Washington's wine crush
by Hannelore Sudermann | © Washington State University
It's hard to say when it all started. Maybe it was back in 1874, when Washington's first winery opened in Wenatchee. But then Prohibition forced that winery and its neighbors to close their doors.
Maybe it was in the late 1930s, when wine in the state rebounded, peaking at 42 wineries in 1937. That lasted until a succession of disastrous freezes wiped out the grape crops.
Maybe it was in the 1960s, when Washington State University researchers convinced fruit farmers in the Yakima Valley they could successfully grow wine grapes.
But for our story, perhaps the best place to start is 30 years ago when Washingtonians were learning to drink and appreciate wine. It was August 1975, in a white brick house on Queen Anne Hill. A small group gathered for an impartial judging of Northwest wines. There were five experts: Stan Reed, a food writer from the Post Intelligencer, wine writer Leon Adams, German grape breeder Helmut Becker, Seattle Times wine writer Tom Stockley, and Chas Nagel, the food scientist and bacteriologist who made the first wines to be tested at Washington State University.
"Chas was a good judge," says Glenn White, one of the founding members of the Northwest Enological Society and host to the private tasting. "He can identify every chemical in a wine." He taught many others, including some of today's winemakers, to do the same.
The judging started in the afternoon around the walnut dining room table. White, future winemaker Mike Wallace, and just a few others looked on. The living room offered a spectacular view over the Seattle Center to downtown and Elliott Bay. But the judges were focused on the glasses in front of them.
"There were some pretty bad wines in that group," says Nagel, noting that more than a couple samples had sulfide problems, which meant a rotten egg taste. But others were good. Nagel, excited by what he was tasting, tried talking with Becker. But the German expert diverted him, lest the discussion mar the judging. "Near the end, he started showing me glasses and giving me the thumbs up," says Nagel. "I realized he wasn't spitting it all out."
Did these people at the house on Queen Anne know they were at the beginning of something big? "It sure was momentous to me," says Nagel. "In this group of experts, I felt like a rookie." As they swished and swirled, it was clear Washington had arrived on the wine scene. "You could sense things were going to pop," says Wallace, who, already infected with wine fever, started Hinzerling Winery in Prosser the next year.
Several weeks later, the group presented the winners of their tasting at the very first wine festival of the Northwest Enological Society, which, to their surprise, drew a crowd of more than 300. Alongside a sumptuous dinner prepared by Seattle chefs Francois Kissel and Robert Rosellini, the guests tasted some of the winning wines from Associated Vintners, the forebear of Columbia Winery, a '71 chardonnay from Boordy Vineyards in Prosser-which closed in '75-and a '74 Johannesberg Riesling and '72 Cabernet Sauvignon from Ste. Michelle Vineyards, now a major force in the American wine industry.
Washingtonians learned to grow wine grapes through the efforts of WSU researcher Walter Clore. But equally important is the man who taught Washington how to make and taste wine. Remember, 1975 was a time when Americans drank light European rosés, or possibly something more fortified. There were only six wineries in the state, and of them, only two survived.
Clore looked to Chas Nagel to turn the early grape efforts into wine and to encourage others to do the same. Nagel made the first two vintages in 1964 and '65 and then oversaw George Carter's winemaking at WSU's Prosser Research Station. At the same time, Nagel organized tasting panels in Pullman, training graduate students and community members, many of whom didn't drink wine at home, to find and diagnose the problems in the local vintages. Winemakers often turned to Nagel for advice. In fact, the plans for Arbor Crest Winery in Spokane were hatched by WSU alums C. Harold Mielke and his brother David at Nagel's dining room table. "We spent a lot of time with Chas," says C. Harold Mielke ('58 Zoology). "I would always bring the latest and greatest chardonnay and cracked crab, and we would talk about the wine business."
Nagel took his expertise to the west side of the state, becoming one of the founding members of the Seattle-based Northwest Enological Society and offering courses on how to taste wine. He was very particular about how it should be done.
"Honey, he never even let you wear perfume or lipstick to the tasting," says his wife, Bea.
Annette Bergevin is focused on a different kind of perfume. The co-owner of Walla Walla's Bergevin Lane notes that her new Columbia Valley Calico Red has a certain compelling flavor. "Can you guess what it is?" she asks, as she pours a taste into a glass. I sniff and swirl and take a sip as she leads the way into a cavernous room filled with oak casks and gleaming steel tanks.
