Does “AVA” Matter?

The Lake Chelan AVA. How it distinguishes itself as a unique wine growing region in the World.

by Chad Steiner

We bought property and moved to the Lake Chelan Valley because we thought it was one of the best places in the State to grow Pinot Noir. Jeana wrote about this story in a prior article and highlighted the uniqueness of the Lake Chelan AVA as well – I’m going to go deep & technical. Recognizing great grape growing areas is something that’s been happening for 1,000’s of years. Roman soldiers would share with one another where the great places in France were to stop for wine… word of mouth advertisement – the most powerful kind. Lake Chelan has been known for 50+ years as a premium tree fruit growing area. At one-point apples commanded a $5/box premium (potentially a 10-20% premium). History shows that a distinguished wine grape growing area can last through the ages. We believe the Lake Chelan AVA is old enough now to start being more broadly recognized for its uniqueness and inarguably excellent wines. The great vision of those who came before us to help establish this AVA (2009) is a luxury we benefit from. And let us be clear – the vision is to produce wines made FROM grapes grown within the Lake Chelan AVA’s borders. We hope our testimony helps support what those before us started and have now let us join. We’re here to delight wine consumers with what we feel are wines unique to this amazing place. Yes, we’ve staked our claim on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but our readers must know that this place is capable of supporting a variety of grape varieties of premium quality. IT IS because of the undeniable feature – Lake Chelan – its effect on the climate and the soils deposited by nearby Glacier Peak that make our Terroir like no other in the World.

What is an AVA?

Have you ever had single origin coffee? For example, coffee from Kona, HI. An American Viticultural Area (AVA) operates on a similar principle. The fruit of many plants express the unique attributes of where they are grown. It could be the soil, it could be the location by the ocean or a large lake. Officially from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Trade Bureau (TTB’s) website: An American Viticultural Area, or AVA, is a specific type of appellation of origin used on wine labels. An AVA is a delimited grape-growing region with specific geographic or climatic features that distinguish it from the surrounding regions and affect how grapes are grown. Before we move on… let me also call out the somewhat “confusing” nature of AVA’s when a solid answer is unable to be given (thanks Samantha Cole-Johnson for pointing this out to me). It’s the “so what” test. The easiest way to answer might be – how does the word “distinguish” relate to any AVA? And how does what “distinguishes” the AVA “affect” how grapes are grown? For example: the Puget Sound AVA is undeniably “distinguishable” from the Columbia Valley AVA (established in 1984) – temperatures alone are an easily identifiable feature. Puget Sound being a cool growing area because of the proximity to the Puget Sound and the Columbia Basin being a largely warmer growing region because of its location inland. When an answer can’t be as clear as the example above it starts to become potentially “gray” to those of us outside the area. The purpose of this article is to help increase understanding. There are currently 20 AVA’s in Washington State (click here for some amazing resources), Oregon has 23 AVA’s (notice some are shared with WA – click here) and California has 149 (see the map provided by the Wine Institute here). It might be easier to have a principle to approach exploration of AVA’s. I leave you with the two words to include as you dive deeper into or discover new AVA’s – “distinguish” and “affect”.

Wine nerd side note: technically 99% of Washington’s grapes are in “sub-appellations” within the Columbia Valley AVA. Not to worry. Its totally acceptable to refer to them as an AVA.

Caption: a map of Washington States 20 AVA’s. Source:

Describing the Lake Chelan AVA, established in 2009 (with the help of Alan Busacca).

Two of the most defining features of the Lake Chelan AVA – the Lake itself and the soil. I’ll try to compare to other AVA’s in our state in the next section. Earlier I described how AVA’s can sometimes be confusing – maybe because the boundary isn’t easily definable “geographically” from a neighboring AVA or because it’s not easy to describe how the AVA distinguishes itself and what affect it has on production. The glorious attribute of the Lake Chelan AVA is how distinguishable it is – especially by its definable geographic boundary. As you read, continue to think about how these features affect the climate in the Lake Chelan AVA, almost think about how it would affect your farming practices.

