Sagemoor in Pasco plants Washington's first large-scale commercial vineyard in 1972.

  • By Trista Crossley
  • Posted 5/11/2021
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 21222

In the spring of 1972, Sagemoor manager John Pringle begins planting 280 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Riesling vines on two of Sagemoor's vineyards, Sagemoor and Bacchus, situated above the Columbia River north of Pasco. Sagemoor thus becomes Washington's first large-scale commercial vineyard. By the mid-1970s, Sagemoor will be producing some 2,300 tons of grapes annually, enough to yield 150,000 cases of wine. Most of its grapes will go to Chateau Ste. Michelle, an arrangement that continues into 2021. 

Setting Down Roots

In Ronald Irvine's book The Wine Project, which details the history of Washington's wine industry, he calls the 1970s the "decade of the wine grape" because of a huge increase in plantings and the accompanying growth in viticultural knowledge. In 1970, there were fewer than 400 acres of premium wine grapes in Washington; by the end of the decade, that number had grown to more than 3,000. Riding that rising tide was Sagemoor, which in 1972 and 1973 planted 440 acres of wine grapes, the largest block of varietals in the state at the time.

The makings of Sagemoor's vineyard operation began in 1968, when Alec Bayless (1922-1991), an attorney from Seattle, was looking for a potential site for a vineyard. Through the grapevine, he heard about a farm for sale 15 miles north of the Tri-Cities on the east side of the Columbia River. The land, Sagemoor, had come on the market after its former owner took the lives of his family and himself.

Bayless and his partners -- Albert Ravenholt (1919-2010), a foreign correspondent-analyst; Winslow Wright (1919-2014), owner of a door manufacturing plant in Mountlake Terrace; and Sydney Abrams, a wine broker for E. & J. Gallo Winery in California -- put together a group of investors and succeeded in purchasing the property, which was already partly planted in tree fruit. Within a short time, the partners purchased another parcel of land about 8 miles upriver from Sagemoor that they divided into two additional vineyards, Bacchus and Dionysus.

For the first few years, the partners planted experimental vines from Washington State University's Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser and from the University of California-Davis. In 1972, under the direction of farm manager John Pringle, 85 acres at Sagemoor were planted, beginning with Cabernet Sauvignon, while at Bacchus, 195 acres were planted with Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and other varietals. The cost of planting the two vineyards was estimated at $728,000 plus land costs. Included in Pringle's plantings was an eight-acre "mother vineyard" that had a "row of this, that and everything" ("Wine Grape Production …"). This mother vineyard would play an important role in Washington's emerging wine industry, as it provided cuttings of new and rare varietals for other growers. It also helped the partners test which grapes would grow best in the area.

Bayless's group was taking a substantial risk. At the time of planting, it had no contracts with wineries for the future grapes. The risks got even higher as freezing weather during the 1972 winter killed three-quarters of the new vines. Bayless and his partners were able to raise more money and replant the next year. Also in 1973, Pringle oversaw the planting of Dionysus's 180 acres. The three vineyards, under the umbrella of Sagemoor, would eventually supply fruit to many of the emerging wineries in Washington and Oregon.

Growing Pains

By the middle of the 1970s, the Sagemoor vineyards were in full swing, able to produce at least 2,300 tons of grapes annually, enough for 150,000 cases of wine. Most of these grapes were going to Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia Winery, both in Woodinville, an arrangement that would continue into 2021.

Meanwhile, however, the company became overextended and deeply in debt to the John Hancock Insurance Company. The partners even considered handing the company over to creditors. In 1979, original partner Winslow Wright sold his door manufacturing business and became managing partner of the Sagemoor properties. At about the same time, the group became involved with a German company that wanted help establishing a vineyard for a future winery called Langguth. That winery lasted only a few years before going into bankruptcy in 1983. Sagemoor got tangled up in the ensuing litigation, but eventually was able to acquire Langguth's 240-acre vineyard, Weinbau, about an hour upriver from Sagemoor’s other vineyards.