Until a few years ago, Bergevin, who graduated from WSU in 1986 with a communications degree, had been living in the Bay Area of California in the thick of the telecom industry. But she dropped that fast-paced life for one at home in Walla Walla, where she could work with her family. She comes by wine through her father, an eastern Washington vineyard owner. With his help and the encouragement of her business partner Amber Lane, Bergevin started making wine. "We had a lot of support from folks around town," says Bergevin. That included help from well-known winemaker Rusty Figgins, who urged them to hire French enologist Virginie Bourgue. Bergevin Lane's first release was in 2001, and now they've made the wine lists of restaurants and resorts throughout the Northwest. Bergevin still can't believe her path. "I wake up every morning and I think, 'Are we really doing this?'"
The young winery owner is grateful to Walla Walla's pioneers such as Rick Small of Woodward Canyon and Leonetti's Gary Figgins, two men who put the appellation on the map in the 1970s. Their standards of quality have made a name for the small wine region; now it's up to the rest of the wineries to maintain that reputation, says Bergevin.
By this time, I've finished most of my Calico sample. It hits me. "Grapefruit!" Bergevin smiles.
Wine is changing Washington. Communities like Woodinville, Whidbey Island, and Walla Walla have caught the nation's attention, thanks to the high-quality vintages they're producing. And in the wake of their wines come elite chefs and high-end stores ready to cater to the wine-buying crowds.
Still, at 6 p.m. one Tuesday last summer, we struggled to find a place in Walla Walla for dinner. The two "hot" new restaurants were closed, the backup bistro had shut down for a wedding, and the sun-baked streets were nearly empty.
"One of the gaps we have is scope of amenities in wine country," says Ted Baseler, president and CEO of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. "Look at Napa, the number and quality of restaurants, spas, hotels, shops, and galleries. It really makes it a great experience, whether you want to try the wine or not. That's where we're still falling a little short."
There are a few other sour notes. The long-time residents still strive to adjust to the lifestyles and tastes of the newcomers. People like Adelle Ganguet, who attended WSU briefly in 1940 before coming home to marry a farmer in Dixie, can hardly imagine paying $34 for a steak at one of the fancy new places when she can get it for $12 at her favorite spot. "Thirty-four dollars? I'd have to eat a lot of food for that," she says.
Ganguet, ever interested in the news of the community, keeps her ears open to the conflicts between the area's traditional wheat and onion farmers and the new folk planting vineyards and building tasting rooms. A few years ago grape growers filed a law suit against other farmers to stop the aerial application of an herbicide which was harming some of the grapes.
"Yeah, there's some tension there. It's just the tension of differences of use," says Jim Hayner ('72 Econ.), a Walla Walla-based attorney. Hayner handled the case of a New York investor who grew up in Walla Walla and wanted to come back and open a winery and tasting room near town. His plans ground to a halt when his neighbors argued it would bring too much traffic to a rural area.
In spite of the occasional resistance, this corner of the state produces a dazzling collection of good wines. The number of wineries in Walla Walla, Yakima, and the Columbia Valley has grown exponentially. In four years the number of Washington wineries has more than doubled from about 170 to 360.
Among the newcomers is Cougar Crest, a small company headed by winemaker Debbie Hansen ('79 Pharm.) and her husband, David ('77 D.V.M.), who manage 50 acres of vines. The couple started making wine in 2001. They've kept their day jobs, though maybe not for much longer.
Their past year was better than they could have imagined. The Cougar Crest 2002 Syrah scored a 94 in Wine Spectator. "I was kind of awestruck," says Debbie Hansen, who knew the wine was good, but didn't know how the marketplace would like it. "I submitted it in a lot of competitions just to see how it would measure up." Then the Spectator review came out last winter. "It was read by a lot more people than I ever thought." She didn't even have a subscription to the magazine. The orders started pouring in.
What Hansen learned at WSU gave her the science grounding she needed to make wine. She then polished her skills with winemaking classes in California. "You can walk right out of pharmacy school and right into enology," she says. "The rest of it is taste, experience, and good taste buds."
