV) and a third-generation farmer from the area. “So our soil is different than most other sites around the Columbia Valley, more like the rich topsoil you’d find in the Palouse.”

So far, only NHV and Wilridge are using grapes from the 37 acres of the 13,000 eligible acres planted, but Naches Heights has a long agricultural history, and growth is expected. “The irrigation district up here has been around for 100 years,” Cline says. About a decade ago, as the market for apples and other tree fruits got squeezed, Cline says, he began exploring other options. Where Golden Delicious once grew, he planted Albarino and Tempranillo. He’s had the best luck with Syrah, Pinot Gris and Riesling. Beveridge is experimenting with 23 varieties, including Nebbiolo, Barbera and several port grapes.

All of the growers in this new AVA take full advantage of its distinctive terroir by focusing on organic and sustainable agricultural practices; a few even incorporate biodynamic approaches to grape growing. “[Biodynamics] is a practice dedicated to maximizing the life force in the vineyard through composting and other practices,” Beveridge explains. “It’s scientific, but there’s a spiritual side to it, too.”

Skeptics might call it pseudoscience, but Beveridge says he’s seen dramatic proof: “We planted one block of Cabernet according to the phases of the moon, but couldn’t finish planting until later. The block that was planted during that correct phase of the moon flourished while the other lagged behind.” His commitment has already been rewarded; early releases of wines made from those grapes have been well received.

Wines You Should Try from Naches Heights

Just 444 cases were made of this bracing white, a refreshing nod to Alsatian winemaking. Fruit flavors come forward in the glass, with hints of pear and citrus. There’s an undercurrent of minerality, too. Like those famed French winemakers, winemaker Anke Wildman keeps it clean and bright, making this a fine candidate to sip on its own as an aperitif.

This lovely wine’s fruit flavors taste like a tribute to the vineyard’s former life as an orchard. Snappy green apple notes bob with the sort of tropical notes that make Riesling such a food-friendly wine. Balanced by crisp acidity, this gem shines brightly. Pair with grilled salmon or a four-star green Thai curry.

Italian grape varieties have yielded wildly mixed results in Washington’s vineyards, but this Piedmont grape seems to dig Naches Heights. The nose foreshadows the dramatic blast of dark berry flavor delivered on the first sip and lingering in the long finish. It’s powerful, yet completely accessible. You can’t go wrong pouring this with a big bowl of mushroom risotto topped with shaved truffles.

It goes against conventional wisdom that a hodgepodge of grape varieties can thrive in a single vineyard, but Paul Beveridge’s “test plot” on Naches Heights seems to be offering delicious proof that Rhône, Italian and other French grapes can live in biodynamic harmony. His blend of Syrah and Mourvèdre is a spicy thrill ride, offering hints of pepper and cloves on top of the gorgeous fruit. This one is sure to improve in the cellar. Pour it alongside a Northwest bouillabaisse.