Cataclysm, Light & Passion
by Tim Steury | © Washington State University
How Washington came to produce some of the world's greatest wines
It is early June. Last evening’s rain has washed the air clean. The morning sun is warm and assuring. Close-knit rows of grape vines, their young clusters flush with promise, stretch across a south-facing slope above the Walla Walla Valley. Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Barbera, each in its appointed place. Here in the Woodward Canyon vineyards all’s right with the world.
And here in his vineyard, Rick Small (’69 Agriculture) talks as passionately about soil as he talks about wine. Because they’re really the same subject, to hear him tell it. You have to understand Small’s intensity. He doesn’t slow down. He doesn’t pause. He just...keeps going.
“Winemaking’s interesting because it’s so broad,” he says, “it keeps you fresh,” hardly taking a breath, “there’s so much to learn, I’ve done this for 20 years, now I’m 54, I knew I was going to do this by my late 20s, but I’m continually blown away by how much I don’t know yet...
“This is great soil,” he says, crumbling some in his hand and smelling it. “Like my dad said, you know what’s good about this soil out here, it’s clean dirt. It’s got a good earthy smell, not sandy.”
Finally, he does pause, looking across the valley to the bluffs on the other side.
“I would not be anywhere else in the world.”
This land is his wine. And what we’re looking at—this breathless sweep of landscape, this soil beneath our feet—is what the French call terroir. Place in a bottle.
Terroir. Tair-WAHR. Whether or not they can pronounce it correctly, terroir is on the lips of many a Washington winemaker these days. The idea that the interaction of geology, soil, and climate can affect the taste, complexity, and character of a fine wine is hardly new, even within the relatively youthful Washington wine industry. But the notion was revisited recently in a paper published by WSU researchers Larry Meinert, a geologist, and Alan Busacca, a soil scientist, in Geoscience Canada. In “Terroirs of the Walla Walla Valley Appellation...,” Meinert and Busacca—both wine devotees—report on their extensive analysis of the appellation and its soils, detailing various vineyards and their soil, and resulting enological peculiarities.
Some aspects of terroir, says Meinert, are fairly intuitive. If one slope gets more sun and is warmer than another slope, it is likely to produce more vigorous grapevines and better wine. But other aspects, such as the rocks deep underground and events thousands of years in the past, are less obvious in how they might influence wine quality. As Meinert and Busacca explored the geologic terroir of Washington wines they made some intriguing discoveries. “I was astounded to find that giant glaciers reaching down from Canada 17,000 years ago have had more influence on the wines of Washington than the local volcanic rocks,” Meinert says. “Even more amazing, we are discovering that many other great wine regions of the world have also been affected by glacial activity.”
However, eastern Washington’s terroir is not quite as straightforward as a glacier. The next time you open a bottle of wine made from grapes grown in eastern Washington, think about what gave that wine its personality. Think, if you will, about floods.
Think about the greatest floods ever documented on Earth—about a wave 500 feet high bursting through the ruptured ice dam of Glacial Lake Missoula, sweeping south across eastern Washington at 50 miles an hour. Think about the brunt of 2,500 cubic kilometers of water rushing with a flow 10 times greater than the combined flow of all the rivers in the world, scouring the land to its bedrock bones—not just once, but as many as 90 times, as the ice dam repeatedly formed and failed, over intervals of 35 to 55 years, beginning some 15,300 years ago—creating an enormously complex geological riddle and hundreds of publication topics for scores of geologists since J Harlen Bretz first realized how the tortured landscape of the Channeled Scablands was formed.
The prevailing southwesterly winds, which still prevail and still continue the geologic process, lifted the glacial sediments, the loess deposited by the floods, carrying it back north, distributing it approximately along the floods’ path, relinquishing finally what remained as the thick loess dunes of the Palouse.
This windblown silt deposited over the underlying volcanic basalt, layered with the ash of intermittent eruptions of Northwest volcanoes from Mazama to St. Helens—this is the literal grounding of eastern Washington’s terroir.
You’ve probably heard the often repeated observation that Washington lies at the same latitude as the French wine-growing regions of Bordeaux and Burgundy. Which is true. Other than latitude and the presence of grapes and good wine, however, the similarities dwindle. In fact, it could be argued that Washington is a better place than these regions for growing grapes.
“Right offhand, I don’t know of any other region that is like Eastern Washington,” says Sara Spayd, an extension food scientist who works in wine at WSU’s Irrigated Agriculture Research Center in Prosser.
“We have a day length similar to northern Europe. We also have the diurnal fluctuations of any continental high desert, warm days, cool nights. They do have that in Eastern California in the valley, but they don’t get as hot for as long.”
