the hills

Think eastern Washington and what pops to mind? Desert? Walla Walla? Wheat fields? Spokane? As a motorcyclist, I ride eastern Washington several times a year. What always impresses me is the lonely beauty and its dramatic terrain: the canyons, the randomly deposited boulders standing two stories or the carved rolling hills of the Palouse. To a casual observer, these geographic oddities serve as photographic memories of a place visited. To those drinking eastern Washington wine, they mean much more.

Photo by Frank Wagner

The Secret Behind Washington Wines: The Missoula Ice Age Flood
During the last Ice Age, between 13,000 to 15,000 years ago, a huge ice dam formed in the Idaho Panhandle, near what is now called Lake Pend Orielle. The amount of ice build up was more than 2,000 feet high, holding back 500 cubic miles of water. According to Ice Age Floods Institute, this body of water equaled Lake Erie and Ontario combined.

The dam failed multiple times – every 40 years by some calculations – flooding eastern Washington with ice and water.  Imagine water rolling toward you at 80 miles per hour… the size of a skyscraper. These waters deposited fertile soils and carved the canyons, chasms, gorges, buttes, boulder fields and gravel bars. Without the Ice Age Floods, eastern Washington’s viticultural climate would not – simply – be what it is today.

Ice Flooding? What?
Of course, when one thinks ice – well – one thinks frozen. What this humble wine maker did not know, was that the freezing temperature of water lowers under pressure. At the very base of the Ice Age water dam, under growing pressure, ice liquefied. With ice forming on top of it, the pressure caused water to worm its way into cracks in the ice dam, creating friction, which equals the heat that eventually broke the dam.  Scientists theorize that the waters flowed for two or three days before the waters stopped and then the ice eventually reformed, built up, and then the process took place another 40 or more years later. These repeat floods deposited layers of gravels, sands and silt that would eventually mix with loess and volcanic dust to produce Washington’s terrior.

Map courtesy of Ice Age Floods Institute

Where did the waters flow?
The world boasts many large rivers: the Amazon, the Nile, the Mississippi, the Columbia – combined all their flows into one river and add in every other river in the world, multiple that by 10 – there you have the Missoula Ice Age Flood. Picture that taking place every 40 years.

Part of the waters flowed into Idaho, but the majority of water swept north and south of Spokane, Washington, as far west as Wenatchee, down to Lewiston, Idaho (on the Washington border) and Walla Walla, swamping the Tri-Cities and Yakima areas before being channeled into the Columbia River gorge. Eventually the waters would reach the Pacific Ocean, but not before depositing soils and carving out lands in the Willamette Valley area (another fantastic area for Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris).

Yakima Valley, looking north

Earth and Wine
The next time you visit eastern Washington and samples the bounty of its wines and foods, take in the surrounding geography, notice its hills, even the randomly deposited boulder. These hills and valleys are enthused with ancient soils that allow vitis vinifera to thrive. The hills – in Lobo Hills – honors this event and its lasting impact.

Sources: Ice Age Floods Institute; National Park Service