Washington’s Oldest Vineyards

Location, location, location is the mantra for real estate whether home or business. It’s true for vineyards too. However, a vineyard needs are way different than a building.

What does a great vineyard need? Mostly, it depends on the type of soil, the climate, and the of variety of grape vine.

South facing slopes have more sun than north facing slopes. Some grape varieties are drought resistant, and some prefer cooler places.

Higher elevations and volcanic soils are preferred places to plant vines over the more fertile valley floor. These tend to have warm days (sugar development) and cool nights (acidity development).

The Old World’s centuries of grape growing experiences taught them that a cool climate is best for Riesling with notable vineyards on the German hillsides of the Mosel, the high elevations of Alsace, France and Italy’s mountainous Alto Adige.

In the mid1800s, California’s valley floors, ridges and hillsides were planted willy-nilly with a variety of vines brought from the old country and some thrived and some died.

For instance, during California’s Riesling boom of the 50s and 60s, vineyards were planted on the valley floor to supply demand. The acreage planted to Riesling peaked in 1985 at 11,423 acres. By 2000, many of those vineyards had been replanted to other more suitable and more profitable varieties leaving California with only 2,049 acres of Riesling.

The Riesling migration north had already begun in the 1960s when a UC-Davis grad planted Riesling in the Oregon’s cool Umpqua Valley. By the 1980s, 23% of Oregon’s production was Riesling.  Oregon wine pioneers often planted Riesling to keep the cash flowing as their Pinots aged. Today, Washington is America’s largest growing region for Riesling with 6,099 acres.

Over decades, early wine pioneers experimented, learned, planted, learned some more, and replanted their vineyards.

Some of the top vineyards in the state that have been around for 60 or so years could include Sagemoor, Bacchus, Weinbau, Dionysus, Otis, Kiona, Upland, Shaw, Red Willow, Ciel du Cheval, Champoux, Cold Creek, and Harrison Hill. Many were abandoned and then brought back, or replanted to more conducive varieties, it was all trial and error back then.

In 1914, W.B. Bridgman planted grapes at Harrison Hill. He worked with WSU Viticulturist, Dr. Walter Clore and in 1917, was the first to plant Vinifera on Snipes Mountain adjacent to Harrison Hill. When he died, Al Newhouse bought the Snipes Mountain vineyards from Bridgman’s family.

Al Newhouse’s grandson Todd now runs the vineyards. He oversees some of the last remaining grapes Bridgman planted on Snipes Mountain. Muscat of Alexandria is still harvested from original vines planted in 1917. In 2006, the Newhouses launched Upland Estates Winery with winemaker Robert Smasne.

Otis Harlan purchased a plot of Yakima Valley land in 1954. Two years later, he planted what would become his Otis Vineyard. Harlan continued to plant this vineyard through the years with a little help from his friends, Bill Bridgeman and David Lake. A block of Cabernet planted in 1957 is still producing today. In 2013, Harlan asked his neighbors Tom and Sean Tudor who had an adjacent vineyard if they wanted to purchase his vineyard. They did and continue to produce grapes for award-winning wines.

Mike Sauer married into a farm family fresh out of college, began working on the family farm and experimenting with grapes in his spare time. The first vineyard was planted in 1971, 30 acres of Concord and a few rows of Chenin Blanc and Semillon. The two viniferas did not survive in the rich soil where the non-vinifera Concords were thriving.  This was Sauer’s first of many lessons to be learned.

In 1973, Sauer met Walt Clore who suggested an experimental plot with over 20 varieties of wine grapes be planted at the family’s Red Willow vineyard.  Three acres of Cabernet from cuttings from Harrison Hill Vineyard were also planted that year. They are still producing.

Five years later, a contract with Associated Vintners, now Columbia Winery, for the Cabernet was signed. A year later, David Lake was hired as winemaker. The fortunes of Red Willow and Columbia Winery were changing for the better.

Beginning in 1981, Columbia Winery’s Cabernet from Red Willow designated the vineyard on the label, a practice that continues to date. Lake, being a Master of Wine, also brought a new prospective to the Washington wine industry. In 1986, Lake persuaded Sauer to plant Washington’s first Syrah vines. The wine when first released in 1991, received considerable acclaim.

My favorite place to hang out at Taste Washington is Taste the Vineyards. In 25 feet, you can taste many wines made by many wineries from the same vineyard. When a winery, whether in Washington or elsewhere in the wine world, puts a vineyard name on the label, it’s always a sign of quality and partnership.

Originally a farm, Sagemoor came about through a group of investors that purchased the land in a fire sale in the late 60s. After Dr. Walter Clore pronounced it a good site for wine grapes, it was planted 1972 to Cabernet and a few other non-vinifera varieties. Today, Sagemoor has 100 acres of grape vines, 20 of which are the original and highly prized Cabernet.

The investors also acquired more property eight miles north and divided into two parcels, calling them Bacchus and Dionysus, after gods of wine and grapes.

Bacchus, also planted in the early 70s, is 180 acres of wine grapes. Twenty acres of the original planting of Sauvignon Blanc, and 35 acres of Cabernet make this vineyard a leading source of old vine wines.

Dionysus has plantings going back to 1973, including some of the oldest Riesling vines in Washington. The 150 acres are planted to wine grapes except for about a dozen acres of apples.

Weinbau Vineyard is a 460-acre vineyard on the Wahluke Slope. It was planted in 1981 by Langguth Winery, a German producer that hung its hat on Riesling. That didn’t work out.

Over the last 35+ years with experimentation, and feedback from winery partners, these investors had the vineyards replanted to varieties more suited to the terrain and climate. There are still a few acres of some original Riesling and Chard vines from that 1981 planting,

Selections by Sagemoor is an “un-club” experience. They own the above named vineyards and grow the grapes. But they don’t have a winemaker, they do have 100 or so winemakers that buy grapes from them. This gives you a chance to try some of Washington’s best vineyards from award-winning wineries. You can get on the list for these limited time offerings at https://selectionsbysagemoor.com/offerings/

Many wineries and vineyards are offering virtual tastings and tours. You should join in the fun. Cheers!