Washington Wine History Interviews: Jerry Bookwalter, J. Bookwalter Winery

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 12/15/2022
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 22625
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Jerry Bookwalter (1940-2023) was a pioneer wine grower and winemaker from Richland who began his wine career in 1976 as the general manager of Sagemoor Farms on the Columbia River just north of the Tri-Cities. Sagemoor would soon become one of Washington’s legendary wine grape producers, encompassing not only the Sagemoor vineyard and also its Bacchus and Dionysus vineyards. Bookwalter went on to launch his own winery, Bookwalter Winery, in 1982. The winery, which often used grapes from Bookwalter’s former vineyards, gained considerable acclaim. Later, Bookwalter turned the winery over to his son, John Bookwalter, and changed the name to the J. Bookwalter Winery, which has a modern tasting-room/production facility in Richland, along with a restaurant named Fiction. In a November 9, 2022 interview with HistoryLink historian Jim Kershner, Bookwalter explains some of the challenges he faced at Sagemoor in 1976, when there was little market for wine grapes in Washington.

Early Missteps

Jerry Bookwalter: We had a 500-acre plot in about three different locations. And there were very few buyers. A lot of the fruit was being sold out of state or even out of country into Canada because there weren't enough buyers and users of Washington State grapes in the State of Washington. I think our main concern was, "Where are we going to find more markets?" And so we spent a lot of our efforts marketing and trying to be creative in ways that we could package the grapes to get them to markets that were some distance from Washington. Well, so we developed a waxed cardboard box that held about 40 pounds of wine grapes. And then you could put those on a pallet and put 20 of those pallets in the back of a refrigerated van or truck and send them anywhere in the United States. And we, in our infinite wisdom, started out also with a plastic liner in those cardboard waxed boxes. And we soon understood that refrigerated vans really won't drop the temperature. They'll just hold the temperature that you put the grapes in at. So if we harvested during the day, the ambient temperature of the grapes was maybe 60 or 70 degrees or warmer. And we put them in a van thinking they were going to cool, but they didn't.

So because they were so hot and they were inside of a plastic bag, they started to ferment. So we actually made little individual fermenters inside of the van! And we had some real interesting experience with Canadian receivers, particularly Italian Canadian receivers who would turn down entire truckloads and tell us that we had to get our grapes out or sell them at a severely discounted price for them to handle them at all.

The owners of Sagemoor, led by Seattle attorney Alec Bayless, had worked with researcher Dr. Walter Clore to plant a variety of wine grapes in 1972. Here, Bookwalter describes what the vineyard consisted of when he arrived in 1976:

JB: We had 11 different wine grape varieties, primarily in the whites. We had the Gewürztraminer and something called Gray Riesling and Chardonnay and Riesling. And in the reds, we had Cabernet, Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Pinot Noir, we called it Gamay Beaujolais because we had a different clone of Pinot Noir. And we also had another white, Chenin Blanc that we had. We had about 11 different varieties that we grew. And we were the largest independent supplier of wine grapes in the state of Washington. At that time, 1976 [Bookwalter later corrected this date to be 1978] we produced about 3,100 tons, and the state crop that year was 5,000 tons. So we were producing 60 percent of the state crop.

Wine grapes were still very much an experiment, and Bookwalter was still trying to determine what vine varieties could grow well in Washington’s cold climate – and how to protect them from freezing temperatures. Here, Bookwalter describes some of the weather-related problems faced by Washington wine growers – and some of the eventual solutions:

JB: Whites were pretty dominant, or even predominant because of Dr. Clore, who was the father of our industry and did the research out of WSU at Prosser. And he favored the Riesling because he knew it was very, very cold hardy, and we weren't really sure yet how to get through the cold winters that we experienced. Sometimes negative temperatures, frequently negative temperatures in the state of Washington during the winter months. So he really pushed a lot of us toward Riesling. So there weren't many people doing reds at that time. There were a few, but there weren't many of us. …

We had what we called a mother block, which was 50 rows of wine grapes, and each row was a different variety. And none of those were the varieties that I've named to you earlier. They were all definitely experimental blocks. Probably the only commercial experimental block outside of nurseries that I knew of in the whole state. At the very beginning we were having a lot of success of course with the Riesling , and the Cabernets and the Merlots were doing very well. We found out that Merlot was a really easy keeper and really an easy variety for most growers to work with. … And they were reasonably cold hardy.

