Wine History: Washington State, Northwest USA

Many don’t know this, but the state of Washington has made huge leaps in its production of high-end wine in a very short amount of time, and that Washington wines have become very well respected throughout the world. Washington wines come only second to California in the United States and generate millions of dollars in sales. Tourism around the Washington wine industry has doubled and brings in over 2 million visitors per year.

History: figure

The very first grapes in Washington were planted in 1825 at Fort Vancouver, on the north bank of the Columbia River, by early settlers from France, Germany, and Italy. Dr. John McLoughlin, the owner of the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC), built a new fur trading post here because he believed the soil quality and flatness of the terrain would yield good farmland to feed himself and his employees. Grapes and apples were amongst the many fruits and vegetables planted on this site. Presently, grapes – and apples – grown in Washington are known to be some of the most delicious in the world. And of course, Washington wine now enjoys international fame for its excellence.

Fun fact: Did you know that wine grapes and apples were the first cultivated fruits in the Pacific Northwest?

After this, many hybrid varietals made their way to Puget Sound, and by the year 1860, they had reached the Walla Walla Valley. By the early 1900s, Yakima Valley hosted several notable vineyards like W.B Bridgman in Sunnyside. The oldest vines in the state are Muscat of Alexandria in Snipes Mountain and to this day, they are still producing great wines. By 1920, however, Prohibition put a halt to all wine production but interestingly enough sparked a curiosity in homemade wine. When Prohibition ended, wineries began emerging and by 1938 there were over 42 wineries in Washington state. With all this increased activity, a huge effort was made to further strengthen the state’s wine grape industry.

The Men of the Hour

A central turning point in the history of Washington wine was when Dr. History: art Walter J. Clore was hired at the Irrigated Agriculture Research Extension near the small town of Prosser in Yakima Valley, as an assistant horticulturist. He was later to be referred to many as “Johnny Grapeseed” or "Father of the Washington State Wine Industry". Clore conducted many experiments with 7 varieties of vinifera and 20 labrusca hybrids which contributed to the study of 250 plus grape varietals. His contributions over the following 40 years with respect to grape varieties and general American viticultural subject matters led to the groundwork of several of the best local vineyards.

Even with all of Clore’s grape discoveries, the standard and un-exciting Concord grape is the one which was chosen to be the future of wine production in Eastern Washington. California's corporation, Ernest & Julio Gallo, in 1949 bought nearly 4 thousand tons of these grapes which paved the way for the huge success of Gallo's "Cold Duck" sparkling wine. Although good for many, 1949 proved to be a bad year as well due to a very cold winter which severely impacted the region’s wine industry.

Nationally, California dominated premium wine production in the 1960s, mainly due to the massive public relations and marketing slogan of wine masters like E. & J. Gallo, of Modesto, Ca. Most notably was their timeless campaign, “sell no wine before its time”.  Contrary to Europeans, American wine drinkers had always enjoyed their Concord grape, sweet, fortified wines. Gallo essentially re-educated the American wine-drinking palette and thus drinking varietal wines became common and prestigious.

USA image

Walter Clore, along with Chas Nagel, food scientist, was instrumental in changing important facets of legislation regarding the wine industry in Washington in the late 60s. Several legislative hearings in the cities of Yakima and Seattle were held to ascertain if strict state protectionist wine laws were effective. These 2 scientists claimed that Washington could not compete with California any longer in the production of the table wine grape, and Walter Clore introduced his developments on grape varieties and ‘the vinifera type of grape from Europe' – ones that he had been working on since the 1930s. He was convinced that Washington could compete successfully with California in the premium wine market if given a proper chance. He argument included several reasons for this:

1.) Washington was on the same latitude as the famous winemaking regions of Europe

2.) Washington receives longer hours of intense sunshine and thus has a longer growing season

3.) and lastly, that insects and diseases that are constant issues in California, are not so in Washington.

Clore did recognize that the winters were severe in Washington, with temperatures often falling to below zero, which could negatively impact crops,  however he reasoned that grapes could grow on their own roots. Therefore if the vines were to die because of cold temperatures, they would grow back the following year. Only one year’s crop would be lost. He honestly believed that Washington offered more than California and that these aggressive protectionist laws were holding it back. The arguments were strong enough that the laws were changed and vinifera grapes were introduced into the production process, much to the dismay of California lobbyists. Not long after, Washington introduced a white Riesling to the world – one of its many long-term hits. Although there are many people responsible for getting Washington state on the wine industry map, Walter Clore, is the main man to thank.

Interesting Facts about Washington Wine

  • Walla Walla, one of Washington’s AVAs (American Viticultural Areas)  means “place of many waters". Northwest original Now referred to as the "place of many wines".
  • In the later years of the 19th century, a deadly insect called Phylloxera, destroyed vineyards all over the world, and because of this, phylloxera-tolerant rootstocks are mostly used everywhere in the world. Washington, though, does not use them, and almost 100% of vineyards are planted on their individual rootstalk.  This is due to the cold winters and sandy soil that drive these pesky pests away.
  • Why are Washington’s wines so successful?  It’s all about the day to night temperature variability, called the diurnal shift. The state’s temperatures fluctuate dramatically– there can be a shift of 40 degrees between day and night, which positively affects the balance between the crisp acidity and the ripe sugars of the grapes.
  • The Washington wine industry was officially acknowledged in 1967 when Ste. Michelle Vintners introduced its 1st Cabernet Sauvignon.  Over 50 years later, this vintage, Chateau Ste. Michelle, is the second-best fine, domestic wine sold in the United States.
  • Grapes grown in Washington have a ratio of 64% red to 36% white. The red wine varietals include: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Syrah; and the white wines include: Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Riesling.
  • Many people are familiar with the various wine varietals in Washington, however, there are a few grapes the state grows that are less known, such Madeleine Angevine, which produces a floral white wine, and Lemberger, which creates a dark, red and spicy flavor.
  • There is a famous legend that describes how grapes and apples made it to the USA. During George Simpson’s inspection tour visit to the HBC in 1826, it is said that he “had seeds of grapes and apples in his vest pocket from a party he had attended in London.  When he arrived in the United States, he left them here and they greatly multiplied.”  Whether this is true or not, it’s an interesting story!