Wolfe, Wade (b. 1949)

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 3/12/2023
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 22678
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Wade Wolfe (b. 1949) is a pioneer viticulturalist and winemaker who played a key role in developing vineyard strategies suited to Washington’s unique growing conditions. Widely known as "Dr. Wolfe" – he has a PhD in grape genetics – he worked from 1978 to 1985 as a viticulturalist with Chateau Ste. Michelle, and later for Hyatt Vineyards Cellars and Hogue Cellars. In 1990, he bonded his own family winery, Thurston Wolfe. "I’m a viticulturalist who knows all about winemaking, too – they go together," he said (Kershner interview). As a winemaker, Wolfe used his academic research background to experiment "with what varieties would do well here in Washington and how they translate into wines" (Kershner interview). His winery in Prosser has gained a reputation for varietals such as Zinfandel, Lemberger, Viognier, and Petite Sirah, as well as port styles and other dessert wines. 

Air Force Family

Wade Wolfe was born in Fort Richardson, Alaska, on October 20, 1949, the son of Don and Wilma (Billie) Wolfe. His father was a career Air Force officer and Fort Richardson was a military base just outside of Anchorage. Wade lived in Alaska only eight months. His family moved many times during his younger years. By 1960, his father had retired from active service and the family settled in Sacramento, where Wade attended both junior high and senior high school. Wine was not particularly part of life for the Wolfe family, nor was it for most U.S. families in the 1960s.

"My parents were Scotch drinkers up until the point we moved to California, and they remained Scotch and martini drinkers, which was typical for that age group," said Wolfe in a 2023 interview. "But they started drinking wine – local wine. There was a winery in Sacramento by the name of Gibson Winery, that’s one of those places where you could take your gallon jug and fill it up at the winery" (Kershner interview). His father also made frequent road trips on U.S. 101 through the Paso Robles wine country and would come back with jugs of Zinfandel. "That was my first introduction to Zinfandel," said Wolfe, who would one day become a Zinfandel pioneer in Washington (Kershner interview).

Wine, however, was still far from his career track. He was interested in molecular genetics, cancer research, and biochemistry. He enrolled at the University of California, Davis, and earned his bachelor’s degree in biochemistry in 1971. A career in genetics remained his goal, but during his senior year he enrolled in an elective course -- "Introduction to Wine for Americans" – on a whim. This wasn’t an offering you’d find at most universities, but it made perfect sense at UC Davis, which was already becoming famous for its wine program.

Epiphanies at UC Davis

Wolfe was smitten from the beginning. "I just became totally fascinated with that whole concept of how growing all of these different grape varieties, in different climates and soils, affected how different the wines were," he said. "I had just turned 21, so I actually got to do a lot of wine tasting in that course. So that’s what kind of planted the thought in my mind of somehow being involved in the wine industry" (Kershner interview). Yet he had already committed to pursuing a graduate degree in molecular genetics at the University of Washington. He studied there for one year on subjects including yeast, wood-rotting fungi, and forestry. He came to realize he was still more interested in grapes than in cancer, and he began to think about combining his two interests by studying grape genetics. A professor at UC Davis was specializing in grape breeding and genetics, so Wolfe went back to Davis as a graduate researcher in viticulture genetics. It seemed, said Wolfe, "like a good fit" (Kershner interview). In fact, it would shape his entire career.

He went on to pursue a PhD in genetics, now using grapes as his research subject. Meanwhile, he and a number of other graduate students formed a wine-tasting group. He was especially smitten with the early Zinfandels from the Amador County vineyards and from Napa Valley. "I still wanted to be in academics doing research, but I also developed this idea that I’d do it for 20 or 25 years, and then start my own personal winery," said Wolfe. "... I was going to go to the Sierra Nevada foothills – Amador – and start a Zinfandel winery" (Kershner interview).

That plan never came to fruition, because he was eventually pulled into a pair of wine regions far from California. The first, unlikely as it may seem, was Arizona. In 1976, researchers at the University of Arizona believed the Southwest could have a wine industry, and they were doing a wine-grape feasibility study in the Four Corners area. They hired Wolfe to be what he called "basically an extension viticulturist and enologist for both the research project, and to advise the few growers in the Four Corners area" (Kershner interview). The job turned out to be excellent experience, identifying problems with heat, cold, and fungal diseases, and working on finding rootstocks that would help mitigate these problems. He also made small batches of wine from different climate areas and rated the results.

