Washington Wine: The Early Years

In celebration of Taste Washington Wine Month, all month long I will be sharing Washington Wine History, Wines and Wineries and two of the newest Washington AVAs that help shape this unique wine region. If you haven’t already read my last post, Washington Wine: The Shaping of a Region I invite you to read that first to familiarize yourself with the landscape of Washington Wine Country because winemaking always starts from the ground up.

All caught up? Great, let’s begin with a little Washington Wine History, and since reading about wine is always better when you are enjoying a glass, I invite you to pour yourself a glass to sip as you read along (of course Washington Wine would be a nice choice, if you have it).

AniChe Cellars Underwood, WA

To take wine into our mouths is to savor a droplet of the river of human history.” Clifton Fadiman

The Early History of Washington Wine

The history of Washington wine can be traced back to 1825 when just north of the Columbia River at Fort Vancouver, the Hudson’s Bay Company set up a fur trading post, this also marks the site where grapes were first planted in Washington State. When homesteaders began coming from the east on the Oregon Trail in the 1850’s, they brought with them grape cuttings and more grapes were planted in several areas in Eastern Washington as well as the Puget Sound. At this time the wines made from these plantings were primarily made for individual homes.

Sketch of Fort Vancouver 1853 by G. Sohon Image Credit HBC Heritage

Around the Puget Sound Region as early as 1854, hybrid wine grape varieties were arriving in the area’s nurseries and wine grapes were planted in the Walla Walla Valley by 1860. In the Yakima Valley the first vines were planted by a French Winemaker, Charles Schanno, who in 1869 took cuttings from the famous Hudson’s Bay Company trading post and planted them in the Valley. Seattle’s first commercial winery, Wine Creek Winery, was founded in 1889 by the Louis Jaffe family in the Pioneer Square neighborhood. In the Yakima Valley in 1905 Seattle attorney Elbert F. Blaine built Stone House Winery near Grandview.

By 1910, many areas of Washington had wine grapes growing that were planted by early Italian, French and German immigrant pioneers and settlers. The surge in wine grape growing was fueled by large-scale irrigation that began in Eastern Washington in 1903.

The diverse soils and sunny conditions combined with the irrigation of runoff from the melting snowcaps of the Cascade Mountains created the perfect growing environment and wine grape acreage rapidly expanded in the early part of the 20th century. In fact, the first annual Columbia River Valley Grape Carnival was held in Kennewick in 1910 and many Italian and German varietals that were planted in the Yakima and Columbia Valleys were featured there.

The Grandfather of Washington Wine

Grape growing in Washington state, particularly in the Yakima Valley, changed shortly after 1914 when a young attorney by the name of William B. Bridgman arrived in the town of Sunnyside. Bridgman set up a shop and as his law practice flourished, his attention also turned toward the purchase land. Bridgman had grown up in a farming community on the Niagara Peninsula in Canada where his family grew Concord grapes. This viticulture background would become an integral part in the foundation of Washington Wine History. While working as an attorney in Sunnyside, Bridgman also played an important role in the development of Yakima Valley’s irrigation laws. Guidelines to develop and share water resources were authored by Bridgman when he became manager of the Sunnyside Irrigation Canal, which had been established 1893.

Headgate, Sunnyside Irrigation Project Diversion Dam, Yakima River, April 29, 1915 (photo credit-HistoryLink.org)

In 1914, Mr. Bridgeman took a good look at the land that he had purchased and along with the promise of new irrigation laws he saw enough beneficial elements on a piece of property that is now know as Harrison Hill to begin planting wine grapes. These first vines planted by Bridgman included Black Prince (Cinsault), and two varieties that could be grown for both table and wine grapes, Flame Tokay and Ribier. More wine grapes were planted by Bridgman in 1917 on nearby Snipes Mountain to include Muscat of Alexandria and Thompson Seedless (some of which remain today), along with Black Hamburg (a black muscat). Eventually Bridgman expanded his vine planting with Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Carignon, Alicante Bouschet, Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Mataro (Mourvedre) and other varieties. In those early years, Bridgman largely sold his grapes to the Italian and Croatian immigrants in the Cle Elum and Rosylyn area who would make wine for their own families and community. These were the first commercial wine grapes grown in the region and they make the beginning of Washington’s Wine Industry.

Soon Bridgman, who was a two-time mayor of Sunnyside became a local celebrity and Sunnyside’s biggest promoter as he encouraged throughout the Valley the business of farming, spurred on by the agricultural bounty of the irrigated farmlands.

