On April 14, 1983, F. W. Langguth Winery unveils its first vintage of Washington wines at the annual KCTS Festival of Wines in Seattle. Langguth, a German winemaking behemoth, is the first major foreign investor in Washington's burgeoning wine industry. Along with minority partner Sagemoor, Langguth has planted the Weinbau vineyard on the Wahluke Slope in Grant County and built a $5 million winery near Mattawa. But the new wines, from the 1982 vintage, will be met with consumer indifference, and the Langguth venture will be poorly managed from the start.
A Wine Power in Germany
The Langguth wine operation, founded in Traben, Germany, in 1789, is older by a century than Washington state itself. Its founder was Franz Wilhelm Langguth, who, "like many of the Negociants in the Mosel, purchased French red wines in barrels, kept them in his house and sold them all over Europe. This was the beginning of the Langguth family's wine venture" (Kirchhoff). Franz Wilhelm's son and grandsons carried the family enterprise forward, and around 1899 the Langguth family built its own winery in Traben-Trarbach. Nearly laid to waste by World War I, and again by World War II, Langguth survived and was given a financial lifeline in 1948 when the Deutsche Mark was adopted as Germany's new currency, revitalizing the nation's economy. By 1952 Langguth had created the first wine brand in the young Federal Republic. A subsequent brand, Erben, became the biggest selling wine in Germany.
Langguth's emergence from the rubble of World War II was led by Johann Wolfgang Langguth (1924-2016) under the watchful eye of his mother, Margit Langguth. Wolfgang's brother Franz had died in combat and, three months before the end of the war, Wolfgang, a tank commander, suffered devastating injuries "when a bomb explosion burned his face and he lost one of his legs ... It was a great struggle for Wolfgang ... to get on with his life in his altered state. He tried to go to the University to continue his studies, but his mother urgently needed him at the winery" (Kirchhoff).
By the 1960s, the Langguth operation was soaring behind new brands Erben, Medinet, and Edler von Mornag, all hugely popular in Germany.
"Johann Wolfgang's great talent turned out to be selling. With a strong will and a positive outlook in life to match, Wolfgang scaled the company to its biggest growth in its long history. After conquering the local market, he set out his eyes farther abroad and initiated not only an international trade but also vineyard acquisitions in France, the U.S. and Tunisia" (Kirchhoff).
A Splashy New Venture
The Washington wine industry was just starting to percolate in 1981 when Langguth announced plans for a vineyard and winery in the state. The vineyard, called Weinbau (weinbau is German for vineyard) was planted in partnership with two of the founders of Sagemoor, itself a fairly new wine operation, founded in 1968 near Pasco. The original vineyard consisted of 221 acres in virgin wine territory on the Wahluke Slope in Grant County.
"It was truly in the middle of nowhere, a few miles east of Mattawa. Sixty percent of the vines were riesling, 20 percent gewurztraminer, and 20 percent chardonnay, and the wines were made nearby at a huge, state-of-the-art, high-tech production facility -- the best by far in the state at the time" (Gregutt, 34).
In March 1982, Ullrich Langguth, a cousin of Wolfgang, visited Seattle. He told reporters it was he who had advised family members to invest in Washington rather than California: "The Mosel River-type wines will come from Washington ... The conditions are just right here. And my family has the experience" (Stockley, "Growth Industry").
The winery was estimated to cost at least $8 million to build, though later reports pegged the final cost at $5 million. It was designed and built by the Seattle firm Eberharter & Gaunt, with construction beginning in the spring of 1982 and completed in time for Langguth to crush 150,000 gallons from the 1982 harvest. The initial winemaker was Max Zellweger (1948-2021), a native of Switzerland who had been working at Chateau Benoit Winery in Oregon. Zellweger would enjoy a long career in the Washington wine industry -- much longer than Langguth. In 1984 he won the Northwest Enological Society's Grand Prize for a Langguth late-harvest Riesling, and in 1985 he became a U.S. citizen.
Also hired was Jurgen Grieb, who came from Germany in 1982 at age 21. He drove into Mattawa in the middle of the night. "I got there ... at like two in the morning, and I was half asleep, so I did not see a lot ... When I woke up the next morning and looked outside, I went, 'Oh, my God!' There were no trees, and everything was brown, because it was the middle of summer. But after three o[r] four weeks, I realized that there's a different beauty here" (Bhatt). Grieb went on to have a long career at Coventry Vale in Grandview before starting his own winery, Treveri Cellars, in Wapato in 2010.