The Lake. First, lets describe the lake – Lake Chelan is located in North Central Washington State, in the Northwest portion of the United States. Most of the grape production area in the Lake Chelan AVA is at a latitude around 47.5° N (the heart of Burgundy – Dijon France is 47.3° N and the North end of Burgundy, Chablis is 47.8° N). The lake is surrounded on all sides (except a small portion at the end where the Lake pours into the Columbia) by mountains. The lake surface sits at an elevation of about 1,100’. The lake itself is 1,486’ feet deep (yes it goes below sea level) and a little over 50 miles long. It is fed by well over 50 named glaciers from within the Cascade Mountain Range. About 2/3 of the lakes borders would not be suitable for grape production because of the steep terrain. But let’s pause on the water itself for a moment – a lake filled with glacial water. And this water is the primary source for irrigation – not ground water, not water from a river, but from a glacial fed lake. A lake of this size is so large and deep it almost never freezes (study lake overturns for something cool). Because of the lakes size it also has an impact on the weather. Think of its ability to help lower or moderate temperatures in the summer and help keep temperatures warmer in the winter. But don’t be mistaken – summers can get hot in the Lake Chelan AVA and winters cold. From an AVA standpoint its about how this large body of water has a distinguishing affect vs. surrounding areas. Temperature data helps support Lake Chelan AVA’s uniqueness.

Before getting into detail here – I’d like to emphasize – there are many nuances to weather and numerous variables impacting “terroir” or what “distinguishes” an AVA. What’s described here is definitely a defining character – but even more attributes can be considered such as rainfall, location next to an ocean or large mountains and more. Now, let’s dig into temperature. Think of temperatures in the context of growing plants. Plants need certain temperatures to grow. An accumulation of daily temperatures warm enough for what plants like to grow in can be considered Growing Degree Days (GDD’s). There are baselines of the number of GDD’s grape varieties need to ripen. Yes, different varieties ripen at different “lengths” or “accumulation” of warm days (GDD’s). Cabernet Sauvignon needs at least 2,500 GDD’s to ripen. Whereas Pinot Noir can ripen below 2,500 GDD’s. I spent a couple hours summarizing and studying data from the amazing AgWeatherNet site. WSU has a number of weather sites around the state. 16 of 20 stations from 2023 are in the table below – Lake Chelan being #8 on the list which goes from coolest to warmest. Since 2009 Lake Chelan has averaged 3,117 GDD’s (2023 was a warm year).

Caption: a table I assembled from the AgWeatherNet site.

However, the range includes a low of 2,464 and other years below 3,000 (comparison to other areas on next section). So what… well, a year with 2,464 GDD’s would likely not ripen Cabernet Sauvignon or just barely. Whereas a variety like Pinot Noir or Chardonnay would ripen fully and potentially benefit from the slow ripening of a cooler year. Albert Julius Winkler, a scientist at the University of California at Davis is known for creating the “Winkler Index” published in his 1962 (revised in ’74) book General Viticulture (source The Oxford Companion to Wine). The index was based primarily on temperature. It helps substantiate both the importance of temperature to grape ripening as well as grape variety length to maturity – driving home the theme of this section related to how the Lake affects the AVA. And I think this leads us to the next major variable I’d like to highlight in the Lake Chelan AVA – Soil.

The Soil. I think the two components to focus on are 1. Where did the Lake Chelan AVA soil come from/how was it formed? (Glacier Peak & a large glacier that melted), 2. What is it made up of (a lot of silt (volcanic ash), pumice, quartz and mica)?. I’m going to answer these both together.

I want to first be clear – the Lake Chelan AVA is one of the only AVA’s in Washington State where the soil rests on granite. Most of the soils in Eastern Washington rest upon basalt – if you’ve traveled on I-90 East of Ellensburg, think Vantage and large basalt columns. The Lake Chelan AVA’s soil or parent material came mostly from Glacier Peak – still considered an active volcano less than 50 miles from downtown Manson (as the crow flies). When Glacier Peak was erupting and the large glacier was present in the Lake Chelan AVA – it layered ash (silt) (read prior soil article here), pumice and bits of quartz and mica onto the ice. When the glacier ice melted it left a deep layer of what is now a lot of our AVA’s soil (there are definite variabilities in the AVA). In some places the soil is 60” deep. The crazy thing is how the pumice is mixed into the soil like stars in the sky (see image below) – which in our experience helps the soil drain almost like sand. This IS an incredibly unique feature. I’m going to repeat it – this is an incredibly unique feature. Next time you walk around the Lake Chelan AVA look for the sparkle of the quartz and mica and little tiny lava rock like pumice sitting on the soil surface. I think the next section comparing our AVA to other Washington State AVA’s will help highlight how unique what I’ve described above is.

Caption: looks closely and you can see the pumice spread throughout the soil. In fact we had to dig our house foundation down another 2 feet to get through it all.

