Winemakers in an emerging Pacific Northwest wine region are seeking an American Viticultural Area (AVA) designation from the United States Department of Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). They hope official recognition will create interest in their wine and cultivate tourism seen in nearby areas, such as the Willamette Valley and the Walla Walla Valley.

The Southwest Washington Winery Association’s AVA Task Force has spent the last several years drafting an application for a proposed Mount St. Helens AVA. They will soon be submitting this document to the TTB for review. 

If approved, the new AVA will include approximately 2,100 square miles in southwest Washington, extending from the west edge of Skamania County, near Beacon Rock State Park, all the way north to Centralia. This area includes parts of Clark, Cowlitz and Lewis counties below 1,200 feet of elevation. Currently, there are approximately 140 acres of wine grapes growing in this region and 30 wineries.

This region gets its name from the famous mountain nearby. “Mount St. Helens was suggested early on because it’s a prominent landmark visible throughout our AVA area,” said Roger Rezabek, owner of Rezabek Vineyards and a member of the AVA Task Force. 

Washington state currently has over 20 AVAs. The proposed Mount St. Helens AVA region with cool-to-moderate weather is suitable for vitis vinifera grapes like cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, pinot gris, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, golubok and zweigelt. This area has rocky soil deposited by the Missoula Flood, just like the Willamette Valley. 

Wineries from this region have received awards from the Seattle Wine Awards for several years. In 2022, Stavalaura Vineyards and Winery won a double gold medal for their 2016 zweigelt; and gold medals for a 2014 zweigelt, 2014 golubok and 2016 golubok. Golubok grapes — typically grown in Russia and Ukraine north of the Black Sea — yield a full red wine with black currant, cherry and vanilla notes when grown in southwest Washington. English Estate Winery won a double gold for a fortified wine made from locally grown fruit; silver for a 2020 gewurztraminer; and bronze for a 2020 pinot gris in the single varietal rosé category and a 2020 pinot noir in the pinot noir category.   

Other wineries in this region, like Columbia Ridge Winery and Rezabek Vineyard, have also been honored for wines made from grapes grown here. Winning these awards demonstrates the high quality of wine made from southwest Washington grapes and lends support to the Southwest Washington Winery Association’s application for an AVA. Approval of their application would add prestige to these wineries and allow them to put “estate grown” on their wine labels.

An AVA designation could also boost an already thriving tourism industry. In 2021, Clark, Cowlitz and Lewis counties saw a total 6.25 million visitors. Combined visitor spending for the three counties was $855.5 million. Adding a recognized wine region to the mix could draw wine enthusiasts and increase business for these small wineries.

Visitors to these southwest Washington wineries get unique access to vintners. “These are smaller wineries. The winemakers are often in the tasting room. We can explain the grapes and wine and I think people find that interesting,” said Roger Rezabek of Rezabek Vineyards.