Wine in Washington

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 7/07/2008
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8658

Wine grapes were -- along with apples -- the very first cultivated fruits in the Pacific Northwest. Initially planted here in 1827, both were cherished by early pioneering settlers, but whereas apples became a lucrative farm commodity early on, the grape's long and winding path to success was a bit rockier. Only in recent decades has both the art and science of viticulture (grape growing) and enology (wine making) really advanced to the point where Washington-grown grapes now share a wide reputation (along with apples) as some of the world's tastiest -- and the finest locally made wines now enjoy global esteem for their excellence.

Seed to Vine, Grape to Wine

The first grapes cultivated here (and the wine that they led to) were those grown at Fort Vancouver on the north bank of the Columbia River. This new fur trading post was built in 1825 by the British Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) on a site selected by its manager, Dr. John McLoughlin (1784-1857), who thought that its flat terrain and fecund soil would support a farm that could feed his staff -- and among the various fruits and vegetables planted were grapes and apples.

Both fruits came about as a lucky result of a visitation -- probably by the HBC official, George Simpson (1792?-1860) -- on an inspection tour in November, 1826. Legend holds that: "A gentlemen ...  while at a party in London, put the seeds of the grapes and apples which he ate into his vest pocket. Soon afterwards he took a voyage to this country and left them here, and now they are greatly multiplied" (Whitman, Letters and Journals, September 12, 1836). Likely planted during the spring season following Simpson's arrival, the fort was soon receiving shipments of corks and bottles ordered along with other supplies.

Overland and by Sea

It was the opening of the Oregon Trail that brought the next wave of grape-growing when a number of early emigrants hauled various grape cuttings to the region in their covered wagons -- among the first being Henderson Luelling who babied his vine cuttings all the way out from Iowa. And even though the Isabella variety he'd nurtured was a native North American (Vitus labrusca) hybrid -- rather than the generally superior European (Vitus vinifera) type of wine-grape -- the nursery that he established in the Willamette Valley in 1847 helped other settlers get their homestead vineyards (and wine-making) started.

In the northern Oregon Territories -- specifically the Puget Sound area -- a few other folks followed Luelling's example, and by 1854 there were three active nurseries that offered both vinifera and labrusca cuttings to locals. In 1872 that Civil War veteran  Lambert Evans (1836?-1917?) arrived in the area and after scouting around via his flat-bottomed skiff, settled on a Stretch Island land claim (near Olympia) and planted grapes and apples on his bluff. Then in 1889, Adam Eckert arrived from New York, bought 40  acres from Evans, founded yet another nursery, and planted Island Belle vines that turned out to be very well suited to the terroir (an area's specific soil characteristics and climate conditions). For the next three decades he supplied cuttings to locals.

Willamette to Walla Walla

Around 1859-1860 A. B. Roberts hauled grape stock up from the Willamette Valley and planted them along with numerous additional varieties that he imported from France. Around the same time, an Italian baker, Frank Orselli, began making and marketing wine from his shop. Over the next few years, others -- including Phillip Ritz and H. P. Isaacs -- joined in by making wine from grape varieties including Black Hamburg, Black Prince, Flame Tokay, and Sweetwater.

In 1876 Jean Marie Abadie produced 150 gallons of red and 400 of white wine, but in 1883 a 20-degrees-below-zero winter freeze destroyed the area's young grapevines. Then, at the turn of the century, a couple of Italian immigrants named Frank and Rose Leonetti settled in the area and planted Black Prince grapes on their farm and for the next half century they made wine for their family -- including a grandson who would, in due course, kick-start the regional wine biz.

The Yakima and Wenatchee Valleys

The Yakima River provided the irrigation required to transform the Yakima Valley's scrub-brush desert into a bountiful agricultural area and settlers wasted no time in testing the area's rich volcanic-ash soil's potential for grapes. As early as 1869 a vineyard was planted outside of Union Gap, and within a few years another vineyard in Wenatchee was productive enough to yield an annual total of 1,500 gallons of wine.

By the 1880s Johannisberg Riesling and Mission grapevines had been planted in the tiny town of Moxee. In 1889 H. S. Simmons planted the Zinfandel variety in Wenatchee and the fall harvest of 1893 yielded grapes of a quality that allowed him to make his first wine.

