Along with apples, wine grapes were the first cultivated fruits in the Pacific Northwest. Initially planted here in 1827, both apples and grapes were cherished by pioneering settlers, but whereas apples quickly became a lucrative farm commodity, the grape's long and winding path to success was rockier. Only in recent decades have both the art and science of viticulture (grape growing) and enology (wine making) advanced to the point where Washington-grown grapes now share a wide reputation as some of the world's best, and the finest Washington wines now earn global esteem for their excellence.
Seed to Vine, Grape to Wine
The first grapes cultivated here (and the wine that they led to) were grown at Fort Vancouver on 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. 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). The grapes likely were planted during the spring season following Simpson's arrival, and soon the fort was receiving shipments of corks and bottles along with other supplies.
The opening of the Oregon Trail brought the next wave of grape growing when a number of early settlers hauled 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. 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, including the Puget Sound area, a few others followed Luelling's example, and by 1854 there were three active nurseries offering both vinifera and labrusca cuttings to locals. In 1872, 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 in southern Puget Sound and planted grapes and apples on his bluff. 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 well suited to the terroir (an area's specific soil characteristics and climate conditions). For the next three decades he supplied cuttings to locals.
Around 1859, A. B. Roberts hauled grape stocks up from the Willamette Valley to the Walla Walla area 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 wine and 400 of white, but in 1883 a 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. For the next half century they made wine for their family, including a grandson who would, in due course, kick-start the region's wine business.
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 for grapes. As early as 1869 a vineyard was planted outside of Union Gap, and within a few years a 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.
In 1891 the Sunnyside Canal irrigation project helped accelerate the growth in the Yakima Valley, and a decade later Elbert F. Blaine settled into the valley town of Grandview and, as the manager of an irrigation company, soon was touting the possibilities of a serious grape-growing and wine-making industry in the area. In 1903, 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.
Starting in 1902, Sunnyside was the home of lawyer William B. Bridgman (1878-1968) 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, a seemingly risky move considering that the Washington State Legislature had enacted alcohol prohibition laws in 1916. However, since the law still allowed for individuals to make small amounts of their own 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 on Stretch Island were producing grapes that were now sought 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.
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 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, which, upon repeal, shifted from making apple juice to apple wine.
In 1935 came the first attempt to organize the state's winemakers with the formation of the Washington Wine Producers Association. All of 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 (Harstine Island). The future looked bright. By 1937 Washington was home to 28 wineries, and by 1938 there were 42. With 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. On the suggestion of Bridgman, Clore -- who the State Legislature would eventually declare the "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 state's finest vineyards.
Yet 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 wine industry in Eastern Washington. In 1949, California's giant Ernest & Julio Gallo Corporation purchased 4,000 tons of Washington-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: an icy winter that year (and again in 1950) effectively destroyed vineyards and the area's grape business.
A Wine Renaissance
The 1950s saw many changes on the Washington wine front. One was the ongoing evolution of wine palates away from what one historian described as the "ghastly quality" of the unsophisticated wines produced here. The state's "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 a qualitative shift was most apparent in 1960, when plummeting demand left just four active wineries remaining 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 such as Gewürztraminer and Riesling. Although time would prove their red-wine theory to be inaccurate, one of their Gewürztraminer wines was tasted in 1967 by 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. By 1984 the group had morphed into Woodinville's Columbia Winery.
Washington's largest winery for decades 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 by 2007 was marketing millions of gallons per year of premium wine from its showcase Woodinville facility. In 1979 Tchelistcheff described one of its Cabernet Sauvignon bottlings as "one of the best I've ever tasted."
The Wine Buzz
Since the 1970s, much of the buzz about Washington wines has surrounded a number of vastly smaller wineries. It began when a few "mom and pop" start-ups such as 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 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 waves nationally was Gary Figgins -- the grandson of those Walla Walla pioneers, Frank and Rose Leonetti. Figgins' winery, Leonetti Cellar, would garner acclaim for many subsequent vintages, but he initially shocked the wine world when his 1978 Cabernet Sauvignon earned raves from the Winestate Wine Guide as the "best in the country," and later, when pitted in a competition against the California masters, was named "Best of The Best." Inspired by Figgins's activities, his friend Rick Small planted 26 acres of vineyards in 1976 and founded the Woodward Canyon winery in 1981. His subsequent Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet wines won an intense following, many top awards and, like Leonetti, status as one of the state's finest wineries.
Another star in the Washington wine galaxy was Quilceda Creek Vintners, which was founded at Snohomish in 1979 by Alex Golitzin after receiving encouragement from his uncle, Tchelistcheff. Golitzin's Cabernets were consistently excellent, and his 2002 and 2003 vintages made history as the first from Washington to win perfect "100" scores from 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, and by 2022 the number of AVAs had increased to 19.
One result is that certain individual vineyards -- including Alder Ridge, Andrews-Horse Heaven, the Benches at Wallula, Canoe Ridge, Celilo, Champoux, Chandler Reach, Charbonneau, Ciel du Cheval, Connor Lee, Klipsun, Pepper Bridge, Red Willow, Roza Berge, Saddle Mountain, and Sagemoor -- had gained widespread acclaim by 2007, by which time 43,000 acres in Washington were planted to grapes.
The state's wine industry had come a long way since the days of sweet fruit-based wines. By the late 2000s 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 astounded experts, winning regional, national, and international awards.
By 2022, the state was home to 1,050 licensed wineries and more than 400 wine-grape growers farming more than 60,000 acres of vineyards. According to a study for the Washington Wine Commission, the total annual in-state economic impact was more than $8 billion. Washington ranks second only to California in total wine production in the United States, and Washington wine is being shipped to all 50 states and dozens of foreign countries.