The launch of Langguth -- the first foreign firm to enter the state's wine industry -- was met with enthusiasm from wine insiders who were eager to sample the wines. They finally got an opportunity on April 14, 1983, when Langguth unveiled its first bottlings at the KCTS Festival of Wines at the Westin Hotel in Seattle. While the California Wine Institute was the festival's primary organizer, The Seattle Times reported: "[I]t also will offer a chance to sample some interesting new Washington-state wines. The star attraction is sure to be the debut of the long-awaited Franz Wilhelm Langguth wines ... Look for the wines at this festival to be primarily Riesling, which are lower in alcohol and have some sweetness. In other words, quite German in style, with good acid to balance the sweetness" (Stockley, "New NW Labels").
Asleep at the Wheel
But less than two years after the winery was built, a disconcerting headline -- "Langguth Winery Plans Comeback" -- appeared in The Seattle Times. Readers weren't sure what Langguth would be coming back from because few consumers were aware of its wines in the first place. Reporter Sally Gene Mahoney wrote: "Whatever happened to Langguth? F. W. Langguth, Inc., a subsidiary of a 200-year-old winemaker in Germany's Moselle Valley, appeared on the local wine scene a couple of years ago. Staking out property on the sunny Mattawa slope of the Saddle Mountains in Grant County, Langguth became Washington's second-largest winery. Then it all but disappeared from sight" ("Langguth Winery Plans ...").
According to the Times report, Langguth had suffered from managerial neglect and borderline incompetence. There had been wholesale firings, and Langguth already had a new president, a new regional sales manager, and a new advertising agency, which was tasked with creating new packaging for the wines. The operation was being run from Langguth's U.S. headquarters in New York. "There has been no big advertising campaign to introduce its products. Few of its wines can be spotted on grocery store shelves" ("Langguth Winery Plans ..."). Zellweger said he was looking forward to getting more exposure for his wines. "It took us a while to get going" ("Langguth Winery Plans ...").
Langguth's relationship with its Washington partners -- led by Alec Bayless and Win Wright, two of the founders of Sagemoor -- soured almost immediately. Financial losses piled up, and it became apparent the entire operation was in peril. In November 1986, Langguth sold its controlling interest in the winery to the fast-growing Snoqualmie Winery, and the Langguth family soon left Washington for good. Most saw Langguth's demise as a matter of poor management. Andy Perdue, a longtime observer of the Washington wine industry, said it was the wines themselves: "It failed, primarily because its first rieslings were bone-dry -- a style unappreciated by American palates" ("Bubbly Buzz").
End of the Line
Snoqualmie's purchase of Langguth was met with some fanfare. It made Snoqualmie the state's second-largest producer of premium wines and promised to open new opportunities for Snoqualmie in international markets. The transfer price was not disclosed, though the winery was said to be worth $4 million, and Langguth's inventory was valued at more than $1 million. "The stock purchase will bring together Snoqualmie's successful marketing with Langguth's premium wines, including its Riesling and other medium-priced wines, Joel K. Klein, Snoqualmie Winery president, said ... 'It's a natural combination'" (Gilje). Klein said there would be no immediate changes, and that Snoqualmie and Langguth would continue to produce wines under their existing labels.
In 1987 Snoqualmie hired winemaker Mike Januik to oversee its operations, including Langguth. According to wine author Paul Gregutt, "Januik remembers making a late-harvest Langguth in '87 and possibly '88, but that was the end of the brand. Following a series of legal battles and further changes of ownership, the winery became what it is today, strictly a custom crush facility" (Gregutt, 34). In December 1990, Snoqualmie Falls Holding Company -- owners of Snoqualmie Falls and Langguth wineries -- filed for bankruptcy protection. Jack Peterson, president of the holding company, "said the company filed for bankruptcy because the debt associated with the 1986 acquisition of Langguth was strangling the company. He said the secured debt is more than $2 million" (Corsaletti).
Weinbau in Good Hands
Despite their failure as Washington winemakers, the Langguths were right about one thing: planting a vineyard, Weinbau, in the middle of nowhere was a masterstroke. In Langguth's absence, control of Weinbau reverted to Sagemoor, which expanded the vineyard's acreage over the years and introduced new grape varieties that have thrived in what is considered the warmest growing region in Washington. In his 2010 second edition of Washington Wines & Wineries, Gregutt notes that Weinbau has been "impeccably farmed -- manager Miguel Rodriguez was Grower of the Year in 2007" (Gregutt, 144).
Rodriguez and Weinbau were still going strong in 2022, according to Sagemoor's website:
"Several individuals have been responsible for the success of Weinbau, but none so much as Vineyard Manager Miguel Rodriguez. Miguel started at Sagemoor as a teenager in 1979, and a few years later at the young age of 23 he began taking care of Weinbau. He raised his family on this land. He's grown the acreage from 260 to the 460. His love, care, and understanding of the vineyard's quirks and needs are evident in any conversation he has. Weinbau's original client list of one winery has grown to over 50 happy winemakers" ("Weinbau Vineyard").