On the other side of town, where Highway 12 stretches west, Rick Small ('69 Ag.) has transformed his family wheat farm into a vintner's domain. Still, he has anything but the artifice one might expect from a lauded pioneer in the Walla Walla scene. On a busy weekend last spring he stood in the middle of his Woodward Canyon winery in a t-shirt, sandals, and shorts, chumming it up with the customers and sampling his latest chardonnay. "It's pretty good," he said, grinning and swirling. Wine junkies surrounded him in everything from their best diamonds to funky grape-themed Hawaiian shirts.
While people milled by, eager to meet him, Small pondered why Washington wine is not more widespread. He set down his glass and moved to the door, where it was quieter. "I think our story is a harder story to tell," he said. "People don't know what we do best." He pointed to the chardonnay, then mentioned the Cabernets, the Syrahs, the merlots, the Gewürztraminers, the Rieslings. "We have so many wines and grapes that we do well. People talk about Oregon and they mean Pinot, but they don't even know what the hell it is we do."
Well, a few do. On that spring release weekend, Small saw close to a thousand customers. As he talked, a limo drove by, and a private helicopter beat through the air over the winery and landed in a nearby field.
While the industry is growing fast now, Small hadn't expected it to take this long. He sees a future Washington with many more high-quality boutique wineries and a world-class reputation.
In the beginning was the Yakima River Valley, where the state's earliest vinifera was planted, thanks to the urging of scientists at the WSU Prosser Research Station.
As the Washington wine business aged, the valley changed. Like a wine, it lost its green flavor, deepened, and developed new characteristics. Last summer perhaps the biggest change was the increased focus on terroir, the French notion that place can affect the wine.
The Yakima Valley appellation is being broken up into specific American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), a federal designation. Winemakers hope to use the new AVAs like Red Mountain, Horse Heaven Hills, and Wahluke Slope to express and market the distinct growing conditions of their areas, says Gail Puryear, owner and winemaker at Bonair Winery.
Puryear and his wife, Shirley, met as foreign language students at WSU in the late 1960s. They pursued jobs in education and social work in California. Two decades ago, they decided to move home and grow grapes on five acres of weeds and alfalfa near Toppenish. While they had good customers in the nearby wineries, just growing grapes wasn't satisfying. So they mortgaged their farm, started their own operation, and made their first batch in their bathroom. Today they have a full-blown winery, including one of the oldest vineyards in the state, which they purchased from the original owner. "It's not hard to make good wine around here. It's not rocket science. Just don't screw up," says Gail, the winemaker. They sometimes sits beneath a locust tree in front of the English Tudor-style tasting room and watch the cars come in, many with license plates from Oregon and California, noted Shirley one afternoon last summer.
Behind their tasting room and further south across the Yakima River lies Horse Heaven Hills, Washington's seventh and newest AVA. It joins the Puget Sound, Yakima Valley, Walla Walla, Red Mountain, Columbia Gorge, and Columbia Valley appellations.
To the north of the valley is an area vying to be Wahluke Slope. And Bonair is right in the middle of what the Puryears hope will become the Rattlesnake Hills appellation. The area has nearly 30 growers, 23 wineries, and its own distinct set of weather, soil, water, and cultural conditions, says Gail Puryear.
So far the AVA movement has met little opposition. But some in the industry are cautious. "The only concern I have is that we don't want Washington growers and wineries pitting themselves against each other," says Ste. Michelle's Baseler. "Up to now, it has been such a collegial atmosphere." He fears that some may start declaring their appellation better than others. "Our position is this state offers so many kinds of terroir. And it's all good."
At the east end of the valley, where the Yakima River bends north around Red Mountain, the Williams family planted the first vines for Kiona Vineyards and Winery in 1975. Today, they still have some 30-year-old Cabernet vines in their 65 acres of grapes. The business was co-founded by WSU alumni John '61 and Ann Williams '63.
In jeans stained with grape juice and dust and with a sun-burned face, their son, Scott Williams, also a Coug, looks more like a farm hand than a recognized winemaker and winery manager. It would be hard to guess that he crafted the stunning Chenin Blanc ice wine that took the top award at the Northwest Enological Society judging last summer.
