Roll on, Columbia, Roll on!

Map of the Columbia River watershed, with the Columbia River Highlighted. Map via the USGS, modified by Kmusser, via Wikimedia Commons

Map of the Columbia River watershed, with the Columbia River Highlighted. Map via the USGS, modified by Kmusser, via Wikimedia Commons

The Columbia River is well-known to wine lovers as the namesake of The Columbia Valley AVA. The Columbia Valley AVA is the largest AVA in Washington State, and a portion of the AVA dips down across the Oregon border as well. Another namesake, the Columbia  Gorge AVA – a tiny AVA located just to the east of Mount Hood – is also shared by the two neighboring states.

But the Columbia River extends well above and beyond its namesake wine regions, and is a treasure trove of interesting stories for geography geeks and travel buffs as well as the legions of wine lovers already familiar with the name.

The Columbia River flows for over 1,243 miles, beginning in the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia in Canada. From there it flows northwest through a glacial valley between the Canadian Rockies and the Columbia Mountains to a town named Canoe; here the Columbia takes a sharp turn to the south around the northern edge of the Selkirk Mountains and begins its 200-mile trek into eastern Washington State.

Once in Washington, the Columbia River flows south/southwest for about 100 miles to the town of Deer Meadows.  Just after the point of confluence with the Spokane River, the Columbia River takes a sharp turn to the west and forms a huge “C” formation covering much of interior Washington State. This section of the river, known as the “Big Bend” was formed during the Missoula floods. Before the floods, the river took a much straighter path towards the southwest.

Crown Point, Columbia Gorge

Crown Point, Columbia Gorge

To the south of the “Big Bend,” in the wine country of eastern Washington State, the Columbia is joined by the Yakima River as the Yakima flows eastward down from the Cascades. The Yakima River catches the Columbia just after it rounds a small bend hugging the Horse Heaven Hills AVA. From here, the Columbia continues its trek to the Pacific Ocean, forming over 300 miles of the border between the states of Washington and Oregon from the Yakima Delta to the sea.

Near Washington’s Tri-Cities area, the Columbia River is joined by the Walla Walla River. Walla Walla is another name familiar to wine lovers, being the namesake of the Walla Walla River Valley AVA, a sub-region of the Columbia Valley AVA and one of the three AVAs shared between Washington State and Oregon.

The Walla Walla River is short in length – just 61 miles long – but of great importance to the wines of the area. The Walla Walla River begins in as two separate forks in the Blue Mountain range of northeastern Oregon. From there, the two forks run westward to Milton-Freewater, which was built along its banks. The Walla Walla River runs northwest and eventually meets the Columbia River for the journey westward towards the sea, but along the way it deposits the famous basalt stones – the rocks – which gave the newly-anointed “Rocks District of Milton-Freewater AVA” both its name and its famous terroir.

Shoshone Falls

Shoshone Falls

Another river familiar to wine lovers, the Snake River, joins the Columbia River near Washington State’s Tri-Cities area. The Snake River, at 1,078 miles long, is the Columbia River’s longest tributary. The Snake River actually begins several states over, in Wyoming’s Yellowstone Park. From Wyoming, the Snake flows across the width of Idaho. About mid-way through its trek across Idaho, the Snake River flows over Shoshone Falls – a waterfall that, at 212 feet high, is actually 45 feet higher than Niagara Falls. Shoshone Falls is often called “the Niagara Falls of the west” – although I am sure many citizens of Idaho wonder why Niagara Falls is not known as “The Shoshone Falls of the east.”

About 120 miles west of Shoshone Falls, the Snake River flows past Boise, and not too far after that,  takes a sharp turn north and forms the border between Idaho and Oregon. The Snake River Valley AVA is located along this border. The Snake River Valley is currently Idaho’s only AVA, although a second – Lewis-Clark Valley – has been proposed for northern Idaho/eastern Washington State. After leaving Oregon and forming a small portion of the Idaho/Washington State border, the Snake River turns west and joins the Columbia River.

Map of the Snake River watershed with the Snake River Highlighted. Map via the USGS, modified by Shannon1 via Wikimedia Commons.

Map of the Snake River watershed with the Snake River Highlighted. Map via the USGS, modified by Shannon1 via Wikimedia Commons.

The Columbia River, along with its tributaries the Walla Walla River, the Snake River, and the Yakima River (as well as many others not mentioned here) plays a huge roll in Pacific Northwest viticulture. Through their waters, they provide for the irrigation that makes viticulture even a possibility in much of the region. Over the centuries they have deposited alluvial soils, formed breathtaking waterfalls, sliced gorges through mountains and even delivered the namesake “rocks” to one of the area’s newest AVAs. Roll on, Columbia, Roll on.*

*Roll On, Columbia, Roll On is an American folk song written by Woody Guthrie in 1941. The popular song glamorized the building of a series of dams and the harnessing of hydroelectric power from the Columbia River under the American Public Works program of the New Deal.

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net

About bubblyprof
Wine Writer and Educator...a 20-year journey from Bristol Hotels to Le Cordon Bleu Schools and the Society of Wine Educators

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