But after the big crop in 1976, [corrected to 1978] we went from a crop of 3,100 tons down to 1,100 tons. We dropped 2,000 tons in one year due to the hard winter of '76 and '77 [corrected to ’78 and ‘79] ... What we learned from there was that, with the help of Dr. Clore and other researchers, you had to plant deeper at the beginning. And a lot of us were only planting maybe eight to 10 inches. And so we started planting 12 to 14 to 15 inches deep so that we could get survivability during the cold weather. [Chateau] Ste. Michelle, the largest vineyard in the state, corporately owned, was covering their vines. They would take their vines off of the wire and put them on the ground, and then using various farm tools would pull up a hill of soil up over the vines. And then in the spring they would come back with what we call potato forks. I guess we should have called them grape forks. It was a tong, it looked like a bent pitch fork. And so they could rake the soil away and find the cane or the vine that they had buried in the soil and then put it back up on the trellis. Tremendous labor device, which is not practiced in the state any longer anywhere that I'm aware of. It was a pretty normal practice when I arrived in 1976.

Red Wines Take Off

In the late 1970s and early 1980s Washington’s fledgling wine industry was beginning to pick up steam. Bookwalter was able to sell more and more of Sagemoor’s grapes to Washington wineries. Here, Bookwalter describes how Sagemoors’ red grapes began to earn a reputation for quality:

JB: Yeah. We were some of the early providers of wine grapes to Leonetti Cellars -- Gary Figgins, very good personal friend of mine, Rick Small at Woodward Canyon. And we were providing grapes to them and they were showcasing us. And I always had a soft spot in my heart for both of them and knowing that they were very dedicated to their profession. And so I had special blocks of fruit that I would save out for both of them every year. … It went hand in hand because oftentimes when they would be doing their dog and pony tastings in various locations throughout the states, they would of course reveal the source of their fruit, which was Sagemoor or Bacchus and Dionysus Vineyards. So that was pretty instrumental in helping our red market.

Around 1982, Bookwalter left Sagemoor and decided to try his hand at making his own wines. He said he was "gifted with a pretty good palate and good nose," but he was even more fortunate to have some good wine-making friends who helped guide him when he needed advice:

JB: Well, everything I learned was, as I say, OJT [on-the-job training] and it was a pretty good learning curve for me. But I had a lot of good friends because I supplied a lot of them. I supplied grapes to Rick Small, to Gary Figgins, to Bill Preston, to Rob Griffin who was starting his own winery at the time, Barnard Griffin Winery, which is now our neighbor. And I had friends in the industry in about three states, so I could pick up the phone any time of day or night practically and find out what to do about a fermentation issue or some issue that might be bugging me. And I had a couple of pretty good consultants in the industry that I was working with at that time, too. Brian Carter from Brian Carter Sellers, Kay Simon from her winery in Prosser, Chinook Cellars. And so I had some good tutors. And we learned from some of our own mistakes, of course.

A Family Affair

Jerry’s son, John Bookwalter, had gone to Arizona State University and then embarked on a career in marketing, largely in the beverage industry. In the early 1990s, Jerry and his wife Jean were ready to scale back their involvement. The solution seemed obvious:

JB: If you followed his career at all, for 10 years he [John] has got wine marketing, [bottled] water marketing, and beer marketing all on a national level. And he calls home in 10 years and says, "Dad, what do you think?" I said, "I think you're ready for our company now." And so we could just turn over our marketing to him, lock, stock, and barrel, because Jean and I were strictly a mom and pop company producing two, three thousand cases of wine, selling it here locally mostly to case buyers. We weren't really in the States pushing anything anywhere. So John brought national marketing to the company and joined us in the early nineties.

Under John’s leadership, the J. Bookwalter Winery went in new directions, and gained a reputation for its high-end wines:

JB: So then we really started going more toward red sat that point. We really were reinventing ourselves. As our good friend Gary Figgins had suggested, "You need to reinvent yourself." And we were getting more into the red. And John could see that it was also better to have serious wines rather than major bulk wines. And a lot of wineries over the years, including Gallo interestingly enough, have tried what I call the straddle in the industry where you straddle having a lot of cheap, inexpensive red wines that are good wines and introductory wines. But they also want to be focused on the high end, the luxury end of the red wine market. And most wineries don't ever complete the straddle. They fail at one or the other.

More than four decades after Jerry Bookwalter arrived in Washington at Sagemoor, a connection still exists between the Bookwalters and those early vineyards.

JB: Primarily, a lot of [J. Bookwalter’s] grapes are purchased from the very company that brought me to Washington state to begin with, which is the Sagemoor Vineyards, which have gone through a couple of ownership changes since I was involved. So [John] is buying a large amount of fruit from Sagemoor, Bacchus, and Dionysus.

Further Reading: HistoryLink's biography of Jerry Bookwalter by Jim Kershner

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