While working in Arizona, he finished his thesis and received his PhD from UC Davis in 1977. He also became an expert on winter injury to grapes because some of the vineyards he worked with in Colorado and Utah had occasional below-zero temperatures. This expertise would prove particularly vital for the next stage of his career.

Wolfe knew that Washington had a nascent wine industry. His parents, then living in Steilacoom, used to send him Washington wines, including some from the state’s biggest winery, Chateau Ste. Michelle. He was visiting his parents at Christmas 1977 when he came up with an idea. "I thought, 'Well, since I’m up here, I’ll make an appointment with somebody at Chateau Ste. Michelle'," said Wolfe. "I’ll go visit and talk to them about how they deal with winter injury up here." He met the head winemaker and had a "nice conversation about wine grape growing in Washington State" (Kershner interview). At the end of the meeting, the winemaker said, "By the way, we have a viticulture position open. Would you be interested in applying for it?" (Kershner interview). Yes, replied Wolfe, since the Arizona research project was coming to an end and he was unsure if a position awaited him at the University of Arizona. Chateau Ste. Michelle flew Wolfe up to Yakima, escorted him through their vineyards, and offered him the job.

"I thought – after looking at what Washington was like – that the potential was much better up here than it was in Arizona," said Wolfe. "Which turned out to be very correct. It just seemed they were further along in the whole process of trying to develop an industry ... It was small, but it was a very functional, successful industry ... So I decided to come up here” (Kershner interview).

Troubleshooting at Ste. Michelle

Wolfe arrived in Washington’s vineyards in June 1978 and never left. His title with Ste. Michelle was Viticultural Consultant, which meant he was an adviser to the winery’s own vineyard managers and also to the independent growers under contract. At this stage in Washington’s wine industry, there were only about 2,500 acres of wine grapes, mostly in the Yakima River and Columbia River valleys, and about 10 functioning wineries. Ste. Michelle had decided to expand dramatically, and it needed solid research on what to plant, and where. Growers were still attempting to find out which kind of grapes thrived and under what conditions.

Wolfe spent a lot of time in the summer of 1978 roaming the vineyards with Dr. Walter Clore, the state’s premier grape-growing researcher, who was also a consultant to Chateau Ste. Michelle. One of the problems they were trying to solve was one in which Wolfe had particular expertise: winter injury. As it turned out, the growers needed that expertise more than ever in 1978. "I remember this very distinctly, because it happened on the morning of my birthday," said Wolfe. "We had a very, very hard frost that went down into the high teens. We still had all of our Riesling out. And when you get that cold, it'll actually freeze the fruit. And so we went through a whole week where every day it would warm up above freezing. The fruit would thaw out, and then at night it'd go down into the teens and it'd refreeze it" (Kershner interview).

The grapes were "literally gray, instead of their normal golden yellow" (Kershner interview). To everyone’s surprise, the fruit was fine and so was the resulting wine. Yet a more serious problem arrived on its heels. The winter stayed exceptionally cold and dry. On two occasions, the temperature went to 10 below zero. When Wolfe went out to evaluate the vineyards in the spring of 1979, he found that some of the buds were still viable, but others "just sat there and they never budded out" (Kershner interview). Anywhere from between 30 percent to 60 percent of the buds were killed.

At the winery’s aptly named Cold Creek Vineyard "about 75 percent of the vines died to the ground" (Kershner interview). Wolfe and Clore inspected the vines and compared the dead ones to the surviving ones. The results were inconclusive until they dug down and began looking at the roots. To their surprise, they found that the dead vines had shallow root systems, due to a quirk of the region’s geology. A layer called the caliche layer, usually found about 12 inches deep, prevented the roots from penetrating downward. In some places, the layer was found only a few inches below the surface. "The root system just hit this caliche layer and flattened out like it was growing on a tabletop," said Wolfe. "So the entire root system was within six inches of the soil surface. And because of the dry winter and the cold winter, the ground level froze down to below two feet, and it killed the whole root system because they were up there on the surface" (Kershner interview).