William B. Bridgman was the first to plant commercial wine grapes in a region that has been the center of the Washington wine industry ever since. Photo Credit-Yakima Valley Wine Country.

U.S. IS VOTED DRY!

Image from New York Daily News Archive via Getty

Some would say that Bridgman’s timing in pioneering Washington’s Wine Industry wasn’t the best, when rumors of Prohibition began to spread across America. Soon, the alcohol industry was curtailed by a succession of state legislatures and on January 16, 1919 Prohibition was ratified by the states. The alcohol industry was dealt its final blow nationwide, under the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution on January 17, 1920. This however was not the end of Bridgman’s grape growing endeavor and in fact he saw demand for his grapes skyrocket. How was this possible? Because of a loophole in the legislation that opened the door for home winemakers providing another market for grape growers. The law’s provision allowed the sale of wine grapes to the male heads of households to “preserve fruit” through fermentation and up to 200 gallons a year of self-made wine was permitted. However, this loophole was only beneficial to grape growers and the end of commercial wine production put the breaks on any hopes of building a wine industry in any of the states, including Washington.

It would be 14 years before Prohibition was repealed and although there was much to celebrate on December 5, 1933 it was a slow process building up a wine industry in Washington as more attention was given to the Concord varietals that grew well in the cool, wet western half of the state.

Following the lift of Prohibition, Bridgman launched the Upland Winery in November 1934, it was the 13th bonded winery in Washington. During that time Bridgman worked 165 acres of vines that produced an astonishing 7,000 gallons of wine during the first harvest season. In the years that followed Bridgman continued with his vision of planting and growing wine grapes and he was even contracted to grow more European varietals like Chardonnay and Riesling. Then, between the years of 1949 and 1951, severe winters destroyed many of Bridgman’s vines and this along with public demand forced him to shift from vinifera to sweet, fortified wines. Bridgman sold the Upland winery to his nephew in 1960 and he died eight years later, in 1968. The Upland Winery’s name was changed to Santa Rosa Winery and it eventually closed in 1972. That year the Newhouse family purchased the Upland Vineyard and they worked to increase the acreage with wine grapes.

Today the Newhouse family farms nearly 2,000 acres of land and over half of the acres are planted in table and wine grapes. Although Bridgman never saw the success of the Washington Wine Industry that he helped start, part of his legacy will forever be tied to the Upland Estate Winery, that the Newhouse family opened in 2007.

Upland Vineyard on Snipes Mountain. Photo Credit WineYakimaValley.Org

Washington Wine experiences budburst in the 1930’s

At the end of Prohibition in 1933, various “Wineries”, in addition to Bridgman’s Upland Winery began to pop up around Washington State. Many of them however were not much more than garage wineries making wine from grapes as well as other types of fruit. In 1933 Washington State’s first State Bonded Winery, St. Charles Winery, was started by Seattle Realtor Charles Somers and his son C.W. Somers. St. Charles Winery was located on Stretch Island near the town of Grapeview in the Puget Sound, which also became home to two more of the 42 bonded wineries registered in Washington by 1937. St. Charles remained in business until the 1950s, it was then purchased and renamed Alhambra before finally closing for good in 1965. I think it is important to mention two other notable business’ which also started up in Seattle in 1935, the National Wine Company (NAWICO) and Pomerelle Wine Company. Both of the wineries mainly produced sweet wines which was common in most parts of the United States until the 1960’s. However, in 1954 a merger happened between these two wineries and the American Wine Company was born. The American Wine Company would eventually go on to create the Ste Michelle Vineyards label for varietal wines. Chateau Ste Michelle is recognized as the oldest winery in Washington state.

The Father of Washington Wine

Walter Clore Photo Credit cahnrs.webteam WSU

In the 1930’s while William Bridgman was busy in the vineyards of Sunnyside, 1934 introduced a young man by the name of Walter Clore who arrived in Pullman, WA after accepting a horticultural fellowship at Washington State College (now Washington State University-WSU). Clore, who had a bachelors degree in horticulture from Oklahoma State University, utilized his time at the College’s agricultural research center to pursue his love of flowers and fruits. Three years later, Clore took a job at the fairly new WSU Irrigation Agriculture Research Extension Center in Prosser. On roughly 200 acres of unproductive land an irrigation system and a collection of experimental fields gave Clore and his fellow scientists the space needed to start working on anything that might grow with irrigation in Central Washington. This research included various vegetables and small fruits, including grapes.