An abundance of sunlight. An arid climate, which deters much of the disease that plagues other winegrowing areas. “We have some problem with botrytis,” says Spayd, “but we can generally control it with canopy management.”
The most significant difference?
“I think it’s the light,” says Spayd.
It is this light that has guided Spayd’s recent research. She is deep into a paper reporting on her results. As we talk, her computer remains tuned to one of the many accompanying graphs.
For a perspective, she has hung a quote from Benjamin Franklin on her wall: Wine is constant proof that God loves us and likes to see us happy.
One aspect of Spayd’s work concerns the relationship between light and heat and the effect on grape color. “The grape,” she says, “is basically a little black hole, sucking up all the light.” Temperatures in the grape can reach up to 40 degrees C, and fruit in the sun can be 10 to 12 degrees C warmer than fruit in the shade.
In their attempt to squeeze every last iota of character and flavor from their fruit, wine grape growers cling to these research results. “We see some growers going to extremes,” she says. For maximum sunlight, they might strip all the leaves off the west side of the row. “We’re trying to discourage extreme manipulation of the west side of the canopy, or the south side, where they get full sun exposure.
“East-side clusters would probably have the best fruit composition in terms of balance, acid , sugar, color,” says Spayd, leading us off into further esoterica of wine complexity. Some estimate that wine contains over 10,000 components that affect its flavor.
Spayd’s most recent research dealt only with pigments, which affect not just color, but keeping ability. “Flavor volatiles are a whole other area,” she says. The boiling points of some of these volatiles, which make up the grape’s flavor, are much lower than 40 degrees C (104 F), which means that the heat can affect flavor in ways we can only imagine.
When dealing with wine, the aesthetic and scientific are sometimes difficult to keep separate. Spayd talks about the difference in the light after the first of September. “It just looks different,” she says. She paints a vivid impressionist landscape. Shimmering sunny days, maybe up into the 80s. Cool, hard nights, dipping into the 30s. Most of the acid metabolism in grapes takes place at night. Cool temperatures inhibit that metabolism, which is why Washington wines have a better acid balance than California wines.˜
Jeff Gordon (’71 Ag Econ) and Vicki Gordon both smile when I say I think their Chardonnay tastes more like a French Chardonnay than a California.
European wine grapes, I learn, are typically high acid, low sugar, whereas California grapes are typically low acid, high sugar. Because of its terroir, Eastern Washington wine grapes are high acid, high sugar.
“The Europeans do malolactic because they have to,” says Jeff. “In California, they do it because they do it in Europe.” Malolactic, or ML in the lingo, is a second fermentation that converts the sharper malic acid of wine to a softer lactic acid. Used judiciously, ML eases excessive sharpness in a wine, but retains a good balance of acid, without which the wine simply goes soft, with no edge.
I suspect Gordon’s sentiment has been traded often around Washington winemaker circles. It does clearly describe the difference I’d tasted. Like many other Washington Chardonnays, the Gordon Brothers Chardonnay is leaner, with higher acid, not all malolactic mellow.
We’re drinking coffee in the Gordons’ kitchen, which opens onto a spacious living room, which in turn opens out across the breaks of the Snake River, just above Ice Harbor Dam. It’s a dramatic view back through eons of time, the river cutting through layers of loess and basalt. Terroir again. Encircling the house on the other three sides are 95 acres of grapes, along with 50 acres of organically grown cherries and apples.
Rain is falling across the vineyard, the same rain that will clear the air above Small’s vineyard, a welcome rarity here in June. The rain is also responsible for another rarity: the presence of Jeff Gordon indoors on a June day. Like Small, he appears incapable of sitting still.
The Gordons are something of a Washington rarity in yet another sense, as their wine is exclusively estate grown. They sell 60 percent of their grapes to other wineries. But the rest goes into the 10,000 cases of wine they currently produce annually. Instead of selecting for desired qualities from various regional vineyards and blending, all of the grapes that go into their wine come from the vineyard here above the Snake.
This aligns their wines more closely with European estate grown wines in terms of terroir. Whereas a blended wine will include the traits of different vineyards, estate grown wine will, some argue, achieve a personality unique to a specific place.
That personality obviously stands out in the Gordons’ wine. The Gordon Brothers 1998 Tradition, an estate blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah, won first place in a blind tasting of prestigious Washington, French, and Napa Valley wines this past March in San Francisco. Washington wines also took second (DeLille Cellars), third (Col Solare), and sixth (Quilceda Creek) places. Interestingly, even at $40, the Tradition was the least expensive of the first eight. The ’96 Mouton-Rothschild, which placed eighth, goes for $278 a bottle. Washington winemakers like to point out the good value of their wines.