They soon discovered the solution. First, before planting, the growers needed to "rip it to break up that caliche layer" (Kershner interview). Second, when planting, don’t use "little tiny potted plants," but use cuttings that are 16 inches long and plant them deep enough to get under that caliche layer. At the Cold Creek Vineyard, the winery replanted 350 acres using these new techniques, which solved the problem. For Wolfe, it was a satisfying start to his career with Chateau Ste. Michelle, and it contributed knowledge of immense value to the entire Washington growing industry. From that point on, these techniques became standard practice for all Washington wine growers.

Riding the Wave

By 1982, Washington’s wine acreage had nearly tripled to about 7,000. Wolfe was optimistic that it would continue to skyrocket. Even in those early years, he believed that "we have the potential to be the Napa Valley of the North" (Cooley). That year The Associated Press quoted him as saying that "Eastern Washington compares favorably with the wine-growing regions of France" ("State’s Wines Gaining Ground").

His tenure at Chateau Ste. Michelle lasted seven years. He left at the end of 1984 to pursue a dream that had been on his mind since his California days: starting his own winery. A few false starts ensued. He first explored a winery/vineyard operation on Badger Mountain, outside of Kennewick, but that idea fell through. He continued to work as a vineyard and winery consultant, while looking for another winery opportunity. That opportunity presented itself in 1985 when Leland Hyatt, who ran the Hyatt vineyard in Zillah, decided that he wanted to start making wine out of his own vineyard.

Hyatt hired Wolfe to be his first winemaker. "The agreement was that I would help him make his wine, and he would let me make my own wine," said Wolfe. "I was making wine under the Hyatt license bond" (Kershner interview). Meanwhile, he had met Becky Yeaman (1955-2023), who had been the tasting-room manager at Quail Run, one of the Yakima Valley’s premier wineries. They would marry in 1987 and team up to bring their own winery into existence. They "spent almost two years going through all kinds of different names" but never came up with a geographic name that they liked, so they turned to family names (Kershner interview). They eventually settled on Thurston Wolfe – Thurston being the maiden name of Wolfe’s mother.

While Wolfe was making Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Merlot and Semillon for Hyatt, the couple did their first grape crush for the fledgling Thurston Wolfe winery in the fall of 1987, using the Hyatt facilities. They made only dessert wines – a fortified Black Muscat, and a late-harvest blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and Riesling. He was attempting to emulate a French Sauternes.

It was an unusual direction to go, since dessert wines were certainly not what Washington was known for. "I did it because I was very interested, from the winemaking point of view, in dessert wines, and that goes all the way back to my graduate days at Davis," said Wolfe. "... I really fell in love with that style of wine, so we decided, to avoid any conflict with Hyatt’s wines, we wouldn’t make table wines. We’d just do table wines for Hyatt and dessert wines for Thurston Wolfe" (Kershner interview). They made those wines at Hyatt’s facilities in 1987, 1988, and 1989. In 1990, he and Becky decided to acquire their own winery space in Yakima. They refurbished the old Yakima City Hall building and created a wine-making area and tasting room. It was officially bonded that year as the Thurston Wolfe Winery. They were still making dessert wines, and also began making table wines. One of the first was a Zinfandel – another unusual choice in Washington. He had fallen in love with Zinfandel in California, but when he first began work in Washington, he found that only three vineyards were growing it.

"While I was at Ste. Michelle, we were making wine out of those three vineyards, and they were total failures," he said. "So here was the problem with the Zinfandel here. At the time, all three of those vineyards were under sprinkler irrigation. The general practice was to over-fertilize and over-irrigate the vineyards, and so the Zinfandel would get to about 19 brix [a measure of sugar content] and start rotting ... We could never get it ripe enough. So eventually all three of those vineyards were pulled out ... So that was kind of discouraging, from the standpoint of, well, we’re probably not going to be making Zinfandel in Washington state" (Kershner interview).

Then, while working as a vineyard consultant, he saw that one of his clients had a small block of Zinfandel, just for home winemakers. Wolfe asked him if he could try making some wine out if those grapes. The results were decent enough to be encouraging. Later he was consulting with a grower near The Dalles, Oregon, who found century-old Zinfandel vines, which he had revitalized. Wolfe obtained some of those grapes and made a "very, very nice" wine from them. "It inspired me, these two experiences with these two blocks of Zinfandel, that there were some opportunities, places where we could grow it," said Wolfe (Kershner interview). With Wolfe’s encouragement, other vineyards began growing Zinfandel using the correct methods. Zinfandel would soon become one of Thurston Wolfe’s specialties.