How is the Lake Chelan AVA different than other areas of Washington and abroad?

Have you ever heard of the Missoula Floods? Or the Glacial Lake Outburst Floods? During my Masters Program at WSU I took Soil Pedology from Dr. Alan Busacca (he really inspired me about soil). It was an amazing journey around Washington State digging pits all over the place and totally geeking out on our States unique soils. Think of Missoula – it sits in a great big valley. During the last ice age an enormous ice dam formed, creating a ginormous lake called Lake Missoula, but from an ice dam. Its estimated this ice dam broke 150+ times. Can you imagine a ginormous lake of water being launched to the West across Idaho’s pan handle, then into Central Washington (Coulee Cityish, go visit Dry Falls) almost up against the edge of the Cascades (not into the Lake Chelan AVA) where it then headed South to hit the Saddle Mtns, rush around them to the East and blow through the Sentinel Gap (maybe I should write about the formation of the Wahluke). If memory serves me – the wall of water blowing through Sentinal Gap was potentially a mile high – WOW. The water then continued South and eventually dispersed. Herein lies a huge story. Let’s now compare… The Lake Chelan AVA received the parent material for its soil directly from Glacier Peak. The story I just told encompassed large parts of the Columbia Valley AVA, the Royal Slope AVA, Ancient Lakes AVA and Wahluke Slope AVA – demonstrating how their soils were formed – different than the formation of the Lake Chelan AVA soils. The Missoula Floods then also indirectly formed the soils to the East of the Columbia Valley AVA – largely the Palouse region and the Walla Walla AVA. The “Loess” which can be largely silt was blown by the wind over thousands of years to the East – creating deep rich soils and leaving behind much different soils in the Columbia Valley AVA, some of which can appear like almost straight sand. Now contrast all of what’s described here as mostly young influenced by volcano soils, to soils in Burgundy for example that are more influenced by sedimentary rock (think limestone) or are basically the bottom of an old seabed. Hopefully this helps point out the “macro” differences in soils in the different AVA’s of our state and abroad. Couple that with temperatures or GDD’s and the differences grow larger.

To build on the references above to GDD’s and temperatures of other AVA’s, we established how the Lake affects the temperature of the Lake Chelan AVA. In looking through the AgWeatherNet data – I’d like to summarize some of the States AVA’s average GDD’s. I also did a quick pull on the 2023 GDD’s for Dundee Oregon – coming in at 2,391 in 2023 (parts of Oregon and Cali were cooler than WA in 2023). I’d like to build on this comparison – Oregon, Burgundy and other areas in the future. For now, let’s stick to WA.

  • Red Mountain AVA – 2009-2023 GDD Summary
    • Average: 3,391
    • Min: 2,730
    • Max: 3,950
  • Nearby Wenatchee (highlights a bit of difference to a close by geography) – 2009-2023 GDD Summary
    • Average: 3,166
    • Min: 2,573
    • Max: 3,547
  • Lake Chelan AVA – 2009-2023 GDD Summary
    • Average: 3,117
    • Min: 2,464
    • Max: 3,622
  • Royal Slope AVA – 2009-2023 GDD Summary
    • Average: 3,069
    • Min: 2,541
    • Max: 3,460

Evaluating this data helped me learn to appreciate the nuances. What a GDD evaluation doesn’t include is small fluctuations by month or how much temperatures can swing day to night. For example, what I found was – the Lake Chelan AVA had a couple degrees cooler average daily high’s in September and October than many of the other AVA’s – thus a unique feature for our AVA that could let us hold onto the acidity in grapes. I also felt as though I learned – things have warmed up since these records have been kept, i.e. being below an average of 3,000 GDD’s was more common for the Lake Chelan AVA 15+ years ago. And I learned, maybe some other AVA’s within our state could give a grape like Pinot Noir a try – at least based on GDD similarities to the Lake Chelan AVA. But, I left feeling like I have a clearer picture of how the Lake Chelan AVA is definitely different in how the Lake affects temperatures via the accumulation of GDD’s.

Without question Washington States soils are a standout difference from many places in our State and in the World. Combine just these two things and we have something we need to talk more about because of its impact on the production of Lake Chelan AVA wines from the grapes grown in the Lake Chelan AVA.

What does this mean for the grapes grown in the Lake Chelan AVA?

