by Tim Seury, Washington State University

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The geologic features of Washington State, and the way they effect the soil and climate of Washington's vineyards, are a fascinating story. We at Avalon are so pleased to offer you this intriguing tale of floods and glaciers and the results of eons of change. .....Jean

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It is early June. Last evening’s rain has washed the air clean. The morning sun is warm and assuring. Close-knit rows of grape vines, their young clusters flush with promise, stretch across a south-facing slope above the Walla Walla Valley. Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Barbera, each in its appointed place. Here in the Woodward Canyon vineyards all’s right with the world.

Rick Small, Woodward Canyon

And here in his vineyard, Rick Small (WSU ’69 Agriculture) talks as passionately about soil as he talks about wine. Because they’re really the same subject, to hear him tell it. You have to understand Small’s intensity. He doesn’t slow down. He doesn’t pause. He just...keeps going.

“Winemaking’s interesting because it’s so broad,” he says, “it keeps you fresh,” hardly taking a breath, “there’s so much to learn, I’ve done this for 20 years, now I’m 54, I knew I was going to do this by my late 20s, but I’m continually blown away by how much I don’t know yet…

“This is great soil,” he says, crumbling some in his hand and smelling it. “Like my dad said, you know what’s good about this soil out here, it’s clean dirt. It’s got a good earthy smell, not sandy.”

Finally, he does pause, looking across the valley to the bluffs on the other side.

“I would not be anywhere else in the world.”

This land is his wine. And what we’re looking at—this breathless sweep of landscape,
this soil beneath our feet—is what the French call terroir. Place in a bottle.


Terroir. Tair-WAHR. Whether or not they can pronounce it correctly, terroir is on the lips of many a Washington winemaker these days. The idea that the interaction of geology, soil, and climate can affect the taste, complexity, and character of a fine wine is hardly new, even within the relatively youthful Washington wine industry. But the notion was revisited recently in a paper published by WSU researchers Larry Meinert, a geologist, and Alan Busacca, a soil scientist, in Geoscience Canada. In “Terroirs of the Walla Walla Valley Appellation…,” Meinert and Busacca—both wine devotees—report on their extensive analysis of the appellation and its soils, detailing various vineyards and their soil, and resulting enological peculiarities.

Some aspects of terroir, says Meinert, are fairly intuitive. If one slope gets more sun and is warmer than another slope, it is likely to produce more vigorous grapevines and better wine. But other aspects, such as the rocks deep underground and events thousands of years in the past, are less obvious in how they might influence wine quality. As Meinert and Busacca explored the geologic terroir of Washington wines they made some intriguing discoveries. “I was astounded to find that giant glaciers reaching down from Canada 17,000 years ago have had more influence on the wines of Washington than the local volcanic rocks,” Meinert says. “Even more amazing, we are discovering that many other great wine regions of the world have also been affected by glacial activity.”

However, eastern Washington’s terroir is not quite as straightforward as a glacier. The next time you open a bottle of wine made from grapes grown in Eastern Washington, think about what gave that wine its personality. Think, if you will, about floods.

Artist's painting of Glacial Lake Missoula

According to geologists,Glacial Lake Missoula was formed about 15,000 years ago during the last ice age when the Clark Fork River was dammed by ice near Sandpoint, Idaho. The water was backed up almost to the Continental Divide on the east, through the Bitterroot Valley to the south and as far north as Polson, which was the terminus of another tongue of the British Columbia glacier. The glacial ice went from over 5,000 feet thick in B.C. to approximately a quarter of a mile deep at Polson. Periodically, the dam broke at Sandpoint creating tremendous floods that scoured the scab lands in the Columbia Basin and created the Columbia Gorge.

Painting by Byron Pickering

How Eastern Washington's Soil
Was Created

Think about the greatest floods ever documented on Earth—about a wave 500 feet high bursting through the ruptured ice dam of Glacial Lake Missoula, sweeping south across Eastern Washington at 50 miles an hour. Think about the brunt of 2,500 cubic kilometers of water rushing with a flow 10 times greater than the combined flow of all the rivers in the world, scouring the land to its bedrock bones—not just once, but as many as 90 times, as the ice dam repeatedly formed and failed, over intervals of 35 to 55 years, beginning some 15,300 years ago—creating an enormously complex geological riddle and hundreds of publication topics for scores of geologists since J Harlen Bretz first realized how the tortured landscape of the Channeled Scablands was formed.

The prevailing southwesterly winds, which still prevail and still continue the geologic process, lifted the glacial sediments, the loess deposited by the floods, carrying it back north, distributing it approximately along the floods’ path, relinquishing finally what remained as the thick loess dunes of the Palouse.

This windblown silt deposited over the underlying volcanic basalt, layered with the ash of intermittent eruptions of Northwest volcanoes from Mazama to St. Helens—this is the literal grounding of Eastern Washington’s terroir.

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