Always in Demand

Even while making his own wines, his expertise in grape growing continued to be in demand. In 1991, after he left Hyatt, he was hired by Hogue Cellars, one of the biggest wineries in the Yakima Valley. He became a full-time consultant to Hogue’s own vineyards, and liaison to their contracted vineyards. He even handled some of their human resources and compliance chores. He commuted from Yakima to Hogue’s facility in Prosser on weekdays. Then, on weekends and nights, he made wine in Yakima for Thurston Wolfe. Becky was running the tasting room. Their son Josh was born in 1990, "so he spent a lot of his early days at the winery in the tasting room" (Kershner interview).

By 1992, Wolfe was the president of the Washington Association of Wine Growers. His expertise was needed more than ever, because Washington’s wine acreage had climbed to about 11,000 acres. In his capacity as Hogue’s "grape-growing expert," he announced in 1994 that Hogue would now purchase grapes by the acre, instead of by the ton (Kelly). This was a fundamental change, which Hogue took for reasons of quality. When it comes to wine grapes, too much fruit per acre often means inferior fruit. "The change will encourage growers to focus on producing an appropriate amount of grapes, so the crop will be of the highest quality under all growing conditions," said Wolfe at the time. "... Quality fruit is a key to our long-term survival" (Kelly). Hogue was the first Washington winery to take this step, which encouraged other wineries to follow.

In 1995, Wolfe decided to take Thurston Wolfe to its next stage. He and Becky bought a house in Prosser that year and moved the winery to a leased Port of Benton building in Prosser, because they wanted "to be more centrally located in the industry and its grape sources" ("General History"). They remodeled it in 1996 and made it into a tasting room and production area. Yet because he was still working for Hogue, he had to limit his production. "The agreement with Hogue was that they would let me continue to make my wine and work for them, but I had to keep it to a limited size so there would be no competition with them," said Wolfe. "So we agreed that we’d do 1,500 cases and we’d essentially sell all of it out of the tasting room" (Kershner interview).

This freed Wolfe to make the wines he was most interested in, not necessarily the ones he could market in large quantities. In addition to Zinfandel, he had fallen in love with another red grape, Lemberger. People who shared his love for those wines – and the dessert wines – knew that the Thurston Wolfe tasting room was the place to go.

With Hogue, he also stayed on top of larger marketing trends. In 2000, Wolfe noted a significant shift in the wine market, with important implications for a state wine industry originally founded on whites. "There’s definitely a continued market for white, but it’s doubly important that we have successful red vintages," Wolfe told a reporter in 2000 (Suderman). Fortunately, he said, Washington had produced two outstanding red vintages in 1998 and 1999.

At about this time, Wolfe laid the groundwork for planting some lesser-known red grapes at the Zephyr Ridge vineyard near Paterson in Benton County. Through his work with Hogue, he had acquired a stake in Zephyr Ridge. "I said, 'Here’s what I’d like to do. Can we plant some blocks for Thurston Wolfe'? They said yes and so we planted a block of Primitivo, blocks of Petite Sirah, and a block of Zinfandel. So I finally got my Zinfandel. The first crop came off in 2000" (Kershner interview). Wolfe also took over a block of Viognier, a white variety rarely planted at the time.

Success With Viognier

Viognier would subsequently play an outsized role in Thurston Wolfe’s success. Wolfe had planted a small vineyard near Prosser with Pinot Gris and Viognier. The Pinot Gris seemed a bit bland. "I had this epiphany that I thought Viognier might be very helpful in giving more flavor and aroma to the Pinot Gris, because Viognier is very aromatic, very fruity, and very full-bodied as a white wine" (Kershner interview). In 1998, he blended the Pinot Gris with the Viognier, which retained a small amount of residual sugar. "It tasted pretty nice," he said. "It was very fruity. We did, I think, 100 cases of it, and it was initially wildly successful out of the tasting room" (Kershner interview). By 2001 they were making 1,200 cases and had to contract with Hogue to keep up with demand. He named it PGV for short.