Keep on the Sunnyside

In 1891 the Sunnyside Canal irrigation project helped accelerate the growth in the Yakima Valley, and a decade later Elbert F. Blaine (1857-?) settled into the valley town of Grandview and -- as the manager of an irrigation company -- was soon touting the possibilities of a serious grape-growing and wine-making industry in the area. The following year of 1903 saw a subsidiary of the Northern Pacific Railroad called the Northwest Improvement Company plant some Kennewick land to various grape varieties.

In 1905 the United States Bureau of Reclamation began a series of irrigation projects that would help launch a new wave of plantings. That same year Blaine began producing wine from varieties including Black Prince, White Diamond, Zinfandel, and Concord.

Prohibition Era

Sunnyside was also, since 1902, the home of a lawyer named William B. Bridgman (1878-?) who, like Blaine, also managed an irrigation company and took an interest in grapes. In 1917 he planted several varieties of grapevines on some Snipes Mountain acreage near his Harrison Hill farm -- but, that seemed a risky move considering that the Washington State Legislature had enacted severe alcohol Prohibition laws in 1916. However, since the law still allowed for individuals to make small amounts of their own home-brew wine, demand for his grapes was strong.

That same "prohibition effect" impacted other grape growers as well: The old Island Belle vines on Lambert Evans's farm were producing grapes that were now sought after by home winemakers and in 1918 a Seattle real estate agent named Charles Somers acquired land from Evans's widow and a new era began. The following year  the legislature ratified the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution and on January 16, 1920, Prohibition spread nationwide.

Repeal the Grapes

Washington was the 24th state to vote for Prohibition's Repeal, and the national social experiment finally ended with the adoption of the Twenty-first Amendment to the Constitution on December 5, 1933. In the wake of that legal reform, a wave of new companies filed papers with the government to establish new commercial wineries. The first such "bonded" winery in the state was St. Charles Winery -- the firm founded by Somers (and his son C. W. "Bill" Somers) on Stretch Island.

The 13th bonded winery was William Bridgman's Upland Winery in Sunnyside, which opened in November 1934 and whose 165 acres of vines produced an amazing 7,000 gallons of wine that first harvest season. That same year saw the rise of two other notable firms: Grandview's National Wine Company (aka Nawico) and Seattle's Pommerelle Winery (Dearborn Street) which, upon Repeal, shifted from making apple juice to apple wine.

Grape Expectations

The year 1935 saw the first attempt to organize the state's winemakers with the formation of the Washington Wine Producers Association -- and, interestingly, all if its charter members were wineries based in the "un-sunny side" of the state: St Charles Winery, Pommerelle Winery, Davis Winery (Stretch Island), Wright Winery (Everett), and Werberger Winery (Harstene Island).

The future looked bright. By 1937 Washington was home to 28 wineries, and by 1938 there were 42 wineries. With all this increased activity, the Washington Wine Producers Association reorganized in 1938 as the Washington Wine Council and further strides were made to establish the region's grape and wine industries.

One promising development was the hiring of Dr. Walter J. Clore (1911-2003) as an assistant horticulturist at the Irrigated Agriculture Research Extension Center near the Yakima Valley town of Prosser. Upon the suggestion of Bridgman, Clore -- who the State Legislature would eventually declare "Father of the Washington State Wine Industry" -- launched the experimental planting of seven vinifera varieties along with 20 labrusca hybrids. That led to the systematic study of more than 250 grape varietals, and over the following 40 years Clore's advice about grapes, soil types, and other viticultural matters contributed immeasurably to the planning of many of the finest local vineyards. (The groundbreaking for the long-planned Walter Clore Wine and Culinary Center -- an ambitious 17,537-square-foot educational facility on a 22-acre site along the Yakima River in Prosser -- will occur in 2009.)

Interestingly, with all those many varieties being studied by Clore, it would be the old standby -- Concord grapes -- that would initially raise local expectations for the future of the biz in Eastern Washington. In 1949 that California's giant Ernest & Julio Gallo corporation purchased a remarkable 4,000 tons of the locally grown grapes and the subsequent popularity of Gallo's "Cold Duck" sparkling wine ensured many years of successful collaboration. But 1949 also had a down side: a particular icy winter that year (and again in 1950) effectively destroyed vineyards -- as well as the area's grape business.