Jeff is quick to note that the top three places were a dead heat. His point reflects an observation you hear a lot among wine people in Washington. They like each other. What they are about is not just Gordon Brothers wine or Woodward Canyon wine or Chateau Ste. Michelle wine, but Washington wine.
After graduating from WSU, Jeff worked for an agribusiness outfit, an experience that he found deadening, and which led the Gordons to look for land. Vicki recalls Jeff’s bringing her to the spot where their house now stands, even before the land was for sale. She was stunned by its beauty. When the land came available in 1979, they quickly worked out a deal and started planning.
Part of that planning involved a visit to the site by WSU horticulturist Walt Clore.
Forty years ago not everyone would have looked at the terroirs of Eastern Washington and seen wine. Walt Clore was among the few who did.
Though many call him the “father of Washington wine,” vines were planted in Washington long before Walt Clore was born. The first Vitis vinifera, the premium European vines, were probably planted by the Hudson’s Bay Company at Fort Vancouver in 1825. Around the same time, French trappers might have planted vinifera vines in the Walla Walla Valley. Other European settlers across the state undoubtedly brought their seeds or cuttings with them, unwilling to abandon their wine to memory.
But Washington did not see its first bonded winery until 1933, immediately following the repeal of Prohibition: St. Charles Winery on Puget Sound’s Stretch Island west of Tacoma. By 1938, Washington had 42 wineries. But most of the wines produced during this era were fortified, sweet dessert wines.
What Clore was able to do was assure Washington farmers that vinifera would grow in Washington. Without his revelations—and a little legal persuasion from California—the products of Washington’s wine industry would still be relegated—with some exceptions—to the same shelf as Mogen David and Wild Irish Rose. They certainly wouldn’t dominate the wine lists of restaurants such as New Orleans’s Dominique’s.
Walt Clore came to Washington State College in 1934, following the lure of a $500 fellowship and fleeing the Depression and a life in the Oklahoma oil refineries. Prohibition had been repealed six months earlier.
In 1937, Clore was appointed assistant horticulturist at WSU’s research center in Prosser, now called the Irrigated Agriculture Research Center. He was the third faculty member on staff at the center and began working with tree fruits and small fruits—including grapes.
Clore immediately started grape variety trials at Prosser. Over the years he tested 250 American, European, and hybrid grapes. He had the grapes. He had the ideas. He saw the potential. All he needed was a partner for his grand vision to reach fruition.
He had to wait 30 years after beginning his work in Prosser before that partner came along. Arriving in Pullman in 1960, Chas Nagel joined the science department as a microbiologist. Coming from the Napa Valley, where he grew up just down the street from Louis Martini and where his father sold grapes to the Napa Valley Coop, he knew a little about winemaking. So Clore asked him to help evaluate his grapes.
Nagel offered to make some wines and run a taste panel. Soon afterward, George Carter joined the team in Prosser as the winemaker. Consulting with Nagel, he would make the wines in Prosser, then send them up to Pullman for analysis.
“Folwell did the economics, Chas headed up the winemaking, and I grew the grapes,” says Clore.
All this led finally to Clore’s magnum opus. With Nagel and Carter, he published in 1976, the year he retired from WSU, the prosaically titled, Ten Years of Grape Variety Responses and Wine-Making Trials in Central Washington. The publication consists mostly of crop yields, analytical data, and taste panel results, meticulously compiled over the decade. But the message was clear:
If hardier varieties free of diseases are used and the best cultural practices known to obtain full vine maturity are followed, it is feasible to grow European grapes in favorable sites in south central Washington.
Is that poetry or not? Certainly it stirred the souls of eastern Washington farmers who had the foresight to realize that mankind cannot live by wheat—or apples—alone.
And obviously it was not Clore alone who bore the weight of the new industry. The history of wine in the state of Washington is intricate and fascinating. Readers wanting to know more might pick up Ron Irvine’s excellent The Wine Project: Washington State’s Winemaking History. Written with the help and memory of Clore, the book details a history that can only be glanced at in this article.
Wade Wolfe, winery manager for Hogue and owner of Thurston-Wolfe, arrived in Southeast Washington in 1978 with a doctorate in viticulture from UC Davis. At the time, Clore was a consultant for Chateau Ste. Michelle, for whom Wolfe was working.
“I spent a large part of my first summer wandering around looking at vineyards, getting a feel for the terrain here with Walt,” he says. “He showed me a lot of vineyards, the history behind them, why people did certain things, what they were doing right and wrong.
