On July 25, 1984, Seattle Post-Intelligencer wine columnist Richard Kinssies writes about the newest releases from Columbia Winery. Among them are three 1981 Cabernet Sauvignons, the first Washington wines to be marketed in the traditional European manner by noting the specific vineyard where the grapes originated. For decades, Northwest wine labels noted only the grape varietal, if that. Columbia releases three 1981 Cabernet Sauvignon bottlings, from distinct Eastern Washington vineyards Red Willow, Otis, and Sagemoor, showing a growing confidence in the unique terroir of those vineyards, all of which are now highly esteemed. The decision to highlight the source of the grapes was pushed by Columbia winemaker David Lake (1943-2009), who as The Seattle Times noted, "has some of the best oenological credentials in the country, including Master of Wine, one of Europe's top degrees. All of the Northwest will be listening for the pop of the first cork" ("81 People To Watch").
The roots of Washington's first winery to produce wines based on vitis vinifera grapes – the types used in the most revered "noble" wines of Europe, rather than the vitis labrusca types better used for eating -- trace to 1952, when University of Washington psychology professor Lloyd S. Woodburne (1906-1992) and a few associates began making wine in the garage of Woodburne's home in Seattle's Laurelhurst neighborhood. After a few years as amateur hobbyists making tolerably good wine, Woodburne's pals dropped out, but over time a few fellow UW professors, three local businessmen, and a Boeing engineer joined in. As the years went by this group invested in the necessary machinery and other additional gear while continuing to gain knowledge and experience. Their techniques were also improving, and as a result their wine was getting better.
In 1962, 10 committed partners formalized their association. They incorporated as the Associated Vintners (AV) and also purchased 5.5 acres of land on Harrison Hill outside of Sunnyside in the Yakima Valley. Woodburne's passion was to try to make wines from vitis vinifera fruit, and in 1963 AV planted its vineyard with various varietals, including some cuttings purchased from the American Wine Growers (AWG) vineyards outside of Grandview. AWG was a legacy company that predated the Prohibition Era (1916-1933) and had mostly been involved with producing fortified wines and non-grape fruit wines. In the late 1960s it converted to making vitis vinifera wines, and ultimately transforming into the state's biggest winery, Chateau Ste. Michelle.
In 1967 AV released its first wines commercially. Nearly two decades later, Seattle Times wine columnist Tom Stockley recapped the winery's accomplishments: "Associated Vintners really led the way to our present joyous wine boom in the Pacific Northwest. It was they who first proved that Washington was capable of something beyond loganberry and apple wine. It was they who grew and made wines with 'strange' names like Johannisberg Riesling and Gewürztraminer" ("Very Good Year ...").
Meanwhile, AV had carried on, increasing its production to such a level that it had to move out of Woodburne's garage to a warehouse in Kirkland, then to Redmond, then to Bellevue, and finally to Woodinville. From producing 450 cases of wine in 1967, AV would expand to produce tens of thousands of cases annually within a decade and a half. That whole time AV kept improving and growing. Stockley praised the winery for finally hooking up with a full-time distributor (instead of just selling from its facility), for selling off its vineyards in order to focus on winemaking, and especially for hiring David Lake, the first certified Master of Wine to work in the Pacific Northwest wine industry.
A Wine Master
Born in 1943 to Canadian parents living in England, Lake entered the wine industry working for a British wholesaler. During a decade in that business he acquired a deep knowledge of European wines generally. He also managed, in 1975, to pass the UK's Institute of Masters of Wine's exam, earning the prestigious title of Master of Wine, one of about 100 experts to do so by then. [In 2021 there are more than 400 Masters of Wine based in 31 countries.] In 1977 Lake began studying at the renowned enology school at the University of California at Davis. From there he began working in Oregon, at Eyrie Vineyards, along with brief stints at Bethel Heights Vineyard and Amity Vineyard.
In 1978 AV recruited Lake to serve as its new winemaker. He arrived in September 1979, just in time to participate in that fall's crush, when freshly harvested grapes are processed and their squeezing into juice form begins, early steps done prior to fermentation. Alas, that timing must have been disappointing for Lake as the harvest that year, coming after an unusually frosty winter, was a disaster for numerous Yakima Valley vineyards. Otis Harlan's Otis Vineyard, long an AV supplier, lost two-thirds of its grape crop. But the Otis fruit that AV did buy impressed Lake, and that impression was a lasting one.
Meanwhile, AV had to source additional fruit from other vineyards, and Lake had no real control over the quality of those grapes. His formidable winemaking skills, however, were brought to bear, and two years later AV's 1979 wines – Chardonnay, Johannisberg Riesling, and Semillon -- made their debut. Lake also made a Cabernet Sauvignon with the proprietary name Millennium. As was common practice, none of the labels boasted vineyard origins, even though the Chardonnay grapes hailed from the esteemed Sagemoor Vineyard along the Columbia River north of Pasco. Regardless, the wines were celebrated, with Stockley enthusing that they were "... splendid. Even exciting. Best of all they demonstrate the stylish bent of the new winemaker. For each one shows a certain flair that might be described as almost European with a Northwest touch" ("Watch On The Wine ...").
The following year, 1982, Lake's creations were once again well received, and although his Chardonnay and Johannisberg Riesling were made from Sagemoor fruit, that source was once again not noted on the label. AV's decision to hire Lake was again applauded. "Lake was certainly a good choice for the position. Not only is he a good winemaker, but he also has knowledge of wine in general that most winemakers never acquire" ("He's Made A Big Deal ..."). For his part, Lake was quite optimistic about the future. As he enthused to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, "'I'd say that the potential here is as high, or probably higher' than it is in Europe … 'And I'm not just talking about good wines, I'm talking about great wines" ("He's Made A Big Deal ...").
AV had positioned itself for a successful future, and accordingly moved into a larger facility in Bellevue. The company was excited about the approaching release date for its 1981 Cabernet Sauvignons. It bottled up the first batch with AV labels – which included printed vineyard designations -- and sent samples to their three vineyard sources: Red Willow, Otis, and Sagemoor. But on July 1, 1984, AV officially recast itself as Columbia Winery, and the three Cabernets were released with Columbia labels later that month. The Otis Vineyard Cabernet was singled out for a positive review by Richard Kinssies in the Post-Intelligencer. He wrote that the $13 wine, "is a real blockbuster. It is intense, fruity and complex. This is a wine that will continue to improve for years to come" ("Venerable Winery ...").
The following year Kinssies named Lake as one of two recipients of his annual Best Washington State Winemaker award, citing Lake's "consistent contributions to the Northwest wine industry" ("1984 Was ..."). Lake contributed mightily to the excellence of Columbia's wines until 2005, when health issues forced him to step away. He died on October 5, 2009 at his home in Sammamish at age 66.