A Wine Renaissance

The 1950s saw many changes on the Washington wine front -- with a major one being the ongoing evolution of local wine palates trending away from what one historian described as the "ghastly quality" of the unsophisticated wines produced here: Local "winemakers then produced fewer gallons of grape wine than of fruit and berry wines, 35 per cent of which were fortified with brandies to yield a strong, sweet domestic liquid dismissed by most wine drinkers as simply garbage for the 'wino' trade" (Clark, The Dry Years, 259). Proof of that qualitative shift was the fact that by 1960,  decreased demand accounted for a paltry four wineries remaining active in Washington.

But the dawn of the 1960s soon brought a resurgence of activity: 1962 saw a gaggle of winemaking hobbyists led by University of Washington professor Lloyd S. Woodburne (1906-1992) forming the Associated Vintners group which planted a vineyard in Prosser. Believing that red vinifera grapes would never survive there, they opted for Northern European cool-climate varieties like Gewürztraminer and Riesling. Although time would prove their red-wine theory to be inaccurate, one of their Gewürztraminer wines was tasted in 1967 by America's venerated vintner, the California-based Beaulieu Vineyard's Andre Tchelistcheff (1901-1994), who deemed it "the best in the United States." Such accolades convinced Associated Vintners to go commercial and by 1984 the group had morphed into Woodinville's Columbia Winery -- by 2007, the seventh-largest in the state.

Washington's largest winery for decades (until Columbia Crest surpassed its production volume) was Chateau Ste. Michelle -- a commercial giant that emerged in 1967 from the American Wine Growers company (which itself formed in 1954 with the merging of the old Concord and fruit-wine purveyors, Pomerelle and Nawico). Starting with a 15,000 gallon production of Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Semillon, and Grenache Rosé wines -- under the direction of winemaker Howard Somers (1919-2005) (who'd grown up working at his family's St. Charles Winery), and with the mentoring of Tchelistcheff and Clore -- the winery today markets multi-million gallons per year of premium quality wine from its showcase Woodinville facility. Even so, its quality has not faltered: In 1979 Tchelistcheff was able to describe the Cabernet Sauvignon as "one of the best I've ever tasted."

The Wine Buzz

A lot of the buzz about Washington wines surrounds a number of vastly smaller wineries that have emerged since the 1970s. That was when a few "mom and pop" start-ups like Hinzerling Vineyards, Kiona Vineyards, Hogue Cellars, Chinook Wines, Barnard Griffin Wines, L'Ecole No 41, Mercer Ranch, McCrea Winery, and Portteus Vineyards got underway. The first to capture public attention was Preston Wine Cellars, which began in 1972 when Bill and Joann Preston planted their 50-acre vineyard outside of Pasco. In 1976 the couple opened what was the region's first "destination" winery and by 1979 their 180-acre vineyard was planted to cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, gamay noir, gewürztraminer, merlot, sauvignon blanc, syrah, and white riesling.

The first winemaker to really make waves was Gary Figgins -- the grandson of those Walla Walla pioneers, Frank and Rose Leonetti. Figgins' winery, Leonetti Cellar, would go on to garner acclaim for many subsequent vintages -- but he initially shocked the wine world when his 1978 Cabernet Sauvignon earned kudos from the Winestate Wine Guide as the "best in the country," and later, when pitted in a competition against all the big California masters, was named "Best of The Best." Inspired by Figgins's activities, his friend Rick Small planted 26 acres of vineyards in 1976, founded the Woodward Canyon winery in 1981, and his subsequent Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet wines have won an intense following, many top awards and -- like Leonetti -- a well-earned status as one of the state's finest wineries.

Another star in the Washington wine galaxy is Quilceda Creek Vintners, which was founded at Snohomish in 1979 by Alex Golitzin after receiving encouragement from his uncle, Tchelistcheff. Golitzin's Cabernets have consistently been jaw-droppers and in recent years his highly esteemed wines (the 2002 and 2003 vintages) made history as the first ever from Washington to win perfect "100" scores by the world's top critic, Robert Parker and his Wine Advocate publication.