“We are a young industry,” says Wolfe. “We’re still learning our potential. But we’ve learned a lot, through the University and research, from the groundbreaking work by Clore and Nagel—and the subsequent work on the cultural level, by Sara Spayd and Bob Wample.” Wample, Clore’s successor, was the viticulturist at Prosser, until he took a position in California.
Clore turned 90 July 1. After his wife Irene died, he moved to a retirement home in Prosser. The food’s good, he says, and they let him drink wine. He still consults with Stimson Lane, the parent company of Columbia Crest and Chateau Ste. Michelle.
“Walt was out scratching around in the 50s, in areas that became our vineyards, looking for perfect sites for classic European grape varieties,” says Ted Baseler, president of Stimson Lane, owner of Chateau Ste. Michelle, Domaine Ste. Michelle, and Columbia Crest. Clore’s work is not done.
In recognition of that work, says Baseler, Columbia Crest’s 1999 Reserve will be named the Walter Clore Private Reserve Red.
If Clore has any regrets, it is that one of his favored grapes never caught on in Washington. Recent figures from the Washington Wine Commission indicate 29,000 acres in Washington planted to Vitis vinifera varieties, and growers continue to experiment with new varieties.
Limberger, re-spelled “Lemberger” by the marketing folks in an attempt to disassociate the grape from the cheese, caught the affection of Clore. It also caught the interest of Julio Gallo, who spent considerable time in Washington evaluating its young grapes and wine. In fact, he preferred it to Washington’s Cabernet. During one visit, Clore asked him if he’d be interested in the variety.
Sure, said Gallo, “But I want a whole trainload. I have to have a million gallons to put anything on the market.” At the time, the only Limberger vines in the state were at the experimental vineyard in Prosser. So much for Gallo of Washington. Even now, with proven potential and with fine Limbergers produced by Hogue, Thurston-Wolf, and Kiona, the Limberger grape remains confined to a mere 100 acres in the whole state. Still, Clore has not relinquished hope.
“Push the Limberger,” he says as I leave his apartment.
In his preface to The Wine Project, Clore writes of his growing up in a teetotalling Methodist household and of his gradual understanding of wine not only as a horticultural challenge, but as a civilizing influence.
Following his lead, Vicki Gordon wants to change our culture. This desire, which many Washington wine people seem to share, has to do, it seems, with the social and cultural meanings of terroir.
“We need more wineries,” she says as we drive from the Gordon Brothers vineyard to the tasting room on the outskirts of Pasco. “We want one on every corner out here.” This is not a sentiment you would hear from a shoe merchant or a grocer. Neither would you hear it from a wheat farmer. More shoes, more groceries, more wheat simply mean lower prices. And more wine?
To Vicki Gordon it means a change in how we think. A change in how we live. A change in how we do business.
“From vineyard to bottle to table,” she says, “you maintain a sense of place with wine. When you go to the dinner table, the only thing you know where it came from is the wine.”
Even though many of the grapes in Washington are being grown by former, or current, wheat farmers, there is a dramatic difference in how their product reaches the consumer.
Himself a former wheat farmer, Rick Small says he knew he would need to be more vertically integrated to make it in farming. “We produce wonderful wheat in Washington, but it’s all com-˜ mingled. You don’t get anything extra. You don’t get the recognition. No one comes up to you and says, gee, I just had the bushel of wheat that you guys grew over on that hill. And I realize this wheat doesn’t make bread. It’s too bad.”
Small, the Gordons, and others I talked with want to see Washington agriculture further explore that vertical integration, the direct marketing, the connection to the consumer that Washington wine has accomplished. Not only do they like to know where their wines are going, they like to know where their food’s coming from.
The model, however, is valid only to a point. Ted Baseler of Chateau Ste. Michelle observes that wine grapes are different from other crops. They are not commodities, he says, and they have tremendous differentiation.
The first distinction is price variability. “If you go into a grocery store and look at apples, there might be some minor price variation,” says Baseler, “but it’s a small percentage difference. But if you look at wine, you find a product with dramatic variation. A wine list can include an $18 bottle and a $1,000 bottle.”
Those variations are dictated by quality, scarcity, and image, says Baseler. He calls wine a “cultural crop.”
Admittedly, no one envisions an end product for wheat, or even apples, that could result in such variation. However, says Small, “I’ve always argued that other guys in the Walla Walla Valley should do more of the same. I think the guys who grow onions could do it.
“Our way of doing ag in the United States is to just produce the raw product, with value stuck on by big corporations; and agriculturists—the people with dirt under their nails—are just getting screwed.”