He has a real enthusiasm for his product, though he's quick to disclaim credit for it. "You don't have anything unless you have good grapes," he says. "Red Mountain grapes make very, very powerful, very structured wines with a lot of color and a lot of mouth feel." Most of the people who buy grapes from Red Mountain's vineyards use them as the backbone for their wines and then blend in other grapes, he says.
In many ways, the Williams family has been ahead of its time breaking sagebrush-covered land on Red Mountain and figuring out what to grow there. In others, the small operation is just now coming of age. Kiona's tasting room is still in the basement of John and Ann's house, but the family has plans to expand, with ground already broken on a new multi-million-dollar cellar and tasting room. And now they're watching as the land around is bought up by the likes of Hedges Cellars and Ste. Michelle. Since the 1970s, nine other wineries have popped up around them. And in 10 years, Scott Williams predicts, the whole Red Mountain slope will be covered with grapes.
Washington wine today is a tangle of trends. Pinot versus merlot, Riesling back in style, new appellations sprouting across the landscape, and both growers and drinkers wondering what grape they should grow next.
But that's all good news for members of the now three-decade-old Northwest Enological Society, who hosted their latest wine judging in August. They're ever willing to support and sample from Washington's wealth of wines. This year they had bottles from 190 wineries to try, including some from WSU alumni-connected wineries like Alexandria Nicole Cellars, Kiona Vineyards and Winery, Kestrel Vintners, and newcomer Saint Laurent Winery. Among the submissions were muscat, ice wine, and lemberger, as well as the traditional chardonnays and Bordeaux blends.
They met early one morning last August on the 40th floor of the glass-encased Bank of America Building in downtown Seattle. While busloads of people on their way to work poured into the streets below, the attention upstairs focused on the judges silently tasting wines in their cardboard booths. The volunteers in an adjoining room, though busy opening bottles and prepping trays of glasses, did a little sampling of their own.
Sally Hooper picked a glass of Viognier, sipped, and raised her eyebrows. This was one of the perks of dedicating two long days of pouring, washing, and toting, a duty Hooper ('57 Home Ec.) and her husband, Paul ('53 Civ. Engr.), have shared for the past decade. The couple joined the wine society in its second year at the urging of friends, but only 10 years ago got into helping with the judging. "This is a tough job to get. Everyone wants to do it," says Paul Hooper, a retired transportation engineer.
In the other room, the five judges, including a wine writer from the Washington Post and a California winemaker, finished their rounds and then argued through what they thought deserved awards. Snippets of their talk filtered back to the prep room: the merlots were too syrupy, none merited a gold. Later, word came that the Viogniers had some pleasant surprises and the Syrahs were sublime.
That night, the Hoopers and a few hundred of their wine society friends heard the final rulings at Bellevue's Woodmark Hotel. Sitting beneath a white tent, with the waves of Lake Washington chopping behind them, they learned that three of the Syrahs had met the gold standard.
On the edge of his seat, Glenn Nelson made careful notes, limiting his enthusiasm to a smile when one of his favorites made the list. Others weren't so reserved, cheering and clapping at familiar names.
Nelson, who coordinates many of the wine society events during the year, and his wife, Judy, planned their week around this evening. They manage to fit wine into many of their activities, even tying trips to Walla Walla into WSU football weekends. "It just makes sense, doesn't it," says Judy, who was sampling a Cave B merlot during the salad course. "We love wine, we love WSU."
Along with the state's wine industry, the Northwest Enological Society has matured over the past 30 years. Today, the group has chapters throughout the region, the largest being the Seattle Wine Society, which hosted the judging and dinner. The membership still numbers in the hundreds, but now the society competes with a growing number of other wine clubs based out of wine shops, wineries, and even Boeing, proving that Washingtonians have cultivated a real taste for wine. They'll be ready for the growth to come, say industry leaders.
In the past year, pieces about the state's fast-growing wine industry have appeared in the food and travel sections of most major papers and in periodicals such as Town and Country, Time, Men's Health, and Newsweek. The word has long been out that Walla Walla can produce world-class Cabernets, that in the beginning Riesling was king, and that today Washington is the second largest U.S. state in wine-production and grape acreage.
"But we've only scratched the surface," says Baseler. "I figure the state will have 40,000 to 45,000 acres of grapes over the next five years.
"We'll be the same size as Napa," he says. "Then it starts to get serious."
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