In 2004, Wolfe left Hogue Cellars after it had been acquired by a larger company. Thurston Wolfe began to take off, because Wolfe could now devote more time to it and vastly ramp up production. He and Becky broke ground on their own winery building in the Prosser Vintner’s Village in 2005 and moved in at the beginning of 2006. He increased production to 2,500 cases that first year and to more than 4,000 cases by 2008. The PGV was driving a good deal of that expansion. The popular Anthony’s Home Port restaurant chain had approached him and asked if they could sell PGV in their restaurants. His reply: "You bet!" (Kershner interview). PGV paired particularly well with shellfish.

He continued to be in demand as an expert on grape varieties and grape-growing, and was more bullish than ever about Washington’s future as a wine-growing region. "At some point, we will have 50,000 acres," said Wolfe in a 2009 interview. "I think that will happen in my lifetime" (Cooley interview). His optimism was justified – Washington’s wine acreage exceeded 60,000 as of 2022. 

In 2010, Wolfe was named Honorary Grower at the annual Auction of Washington Wines, one of the industry’s highest honors. In 2012 Thurston Wolfe was named Wine Press Northwest’s Winery of the Year for its consistent quality and eclectic varieties. The winery’s reputation and production continued to expand over the next decade. As of 2023, it was producing about 10,000 cases a year, more than double its output a decade earlier. PGV accounted for almost half of the current total, followed by the biggest selling red, Dr. Wolfe’s Family Red, a blend of Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, and Lemberger. Once again, the idea for this unusual blend originated back in the California vineyards of Wolfe’s younger days.

"If you go back to the old vineyards in Sonoma, which were mostly planted by Italian immigrants, almost all of the old-vine Zinfandel wasn’t straight Zinfandel," said Wolfe. "It usually had a couple of different varieties in it. One of them was Petite Sirah ... A lot of those early wines were effectively Zinfandel-Petite Sirah blends. That’s the inspiration for making this wine. The one alteration I did, [was add] a small percentage of Lemberger, because of my interest in Lemberger" (Kershner interview.

Wolfe’s penchant for experimentation never abated. "Several years ago, we had a very eclectic group of other varietals besides Zinfandel and Petite Sirah," said Wolfe in 2023. "We were one of the first to do Syrah, one of the first to do Pinot Gris, Tempranillo, and Sangiovese in the state. Some of those things we still make, some of them I’ve kind of lost interest in" (Kershner interview).

The Thurston Wolfe lineup as of 2023 included Lemberger, Lemberger Rose, Malbec, Petite Sirah, Syrah, a Rhone blend, a Bordeaux blend, and two Zinfandel blends. In a throwback to Thurston Wolfe’s origins, there are also two dessert wines: the JTW Reserve Port and the Touriga Nacional Port. The winery still has a considerable reputation in that niche. "Wade Wolfe has been producing award-winning dessert wines with Portuguese varieties long enough that he is one of the few outside of Portugal legally allowed to label them as port," wrote wine writers Eric Degerman and Andy Perdue in 2019 (Degerman and Perdue). The Touriga Nacional Port won a double platinum award in the 2016 Wine Press Northwest competition.

Thurston Wolfe has always prided itself on being a family winery, with many of the wines sporting family names. Becky Yeaman died in February 2023, leaving behind Wade and their son Josh. The initials JTW in JTW Reserve Port and JTW’s Blend stands for Josh, who has become involved in the business and sales side of the operation. The "hope and the plan," said Wade Wolfe, is for Josh to take the reins of the operation when the time is right.


Wade Wolfe interview with author Jim Kershner, Prosser, Washington, January 25, 2023, recording and transcript available through HistoryLink; Megan Cooley, "Eastern Washington Has Come Into Its Own Wine Industry," The Spokesman-Review, May 3, 2009, p. 8 of the AwayFinder special section; "State’s Wines Gaining Ground on Those Famous Californias," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 9, 1982, p. C-12; Leslie Kelly, "Too Many Grapes Spoil the Wine," The Spokesman-Review, July 13, 1994, p. F-1; Hannelore Suderman, "A Vintage Year," Ibid., February 1, 2000, p. A-6: "Fast Facts," on website of the Washington Wine Commission, accessed February 6, 2023 (https://www.washingtonwine.org/fast-facts/); Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman, "Great Wines at Bargain is What We All Want," The Spokesman-Review, January 23, 2019, p. 5 of the Food section; "General History," on the Thurston Wolfe website, accessed February 7, 2023 (https://www.thurstonwolfe.com/wine-making/general-history/).

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