Have you ever wondered who planted the first grape vine in Washington? Was it the Italian immigrants, German settlers or French fur trappers that roamed the eastern part of the state? Was it in East Wenatchee, Walla Walla or Grapeview?
When we opened Grape Expectations in the fall of 1985, there were somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 Washington wineries. Today, some still exist, in one form or another and others are no longer. There are now somewhere in the neighborhood of 980 wineries in Washington and over 600,000 acres planted to vitis vinifera.
Two of the most influential wine pioneers in the early 1900s were Dr. Walter Clore and Canadian immigrant, William B. Bridgman, who encouraged the young Dr. Clore to plant grapes in Yakima Valley Research Center in addition to other fruits, vegetables and grains.
When W.B., as a young attorney, arrived in Sunnyside, he set up shop, bought some acreage and also played an important role in the development of irrigation laws in the Yakima Valley. As manager of the Sunnyside Irrigation Canal, he authored the guidelines to develop and share water resources.
Dr. Clore was an assistant horticulturalist at the Irrigated Agricultural Research and Extension Center just outside of Prosser. Initially, the research center was 200 acres of sagebrush planted to corn, millet, potatoes, wheat and clover. That all changed when vitis vinifera came to town.
Sunnyside, where Bridgman settled in, was founded in the late 1890s by some Midwestern folks from the Progressive Brethren Church. They were determined to keep the sins of the world at bay in their new community. Wine may have been ok for Jesus at Cana but not in the backyards of these Sunnyside residents.
Sunnysiders survived, for a few years anyway, on the produce of their truck gardens but shipping outside the area was beyond their scope of work. So, they discovered the best way to make money was to sell land to unsuspecting newcomers. W. B.’s arrival in the “holy city” of Sunnyside in 1902 was definitely a blessing the residents weren’t counting on.
As his law practice thrived, it allowed him to purchase land. Being from a farming community, farmland was a top priority. He also had viticulture in his background. Back home on the Niagara Peninsula, his family grew Concord grapes. So, in 1917, Mr. Bridgeman planted a vineyard on Snipes Mountain in the Yakima Valley.
These were the first commercial wine grapes in a region that has been the center of the Washington wine industry ever since. The place, called Harrison Hill, turned out to be a great place to grow wine grapes.
Bridgman became the local celebrity, two-time mayor, and Sunnyside’s biggest promoter. He encouraged the business of farming throughout the valley and the agricultural bounty of the irrigated farmlands.
After Prohibition, Bridgman took advantage of the opportunity and opened Upland Winery on Snipes Mountain. In 1934, the winery produced 7,000 gallons of wine from his vineyards planted to a smorgasbord of vinifera grapes. He had 165 acres of Semilion, Pinot Noir, Cabernet, Palomino, Thompson Seedless, Sultana, Black Muscat, Carignane, Zinfandel, and Mataro under contract with more than 70 growers.
While he wanted to focus on table wines using European grape varieties, he found most of his success in sweeter fortified wines that were popular in the ’40s and ’50s. Bridgman sold the winery in 1960 and died eight years later.
Of all his contributions, one of Bridgman’s greatest achievements was convincing young Dr.Walter Clore at the Washington State University Experimental Station in Prosser that wine grape production was viable in Eastern Washington. Looking back, that was sage advice.
Al Newhouse, a second-generation Yakima Valley farmer, purchased Bridgman’s vineyards and expanded the plantings over the years to four hundred acres. His grandson, Todd Newhouse, joined the family business in 1996 and relaunched Upland Estates Winery in 2006.
In 2009, the federal government recognized Snipes Mountain as an official American Viticultural Area. At 4,145 acres with over 800 planted to vinifera grapes, it’s small but making a huge impact.
And those vines Bridgman planted in 1917? Astonishingly, several of them survive to this day, including Thompson Seedless and Muscat of Alexandria. There is also Black Muscat and Cabernet from the 1950s and ’60s.
Newhouse and winemaker Robert Smasne, before he struck out on his own, have made award winning wines from those vineyards. Other winemakers have too. DeLille Cellar’s Harrison Hill and Thurston Wolfe’s Black Muscat were made from Bridgman’s early planting.
On a recent trip to Yakima Valley, I became reacquainted with Upland Estates Winery over lunch at the Cowiche Canyon Kitchen and Ice House. The place would have made W. B. smile. It’s a “polished American Tavern” constructed in the fashion of an old fruit warehouse, all concrete and wood décor to reflect Yakima’s agricultural industry.
Lighting, walls and flooring are re-purposed materials. With an open kitchen, a wood fired oven, smudge pot and ice block lights, concrete walls ingrained with wood and a steel warehouse door that opens to outside dining, the place has wonderful ambiance with so much to see and enjoy. Which I did with glass of Uplands Sauvignon Blanc and a dish of Ahi Tuna with Mango Salsa. It was a perfect lunch.
And while your in Yakima, do stop by the Walter Clore Wine and Culinary Center in Prosser. Named for the Father of the Washington Wine industry, it is a learning center that promotes Washington State wines and foods.
You’ll be dazzled when you visit this spacious tasting room, where you can taste wines from across the state and learn about the wide variety of grapes, soils and climates that make our wines so distinctive.
Established at the request of wineries and other petitioners, boundaries for the thirteen Washington AVAs are defined by the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). Each month at the Walter Clore Center, one of the 13 AVAs are featured for a month. The decision on the featured AVA is decided by drawing a name out of a hat.
You’ll learn to really appreciate the work, quality and diversity of wine and food produced in the state through the Center’s seminars, programs and events. There is even a Legends of Washington Wine Hall of Fame where you may stumble upon who planted the first vineyard and where in Washington State it was planted.