It was during this time that Clore took an interest in wine grapes as a potential crop for Central Washington and Bridgman gave Clore his first grape cuttings. In Washington Wine history this marked the official passing of the wine grape torch from Bridgman to Clore and the start of Clore’s deeper research into wine grapes that would best suit the climate in Washington State. Clore’s vision for the potential of growing premium vinifera grapes and producing fine wines in Washington led to field studies of various varieties at different locations around the state. Also credited as being the leading force in vineyard transformation, Clore was instrumental in every aspect of viticulture to include trellising, pruning, determining which grapes specifically had the ability to withstand the cold temperatures in the region and much more. In the years that followed, the Research Extension Center under Clore’s direction, expanded its plantings to include 45 hybrids, 71 Vitis vinifera, and 10 interspecies Vitis hybrid rootstock.

Clore’s methodical research with wine grape growing in Washington state was instrumental in proving that Washington growers could successfully grow Vitis Vinifera for fine wine production and could also compete with California who was gaining traction in the global wine market. At the time though, with the exception of a few home wine-makers who dabbled in growing varietal grapes, Washington’s Concord grape industry still dominated the grape growing scene.

As Clore continued to be a champion for a stronger winemaking industry in Washington, the 1950’s saw an increase in plantings of Vitis vinifera because of Clore’s work. By the 1960’s there was an increase in “hobby winemakers” who took higher quality European vitis vinifera varietals and began experimenting more seriously with them, soon, more vineyards were sprouting up next to orchards and hop farms, especially in the valleys of Eastern Washington. In 1962, University of Washington professor Lloyd Woodburne led a group of home winemakers to create Associated Vintners, the first Washington winery to work solely with vinifera grapes.

The key year in the history of Washington Wine was 1969, before then any hope of propelling the Washington Wine industry was hindered by protective laws that acted as deterrents to varietal grape growers and fine wine makers. This changed in 1969, when a pair of legislative hearings were held in Seattle and Yakima to determine if the state’s protectionism wine laws should be repealed. Important testimony was heard by the Legislators from two scientists, horticulturist Walter Clore and food scientist Chas Nagel. Despite intense lobbying from the California wine industry, the Washington legislature did change the laws that had hindered widespread growing of fine vinefera grapes and the production of fine wines.

Washington residents finally began to have access to better quality wines at fair prices when the House Bill 100 passed and became law as the state was suddenly flooded with wines from California. With the new inflex of wines from California many Washington wineries went out of business. When the bill passed Washington had only 12 wineries and Napa Valley in comparison had 16. The recovery of the Washington Wine industry took a few years, but to some the change in the laws was seen as a blessing and soon Washington Wines found there place in the wine world.

The 1970’s were a time of re-emergence for Washington Wineries with Associated Vintners (which later became Columbia Winery) and Ste. Michelle leading the way.

Photo Credit Port of Benton

Although many people contributed to the start up and ultimate success of the Washington Wine Industry, many still attribute much of the ground work that was laid to William Bridgman and Walter Clore, the grandfather and father of Washington Wine. In Prosser, WA the Walter Clore Wine and Culinary Center opened on May 30, 2014, it was established as a tribute to Dr. Clore as well as an education center for visitors to learn the history of the wine grape growing in Washington.

With the next blog post I will cover how the Washington Wine Industry has evolved since the 1970’s and why Washington holds an important place in the wine world today.

If you are interest in learning even more about Washington Wine History here are some recommended resources.

The Wine Project: Washington State’s Winemaking History by Ronald Irvine and Walter Clore

Wines of Walla Walla Valley:: A Deep-Rooted History by Catie McIntyre Walker

Images and content © Drink In Nature Photography and Drink In Life Blog.

4 Comments on “Washington Wine: The Early Years

  1. Many people are not aware that Washington ranks second in the United States for wine production. This is an informative article that tells about the history of Washington wine.

    The 70s was a golden time for Washington wine. Thank you very much for the article. Keep posting such articles in the future also.

    • I’m really glad that your liked the article Alex. Part two is coming tomorrow and then I will be focusing on the 16 Washington AVAs. I appreciate the feedback. Cheers!

  2. Pingback: Washington Wine: The Evolution of the Industry | Drink In Life

  3. Pingback: Washington’s Royal AVA-Royal Slope | Drink In Life

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