The financial difficulties continued when, in 1983, more than 500 tons of grapes were left unsold and hanging on the vines. According to The Wine Project, the tree fruit part of the business also was losing money. For a brief time, the partners discussed giving up the business, believing they couldn't withstand more losses.

Sailing Into the New Century

Despite their struggles, the partners held onto Sagemoor and expanded through the 1980s and 1990s. In 1991, Bayless died. By 1996, the four vineyards (Sagemoor, Bacchus, Dionysus, and Weinbau) totaled 750 acres of grapes and 250 acres of tree fruit. Ninety-five percent of the grapes were under contract, with Sagemoor selling to many of the region's wineries. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, Sagemoor was selling to roughly 20 wineries, with Chateau Ste. Michelle still its largest customer.

In 2002, Kent Waliser, a former apple industry veteran, was hired as Sagemoor's general manager. He would be responsible for modernizing the company's farming practices, replanting as necessary, and diversifying its customer base.

In 2010, Ravenholt died, leaving Wright as the partner with the biggest share. Unfortunately for the group, the proliferation of ownership members resulting from transfers to succeeding generations conflicted with federal water rights restrictions, forcing the remaining partners to sell the company. However, they wanted to keep it intact so its customers wouldn't have to buy from multiple vineyard owners. They also wanted to keep employees and management together. They started looking for a buyer in 2013. By this time, Sagemoor had 450 acres of tree fruit and 900 acres of wine grapes. "We have 130 customers and didn't want to sell to someone who would break this up," Waliser recalled ("Sagemoor: Changing …"). In April 2014, Sagemoor was sold to Allan Brothers, Inc., a Yakima Valley family-owned tree fruit producer.

Sagemoor added another vineyard in 2016 when it purchased 180-acre Gamache Vineyard, overlooking Basin City, from Bob and Roger Gamache, who established the vineyard in 1982. In 2021, Sagemoor purchased Southwind Vineyard near Milton Freewater. As of 2021, Sagemoor’s six vineyards were growing more than 20 grape varietals on approximately 1,400 acres. Bacchus, Dionysus, Gamache, and Sagemoor are all located within the White Bluffs American Viticultural Area (AVA), which was established in 2021. Weinbau is in the Wahluke Slope AVA, which was established in 2006 and is a sub-region of the Columbia Valley AVA. Southwind is in the Walla Walla AVA, which was established in 1984.


Sources:

Ronald Irvine, The Wine Project (Vashon, Washington: Sketch Publications, 1997), 235, 283-287, 416; Andy Perdue, "Washington's Great Vineyards: Sagemoor Vineyard," Great Northwest Wine (https://greatnorthwestwine.com/2013/08/25/sagemoor-vineyards/); David Ammons, "Wine Grape Production Growing Business in Eastern Washington," The Daily Chronicle, November 21, 1972, p. 3 (newspapers.com); Connie Adams, "Sagemoor: Growing Top-Quality Grapes Since 1972," Seattle Dining!, website accessed April 5, 2021 (https://seattledining.com/Archive/beverages/wine/wine_related/sagemoor_part_1 _2020.aspx); Connie Adams, "Sagemoor: Changing of the Guard," Seattle Dining!, accessed April 5, 2021 (https://seattledining.com/Archive/beverages/wine/wine_related/sagemoor_part_2 _2020.aspx); MaryAnn Worobiec, "Washington's Sagemoor Vineyards -- 900 Acres of Vines -- Sold to Fruit-Tree Company," Wine Spectator, website accessed April 5, 2021 (https://www.winespectator.com/articles/washington-s-sagemoor-vineyards-900-acres-of-vines-sold-to-fruit-tree-company); Emily Resling, "Right Place, Right Time, Right Man: The 45-Year History of Sagemoor Vineyards," Discover Washington Wine, website accessed April 5, 2021 (https://www.discoverwashingtonwine.com/right-place-right-time-right-man-the-45-year-history-of-sagemoor-vineyards/). Note: This essay was updated on August 18, 2021. 


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