Washington’s wine industry is maturing into adolescence—a far cry from its infancy in the early ’70s. Back then, there were only about a half-dozen wineries operating in the state, and only a few hundred acres of grapes planted. Few wineries and vineyards had survived Prohibition, and the ones that did grew grapes primarily for sweet, fortified wines. But a few rugged souls saw potential in wine grapes early on. The two-time mayor of Sunnyside, W.B. Bridgman, planted a vineyard on Snipes Mountain near Sunnyside in 1917, and sold that fruit for fortified wines. By 1934, after Prohibition was repealed, he had 165 acres, and opened Upland Winery, which produced the first European-style dry wine in the state. Bridgman was instrumental in planting some of the state’s early experimental vineyards, working with Dr. Walter Clore, a viticulturist known as the father of the Washington wine industry, who experimented with hundreds of grape varieties in Washington. Clore predicted that wine consumption would triple in the U.S. by 1999.
Dr. Clore was more than right. Consumption has grown from 140 million gallons in 1950 to 784 million gallons in 2010. In April, the Washington State Wine Commission released a study valuing the state’s wine industry at more than $8.6 billion statewide and more than $14.9 billion nationwide annually. And it all started with the vineyards, acres of our state’s designated wine-growing regions—American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). You might notice vineyard names popping up on the labels of the best local wine; that’s because the microclimates and micro soil conditions in our state impart sought-after, singular tastes that winemakers want to promote. Because of our state’s unique climate conditions, we don’t have many of the problems with soil and root diseases that other regions do, so many varietals thrive here; and our older Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Riesling are maturing into some of the best in the country.
Many of these early plantings are still going strong, and the 20- and 30-year-old vines—the “old vines” as winemakers call them—are gaining acclaim for their maturity, and are in demand with top winemakers to produce unique wines of elegance, complexity and ageability. “By the time I got to use grapes from the Champoux Vineyards in the mid-1980s, the vines were already about 15 years old,” says Woodward Canyon Winery owner Rick Small. Champoux is one of the state’s premier vineyards, planted with Cabernet Sauvignon and other varieties in 1972, and Merlot in 1997, and located near Paterson, just north of the Columbia River, in the area that would become the Horse Heaven Hills AVA. “Like people, the vines develop character with age.” Small has been making a single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon from Champoux—first planted by Don Mercer, owner of Mercer Ranch, and eventually sold to viticulturist Paul Champoux and partners in 1996—for more than 20 years now, and the wine just keeps getting better. “Hardly anything compares,” says Small, who admires the complexity of these older grapes. “There’s more concentration and definition of flavor, more subtleties in the wine than I’ve seen almost anywhere.”
In 1957, farmer Harlan Otis planted what is now the oldest Cabernet Sauvignon in the state, in the Yakima Valley near Prosser. Otis Vineyard fruit has been almost exclusively used by Columbia Winery since 1979, when Columbia’s winemaker, David Lake, discovered the concentration of intense fruit from these grapes and predicted wines made from this fruit would age remarkably well.
In 1961, Bridgman helped Associated Vintners plant Cabernet Sauvignon and other varieties near his Snipes Mountain vineyard on Harrison Hill, where he had grown table grapes since 1914 and Muscat (now used in its ice wine) since 1917. In 1971, he closed the Upland Winery and sold the property to Alfred Newhouse; three generations later, grandson Todd Newhouse reestablished the Upland legacy by opening Upland Estates Winery in 2007.
Some of our state’s greatest vineyards were planted in the early 1970s; in 1972, Mercer Ranch (which became Champoux Vineyards in 1989, best known for its excellent Cabernet Sauvignon), Celilo Vineyard (known for Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer) and Sagemoor Vineyards (where many varieties thrive) were planted. The following year saw the birth of Red Willow Vineyard (known for its Syrah); followed by Kiona (later to include Ciel du Cheval) in 1975. The decades of setbacks from Prohibition and its aftermath, the consumer demand for sweet, strong wine, and the planting and study of experimental vineyards laid the groundwork for a flurry of vineyard plantings that year. Around this time, then-fledgling Ste. Michelle Vintners was looking to expand its sources of excellent wine grapes and, in 1972, planted Cold Creek, its first vineyard of Riesling and other grapes, in the Columbia Valley. That same year, The Los Angeles Times ranked Ste. Michelle’s 1972 Riesling in first place in a blind tasting of 19 white Rieslings, catapulting the winery into the national spotlight.
These pioneers of Washington wine gambled against all odds that their love of wine and the vine would pay off. For some, such as the Newhouse family, it took almost a century to reestablish Bridgman’s legacy. For others, such as Don Mercer, who, according to Seattle Times wine writer Paul Gregutt, hoped wine from his vineyard would “be as good as Chateau Lafite,” the long-awaited predictions may yet come true.
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