Catastrophic Flood that Nurtured Future Vineyards

A Catastrophic flood that occurred thousands of years ago helped make the Willamette Valley the great wine region it is today. The famous Willamette Valley Pinot Noir comes from incredibly fertile soil that originated thousands of years ago in Eastern Washington.

We are talking sometime around 12,000 to 18,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age. This story is one for the books, as it will leave you in awe of nature’s beautiful mystery and the intricate wisdom of the human mind.

The Great Missoula Floods that Nurtured Future Vineyards

Sometime around 12,000 to 18,000 years ago, when the last ice age was nearing its end, an ice dam took root in Clark Fork River in present-day Idaho. The ice caused a significant blockage, thus creating a massive natural reservoir referred to as glacial Lake Missoula.

Compelled by its failure to build a natural ice dam, the glacial reservoir sent unbelievable amounts of water through its ice wall. About 530 cubic miles of water erupted from the ice wall (about 2,000 ft) and sped over Eastern Washington at about 80 miles per hour creating a catastrophic flood.

As the raging waters coursed through the lands, they formed deep crevices into ancient basalt, eliminated topsoil from some areas, piled the soil atop others, and sent massive boulders flying. The waters, which amounted to a cataclysmic flood, raced through the Columbia Gorge into the Pacific Ocean with a terrifying force.

Did You Know?

Recent research shows similar floods that happened much earlier in the Ice Age, as long as 1 to 2 million years ago. It also pointed out that massive Ice Age glacial outbursts occurred in other parts of the world, not just the Columbia Basin.

Once it has exhausted its rampage, a new ice dam formed, collecting an inconceivable volume of water. This new dam then collapsed, unleashing another torrential flood. It was an endless cycle of rinse, wash, and repeat (about 40 times).

Then, finally and mercifully, this catastrophic flood came to an abrupt end. But there is one scientist who had some insightful ideas to share about these mysterious floods that shook the earth for years.

The Ridiculed Scientist

In more modern times early Washington settlers noticed that the region’s landscapes were significantly different than other places. But nobody could come up with a logical explanation as to why, except for one geologist.

Upon meticulous observation, Harlen Bretz unraveled the mystery; he proposed that a sudden and monumental a catastrophic flood was responsible for Washington’s landforms’ humongous size and distinct characteristics. However, he was not to be believed.

His fellow geologists thought his theory was ludicrous and inconceivable. Instead, they surmised that the so-called “scablands” were a product of wind and water erosions a million years ago. Bretz became the object of ridicule and the sole focus of critics.

Bretz published research papers to prove his point, but the skeptics prevailed until Aerial photographs shot in the 1950s surfaced. The pictures depicted the outlines of too-large-to-be-true flood features. However, the skeptics were not easily convinced and stubbornly stood their ground.

Then vindication welcomed Bretz when satellite photos were shot from a bird-eye view (570 miles overhead) in the 1970s. The images proved beyond reasonable doubt that a catastrophic flood that transcended human comprehension took place and left a distinctive landscape in their wake.

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Bretz’s theories and research underestimated the scale and frequency of the floods. Nonetheless, there is no denying that Bretz was an exceptional geologist.

How the Floods Changed the Course of Nature and Gave Rise to High-Quality Wine

With each flood episode, forests, sediments, soil, and earthy debris were swept away from one point to another. Once the ice plug re-formed the soil in the flooded regions became dry, and winds scattered the sediments and earth matter. And that was how layers upon layers of rich soil found their way to Willamette Valley thousands of years ago.

The Valley’s soils and crisp, damp climate make it a suitable location for grapevines. Winemakers soon realized the opportunity the valley presented and wasted no time setting up vineyards that would later produce some of the world’s best wines.

Thanks to the catastrophic flood that nurtured it, today, Willamette valley is every winemaker’s dreamland, offering hectares and hectares of lush soil, a cool climate, and consistent rain, which are the unique ingredients for premium wine.

See more resources here

Willamette Valley Wine Tours visiting Willamette AVA’s. 

Want to read more? Try these books!

Wineries of the World- Architecture and Viniculture The California Directory of Fine Wineries- Napa Valley, Sonoma County

Categories: This Day in Wine History | ArticlesTags: , , , , , By Published On: June 15, 2022Last Updated: February 22, 2024

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