Small praises the new White House-Crawford˜ restaurant in Walla Walla for giving credit to individual farmers for the local food that they serve. Producing local food for local markets and drawing in outside visitors to enjoy those local flavors is the direction many desire.
And wine provides the lead. Tourism and hospitality are not a panacea and are not without associated problems, but they can help effect a change toward making agriculture more diverse, more consumer oriented, more cultural.
There are 200 commercially grown crops in Washington, says Jeff Gordon. Let’s explore the sense of place expressed by those diverse crops.
Much associated with wine remains to be explored, he says—not just the microclimates and differentiated terroirs that give wine their quality and character, but also the food and culture and tradition that follow.
“The neat thing about Washington right now,” says Gordon, “it’s all frontier.”
A Sampling of Washington Wines
When wine researcher Sara Spayd arrived at Prosser in 1980, Washington had 15 wineries and 4,500 acres of wine grapes. She quickly learned to know all the winemakers—and was able to keep up for a while. Most of those first 15 are still in business. But Spayd just can’t keep up any more. Maybe some of the early intimacy is gone, but no one’s complaining. Washington has more than 160 wineries in operation and 29,000 acres of wine grapes, with wine sales in 2000 of $675 million. Conveniently, some of the best wineries in the state are owned by or employ WSU alums.
A Quick Tour of Alumni-Affiliated Wineries around the State
Starting in Spokane, there’s Arbor Crest Winery, owned by Harold Mielke (Zoology ’58). Mielke is also director of the Health Research and Education Center at WSU Spokane. N. 4705 Fruit Hill Road, Spokane 99217. 509-927-9894.
IN Walla Walla, Chris Figgins (’96 Horticulture) joined his winemaker father as the viticulturist at Leonetti Cellar. Although limited production is no doubt connected to Gary Figgins being named by Wine Spectator as best vintner of Merlot in the world, it also means Leonetti has no tasting room. 509-525-1428.
But Figgins’s friend, Rick Small (’69 Agriculture) has one (see accompanying story). Small’s Woodward Canyon Winery is in Lowden, which consists primarily of Woodward Canyon and the next-door L’Ecole No 41, whose co-founder, the late Jean Ferguson, one of the first women winemakers in the state, graduated in 1946. Woodward Canyon: 509-525-4129. L’Ecole No 41: 509-525-0940.
On to the Tri Cities. Cathy Preston-Mouncer (’82 History) is director of public relations for Preston Premium Wines, the largest family-owned winery in Washington. Its 1998 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve was awarded “Best of Show” this past July at the Indy International Wine Competition. 502 E. Vineyard Drive, Pasco. 509-545-1990.
The tasting room for Gordon Brothers Cellars (see accompanying story) is at 5960 Burden Road, Pasco. 509-547-6331.
Kiona was the first winery to plant vineyards in the newly designated Red Mountain appellation. Scott Williams (’80 Ag Engineering) makes a fine Limberger, as well as an excellent Cab/Merlot and Syrah. Wine Enthusiast praised three Kiona wines in its “100 Best Buys” for 1997. 44612 North Sunset NE, Benton City. 509-588-6716.
As far as I know, Shirley and Gail Puryear (both ’68) are the only WSU foreign language graduates to marry and start a winery. Bonair Winery is an experience, which includes Bung the Wonder Dog. Beside fine wines, Bonair also produces meads. 500 South Bonair Road, Zillah. 509-829-6027.
As the largest producer of wine in the state, Stimson Lane, which owns Chateau Ste. Michelle, and Columbia Crest, employs a number of WSU alums. Besides CEO Ted Baseler (’76 Communication), there’s winemaker Gordy Hill (’80 Food Science), viticulturist Kevin Corliss (’86 Horticulture), and Russell Smithyman (’99 Ph.D. Horticulture), who is in charge of research at Chateau Ste. Michelle. Chateau Ste. Michelle: 14111 NE 145th St., Woodinville. 425-488-1133. Columbia Crest: Highway 221, Paterson. 509-875-2061.
Now head for Seattle. Cheryl Barber-Jones (’76 Food Science) is winemaker with Silver Lake Winery and Di Stefano. (see accompanying story). Silver Lake: 15029-A Woodinville-Redmond Road, Woodinville. 425-485-2437. Di Stefano, 12280 Woodinville Drive NE, Woodinville. 425-487-1648.
Finally, for information on Washington wines and links to winery sites, see the Washington Wine Commission's Web site (www.washingtonwine.org).
I have tried my best to track down WSU connections to Washington wineries and hope I have not omitted anyone. If I have, please let me know. I’m sure this will not be Washington State Magazine’s last article on Washington wines.
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