There are about 300 acres of grapes currently grown in the Lake Chelan AVA. There are more acres being planted, but there have also been acres removed. Real estate prices because of urban growth will make it challenging for substantially more acres to be planted – although not impossible. The long-term viability of grape production due to our high production costs based on small size and topography less adaptable to some “mechanization” combined with small size will remain a challenge. The Lake Chelan AVA’s wines being recognized for their standout quality and uniqueness are paramount to its future success. And if successful these 300 acres will be more highly sought after, which will support demand, prices and the Lake Chelan AVA’s inherently expensive production. This is a partial rally cry to the Lake Chelan AVA’s grape producers but mostly to its other wineries – its time we focus on crafting an updated version of the vision, spreading the word and emphasizing the Lake Chelan AVA grapes uniqueness. Which is what I’d like to end this article with. How does the Lake Chelan AVA’s unique climate created by Lake Chelan (huge body of water) and the Lake Chelan AVA’s unique soil matter for its grapes and ultimately the wines? I’m going to highlight “acidity”, “ripening” and “control/influence”.

  • Acidity and Ripening combined: Acidity – what the heck?? I don’t want acid in my wine…!? Oh, but you do. Think of acidity as mother nature’s preserver, think of it as a way for wines to be phenomenally fresh and vibrant – or ALIVE. And in all grapes as acids decline during the final phase of ripening and the sugars climb we as vignerons pull out our magical taste buds and fancy gadgets to find the “perfect” time to pick. The Lake Chelan AVA’s cooler overall climate compared to other Washington AVA’s and slightly lower temperatures in September and October can extend this ripening time and give us the opportunity to capture the perfect acid to sugar mix we’re after. Some might refer to this as “hang time”. It’s incredibly important or at least it’s really nice to have things slow down a bit on harvest timing. I’ve seen this show up beautifully in Chardonnay grown and produced here in the Lake Chelan AVA. Acidity and ripening have a lot to do with the climate which we’ve established is unique in the Lake Chelan AVA.
  • Control/Influence – which can be related to our soils. It’s often thought that soils impart flavors into the wine. And as I described – the Lake Chelan AVA soils are made uniquely of silt, pumice and bits of quartz and mica. The influence these have on how flavors develop in wine can be distinct. A common theme that comes from tasting wines from Chablis is the “flinty” component. I believe we are still “discovering” what common characters the Lake Chelan AVA soils impart on the flavors of its wines. But there’s no doubt an influence from Lake Chelan’s unique soils. Control on the other hand comes via a simple agronomic practice – watering/irrigation management. In our vineyard we use water management technology to help guide us on when to water. Its shown us very clearly how fast our soil can dry up after irrigating or after a rain (we don’t get much rain). Basic soil structure has everything to do with water holding capacity (consider organic matter as well). As I described, much of the Lake Chelan AVA soil is made up with pumice scattered throughout it like stars in the sky. This pumice does not hold onto much water – it almost creates what would be like a sandy soil. I’ll always remember having left our drip irrigation on years ago for over 36 hours accidentally, only to get a call from the irrigation district letting me know water was running over Green Avenue. Pause on this story. This means the water rant completely through the 60” of topsoil, then what unique feature did it hit – you got it – granite. It ran down the granite and out the driveway cut and onto Green Avenue. Because the water moves through the soil like this, we as farmers are in better control of how much moisture the grapes receive. This allows us to custom manage how much and when the grapes get water – precision farming and high-quality grapes – yes!!! Our soils without question influence our wines flavor development. And our soils also put us in a unique position to control water.


I had no idea this would end up being such a long article. If you read this far – thanks! This is 10000% a passion project for Jeana and I. Read her article to hear the story. We’re so excited for how things are unfolding here in the Lake Chelan AVA. We believe the Lake Chelan AVA’s future is incredibly bright. As is the future of viticulture in Washington State. The Lake Chelan AVA is incredibly unique, and maybe, just maybe in 30 years (or less) it will be recognized and insanely sought after by wine lovers around the world. An AVA by its nature can sometimes be ambiguous or confusing – but not the Lake Chelan AVA. Its definable boundaries are clear. And the Lake is such an undeniably unique feature in how it affects the climate. Add to it the very unique soils and you have a special combination that affects the quality of the wines produced here. Wines that already stand alongside other great wines made in Washington State. The Lake Chelan AVA is special. So are all the other AVA’s created by the TTB. The beauty of all of this – just like the Roman soldiers traveling through France 1,000’s of years ago – wine is about place. Wine takes us places. Wine helps connect us to one another. I’ll end with a Ben Franklin quote I love – “In wine there is wisdom, in beer there is Freedom, in water there is bacteria.”