Washington Wine History Interviews: Ron Irvine, Retailer, Author, Vintner

  • By Nick Rousso
  • Posted 7/08/2024
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 23011
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Ron Irvine has been active in the Washington wine industry since 1975, when he co-founded the Pike and Western Wine Shop in Seattle's Pike Place Market. In the 1990s Irvine turned to researching and writing about the history of wine in Washington. The result was The Wine Project, authored by Irvine with an assist from Dr. Walter Clore, the celebrated "Father of the Washington Wine Industry." In the late '90s Irvine purchased a winery on Vashon Island and spent the next two decades as a vintner. In this April 2024 interview with HistoryLink editor Nick Rousso, Irvine discusses the founding of Pike and Western, his collaboration with Clore, and working with lesser-known varietals at Vashon Winery. 

Pike and Western Wine Shop

Ron Irvine (b. 1949) grew up in North Seattle, attended Roosevelt High School and the University of Washington, and spent an eventful 18 months traveling in Europe and Asia before returning to Seattle in 1971. It wasn't long after his homecoming that he met Dr. Jack Bagdade when both men volunteerd for the Alliance for a Living Market, a group advocating to save Pike Place Market from development. In 1975, Bagdade surprised Irvine when he asked if Irvine would like to open a wine shop in the Market. 

Nick Rousso: When you guys partnered up, what was your role? What were you going to do and what was he [Bagdade] going to do?

Ron Irvine: He was going to provide money, along with another guy, Leo Butzel. Leo had more money than Jack did. I had no money. So I was kind of the operating manager. I bought the wine and made the decisions, and we'd talk all the time. Kind of typical at that era, both of these women worked for me, the wives, Carla, and Mary Ellen Butzel. And I had to fire both of them over time, which just drove me nuts! ... But I liked them. They're nice people ... I had a lot of interesting people work for me. They were nice people. Michael [Teer], I hired him, and he eventually was able to buy the wine shop.

Bagdade and Irvine found a space in the lower level of the Market and opened Pike and Western Company Wine Merchants in August 1975. The shop moved to the Soames Dunn Building on Pike Place a couple of years later. It was still going strong in 2024, now at the corner of Pike Place and Virginia Street, with Teer as the owner. 

NR: So when you started it, there was no Washington wine industry to speak of. What were you selling, mainly French wines, California wines?

RI: California and French ... I don't really remember all that we carried, but we were the first to focus on Washington wines and Oregon, especially, both of them. It was a lot closer than France. And I got really close to a lot of wineries down in Oregon especially. It was easier than Washington. Then eventually Washington started producing wine, and both of them were really good. It's still hard to get acceptance for Washington especially. Oregon's done a good job and the media has kind of helped push it. David Lett from Eyrie Vineyards, he encouraged me to come down and open a wine store down in the middle of the [Willamette] wine valley. I'm glad I didn't do that, but it showed that they were all thinking of the future. And they're so ready. I don't know how people can be so smart.

The Wine Project

After 16 years at Pike and Western, Irvine sold his interest and turned to new ventures. He worked part-time at Vashon Winery, made cider from Washington apples, and began learning the art and science of winemaking. He took great interest in Washington's wine history as well, eventually deciding to write about it. The resulting book, The Wine Project, was published in 1997.

RI: I never considered myself a writer. In high school, my teacher [Mr. Rasmussen] was kind of a historian and I took the class, I don't remember, I don't think it was a history class, but it involved a lot of history. And one of the things that was so spectacular is, we would come into our classroom and there'd be put on the blackboard in chalk, all the movements of soldiers during the Civil War. I mean, it was just spectacular ... and he selected me twice out of three times, I think, to read what I had written about. What he would do is he would choose about four or five different subjects: Black Hills of Indiana or whatever. And I wrote up two things, so he made me feel like I was special. He's no longer living. I wanted to dedicate the book to him because I thought he inspired me.

Clore began working in 1937 as a horticulturist at Washington State University's Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser. In 1940, he planted vinifera grapes from Yakima, jump starting the state's wine industry, and in 2001, the state legislature honored him as the "Father of the Washington Wine Industry." Clore was in his early 80s when he got a call from Irvine. 

RI: So I sold the business in 1991. I had this idea that I wanted to go interview Dr. Walter Clore. And I had met him, but I didn't know him very well. So I decided to go over to Prosser, and I interviewed him, and he said no problem. And so that was the start of it. And he asked me if I would help him write a book on the history of Washington wine, and I said yes. That was the beginning. So he would write stuff on his computer and print it out. We didn't have email at the time, so it was kind of rudimentary, but he would send this typed out, I would edit it, send it back to him, and he would edit it again. So it got edited a couple times. And then I would put it into a file. 

NR: What was your first impression of Walter Clore?

RI: Well, he was a sweet guy. I mean, first impression, he was a tall man. He was, I don't know, 6-3, 6-4, kind of a hillbilly. It's hard to imagine him liking or understanding wine, but the same could be said for me too, before I found wine. He was devoted to his wife and she had early dementia. If she went to the hospital, he would go with her and sleep in a bed next to her. He just had a wonderful heart. I always felt good about our relationship. I think he was concerned about the way [the book] came off as being more me ... Anyway. I think he liked it. He liked the book, I mean. I think he was proud of it.

NR: How did you guys decide where to go?

RI: Well, probably more Walt. He wanted to show me things, and he felt comfortable just driving on the dirt paths into people's vineyards. I mean, everybody knew him. I would usually have to call people ahead of time, but Walt would just go right over and he'd find the person working in the vineyard ... So I don't really remember how that process worked. Just there two of our brains working on it.

NR: How do you feel about the book? What's your takeaway? You must be amazingly proud of it.

RI: Yeah, I am. And I think it reads really well. There's some criticism because I tend to write it and I jump around a lot. But I feel like the essence of how we perceive life is in spirits and starts and stops and things get put together, like our industry, but I think a lot of people that have read it, they find that it's too choppy. But that's just the way it came out, and I don't think I had any grand design. I don't know if I could do it again. I mean, it takes a lot of willpower to be able to sit down and write. I lived in my basement office ... Actually, it's not true: I wrote most of it in an area just off my kitchen. But I did have it down in the basement for a while, but I just never felt comfortable in the basement. All my books are still there, all my research books, collecting dust.

Vashon Winery

Well before he left Pike and Western in 1991, Irvine had been spending time closer to his Vashon Island home at Vashon Winery. He continued to work there part-time while writing The Wine Project, and in 2002, he purchased the winery outright. Vashon Winery would be Irvine's labor of love for the next 20 years. In addition to making Pinot Noir from grapes grown in the Puget Sound AVA, he worked with many lesser-known varietals. 

NR: How many different varietals were you working with?

RI: Well, one interesting one was Chasselas, and that is owned by Jim Stewart of Stewart Brothers Coffee, or I guess Seattle's Best Coffee. He had a vineyard that was planted in the '40s and still there, but he wasn't willing to put money into it, or maybe he did and I didn't realize how much he put in or not, but it needed some help. Anyway, the Chasselas, and I experimented with Muller-Thurgau, Siegerrebe, Pinot Noir, Pinot Precoce. I think those are some of the major ones, and there's other smaller ones that I was able to throw into the batch. I have a vineyard that I planted with the help of the owners, and it's four of those grapes. It's Pinot Noir, Pinot Precoce, Chasselas, and Siegerrebe. 

More: Nick Rousso's biography of Ron Irvine

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