Washington Wine Commission

In 1987 the Washington Wine Commission formed as a trade group and a dozen years later it established the Washington Wine Quality Alliance to help forge standards in winemaking and labeling. By 2016 the state boasted 14 unique and officially recognized grape-growing regions -- "appellations" or AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) -- designated by the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau: Yakima Valley (1983), Walla Walla Valley (1984), Columbia Valley (1984), Puget Sound (1995), Red Mountain (2001), Columbia Gorge (2004), Horse Heaven Hills (2005), Wahluke Slope (2006), Rattlesnake Hills (2006), Snipes Mountain (2009), Lake Chelan (2009), Naches Heights (2011), Ancient Lakes (2012), and Lewis-Clark Valley (2016), with additional AVAs expected in the future.

One interesting result is that even certain individual vineyards -- including Alder Ridge, Andrews-Horse Heaven Vineyard, the Benches at Wallula Vineyard, Canoe Ridge, Celilo, Champoux, Champoux Vineyards, Chandler Reach, Charbonneau, Ciel du Cheval, Connor Lee,  Klipsun, Pepper Bridge, Red Willow, Roza Berge, Saddle Mountain, and Sagemoor (among Washington's 43,000-plus acres planted to grape) -- have now (like those in various other internationally established wine regions) gained widespread notoriety, and bottles carrying those terms merit instant prestige.

So the regional wine industry has certainly come a long way over the years from those early days of sweet fruit-based wines. Today numerous firms -- including Abeja, Andrew Will, Betz Family Winery, Buty, Cadence, Cayuse, DeLille Cellars, Dunham Cellars, Fidélitas, Hedges Family Estate, Januik, K Vintners, Long Shadows, Mark Ryan, Matthews Estate, McCrea Cellars, Owen Roe, Reininger, Rulo, Spring Valley Vineyard, Syncline Wine Cellars, Waters, and Walla Walla Vintners among others -- regularly astound experts, winning regional, national, and/or international awards.

Now -- with 750-plus active wineries (and a new one slated to open about every 10  days) -- the local wine trade, with 350 growers and more than 14,000 jobs, currently contributes an estimated three billion dollars to the state's annual economy. Today Washington ranks second only to California in total wine production in the United States and our wine is being shipped to all 50 states and to at least 40 foreign countries -- so word about our "grape juice" has clearly gotten around. Cheers!


Sources:

Murray Morgan, Puget's Sound: A Narrative of Early Tacoma and the Southern Sound (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1979), 5-6, 29; Washington Irving, Astoria: Adventure In the Pacific Northwest (London: KPI Limited, [1939] 1987), 417; John A. Hussy, "Old Fort Vancouver: 1824-1829," in The History of Fort Vancouver and Its Physical Structure (Washington State Historical Society and National Park Service, 1957), online book available at National Park Service website accessed March 20, 2008 (www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/fova/hussey/chap2.htm); "The Letters and Journals of Narcissa Whitman: 1836-1847," "New Perspectives on the West in pbs.org website accessed May 3, 2008 (www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/resources/archives/two/whitman1.htm); Nancy Wilson Ross, Farthest Reach -- Oregon & Washington (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1949), 135-136; The New Washington -- A Guide to the Evergreen State Revised Edition (Portland: Binfords & Mort, 1950), 570; Ted Jordan Meredith, The Wine & Wineries of America's Northwest (Kirkland: Nexus Press, 1986), 24; Norman H. Clark, The Dry Years -- Prohibition & Social Change in Washington (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988), 258-260; Ronald Irvine with Walter J. Clore, The Wine Project: Washington State's Winemaking History (Vashon, WA.: Sketch Publications, 1997), 21, 37, 38, 49, 59, 67, 99, 110, 111, 114, 119, 131, 136, 141, 147, 149-150, 163, 405-407; Judy Peterson-Nedry, Washington Wine Country (Portland: Graphic Arts Center Publishing, ca. 2000), 23, 24, 27, 31, 32; "The Business of Washington Wine," supplement to The Puget Sound Business Journal, May 2-8, 2008, pp. 10-14; The Walter Clore Wine and Culinary Center website accessed on April 12, 2008 (www.walterclore.com/wine_center_story.htm); "Regions & AVAs of Washington," Washington State Wine Commission website accessed September 6, 2017 (https://www.washingtonwine.org/wine/facts-and-stats/regions-and-avas); and author's archives.
Note: This essay was updated on January 12, 2014, and on September 6, 2017.


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