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Yakima River Canyon vineyard and winery owner Gary Cox is dreaming big for the future of Kittitas County's viticulture and commercial wine-making community.

Cox, owner-operator of Ellensburg Canyon Vista Winery and Cox Canyon Vineyards, wants official recognition that much of Kittitas County should be seen as a separate, highly unique grape-growing and wine-producing area.

Cox and his wife, Susan, backed by other local wineries and wine grape growers, want most of Kittitas County to be designated by the federal government as an American Viticultural Area, or AVA.

It's a daunting challenge to apply for a formal AVA designation, and Gary Cox has a target date of 2016 to submit the voluminous application materials, including soil, climate, agronomy, grape and wine production studies, to the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.

"Gaining that (AVA) designation will truly set us apart in a special way in the wine industry," Cox said. "It gives us a stronger uniqueness of place associated with our grapes and our wines. It's also a marketing tool, a factor that gives us a sense of unique character for the wines we produce."

Approval sought

Cox, 61, president of the Vineyards and Wineries of Kittitas Valley Association, said the future Ellensburg Canyon AVA could take in an area stretching from the Yakima River Canyon near Roza Dam, southeast of Ellensburg, northwest into the Kittitas Valley and to Upper Kittitas County.

The official approval would set an Ellensburg Canyon AVA apart within the huge Columbia Valley AVA, which the county now is a part of. The Columbia Valley is Washington's largest viticultural region, covering an area of almost 11 million acres, with nearly 7,000 acres of vineyards, according to the Washington State Wine Commission.

The Kittitas Valley vintners' group supporting the AVA designation realizes it's a small organization compared to the many, sprawling grape-growing areas in the state and the hundreds of commercial wineries large and small.

There are over 850 state-licensed wineries in the state, according to the state Wine Commission website, with new ones licensed by the state at a statistical rate of nearly one per week in the past two years.

There are well over 350 wine grape growing operations in the state, many associated with wineries.

Local firms

The valley vintners are made up of nine vineyards and five wineries. Cox estimates the vineyards total more than 50 acres countywide, including his more than eight acres at different sites in the Yakima River Canyon.

There are three small vineyards in Upper County, he added. Growers with only vineyards, who sell to existing wineries, and are working to develop their operations toward adding a winery in the near future.

Organizational size doesn't matter to Cox, but what does matter is the distinctive grape and wine flavors coming from varieties grown in the local area's unique soil mix and the great skills of local wineries.

The agricultural bounty from grape varieties grown in the canyon and other areas of the county is becoming realized again as the 2014 harvest has begun.

Picking of grapes started Saturday at the Cox Canyon Vineyards in the canyon, and others will start soon.

"They look excellent," Cox said last weekend. "The heat we had earlier in the summer really heightened the sugar contents. Those warm days made for some beautifully ripening grapes, intensifying flavors."

It's a busy time for Cox and his employees as they quickly get the picked grapes to the winery to begin the fermentation process. He expects harvesting will be done around mid-October.

Throughout it all, his winery's tasting room and shop stays open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.

The first

The Cox Canyon Vineyard in 1998 was the first commercial vineyard to be planted in Kittitas County. Its first grape vintage was produced in 2002 and went to the Eaton Hill Winery in Zillah, part of the Yakima Valley AVA.

Cox Canyon grapes were part of Eaton Hill's wines that won international competition in 2004, Cox said. Ellensburg Canyon Winery received its state license in December 2011, the 697th commercial winery license in the state of Washington.

The outlook for the expansion and development of vineyard and winery operations in Kittitas County is a great one, Cox said, pointing to continued licensing of state-approved wineries, the growth in winery/vineyard tourism and wine sales, and the huge Gallo wineries purchasing vineyards around the state.

Having a separate AVA named Ellensburg Canyon will give wine grapes and wine produced in Kittitas County a definite boost, Cox said.

He should know. Cox has bachelor and master degrees in plant and soil science and agronomy and is a certified master watershed steward and hazardous materials manager.

Cox also is a former instructor of agroecosystems at Yakima Valley Community College focusing on sustainability, terroir (the French term used to define the many conditions which make each vineyard site unique within a growing region) and biodynamics.

Wines produced by the Ellensburg Canyon Vista Winery have garnered several outstanding awards from Wine Press Northwest magazine.

"It's a passion for me," Cox said about winemaking. "It's a very personal, uniquely creative act; making a lovely wine, adding a huge value to the grapes we grow and sharing it with others who share, in some way, that same passion."

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