Early Inland Empire Wineries

In 1980, sixteen wineries in Washington state produced almost a million gallons of wine. Today, approximately 970 wineries produce over 180 million gallons of wine.

Washington was just emerging as a wine region and 1982 was a very good year for wine. Twelve wineries opened their doors and joined a handful of wineries in the state. That was the year, Bainbridge Island Vineyards and Winery, Chateau Ste. Michelle, Barnard Griffen, Covey Run Vintners and Snoqualmie Winery opened. As did two Spokane wineries, Arbor Crest Wine Cellars and Latah Creek Winery.

My first peek at Spokane was in 1974 at the World’s Fair. I recall exhibits about logging and loggers in cork boots but no corks in bottles. Some years later, I made a run to Spokane to pick up a palette of Whaling Days wine. Latah Creek Winery, Arbor Crest Wine Cellars and Worden’s Washington Winery (the first custom label program where you could “Make the wine you serve your own!”) were producing enough wine to put private labels on.

A recent visit to the Inland Empire, reminded me of those early days in the Washington wine industry and the people who toiled to figure out where to plant which varieties and who could actually make the wine the growers were growing.

Opening a winery is challenging enough but back then many of the wheat and apple farmers were just beginning to plant wine grapes under the direction of Dr. Walter Clore, the father of Washington wine industry.

First, it was Riesling, Chenin Blanc and Muscat. Then the buttery Chardonnays were followed by the Merlot craze of the 1990s, fueled by 60 Minutes’  French Paradox. By then, Washington was well established in the number two spot of the U.S. wine industry.

But it took those early pioneers forging ahead and making the Washington wine industry what it is today. Early pioneers like Bill Preston, Bill Powers, Mike Wallace, and John Williams, all started out as farmers and early on decided to plant wine grapes. Thank goodness! They are the reason we have what we have today. Many are honored on the Legends of Washington Wine Hall of Fame.

In California, a flurry of winemakers started moving north to a new wine paradise. Latah Creek’s winemaker, Mike Conway had spent some time learning how to make wine in big California wineries.

The 1980 move from large California wineries to an emerging wine region was spurred by job offer. By the fall of 1980, Conway had fermented 69 tons of grapes into Worden’s Winery wine. The wine produced was in a style that was predominantly white, fruity, and sweet.

A joint venture with grape grower Hogue Cellars for the 1982 harvest, had Conway making wine for both the Hogue Cellars and Latah Creek. That first Latah Creek harvest was 7,000 gallons. For the next two years, Conway made wine for both wineries before concentrating solely on his Latah Creek Winery.

This small family winery – a rarity anymore – still produces Riesling and Maywine (gold) in addition to their perennially popular Huckleberry d’Latah (gold), a Riesling made with huckleberry concentrate. Roughly 60 percent of Latah Creek’s production are their most popular wines: Pinot Gris (double gold), Riesling (double gold), and Huckleberry d’Latah.

Introduced in 2010, their Monarch Reserve Reds Series is a small-lot, reserve red program. Those wines and other reds account for 15 percent of their production. Included are a Sangria made with natural fruit juices, a Wahluke Slope Barbera, their well-awarded Merlot, a Horse Heaven Hills Zinfandel, a Wahluke Slope Tempranillo and a Horse Heaven Hills Reserve Cabernet.

The remaining 25 percent includes a selection of dry and sweet white wines – a gold medal winning Chardonnay from Ancient Lakes AVA, a dry Chenin Blanc, a Rose’s of Malbec and an Orange Muscat with a bit of effervescence.

The first Washington father-daughter wine team began in 2005 when Natalie Conway-Barnes began making wine. One of her first projects was a red dessert wine named Natalie’s Nectar.

Like many of the oldest wineries that don’t grow grapes, they have well-established and long term contracts with the best vineyards in the state. Today, Latah Creek’s production is around 15,000 cases annually.

This charming small winery is getting a facelift. And on Saturday and Sunday, September 28 and 29 they will be celebrating their Grand Re-Opening. This would be a good time to taste their wines.

Not too far from Latah Creek Winery, is another well-regarded Washington wine pioneering family. In the early 1980s, Harold and Marcia Mielke also moved up from California to begin a new wine adventure in Spokane Valley. The state’s 29th winery, Arbor Crest Wine Cellars overlooks the Spokane River in a beautiful place called the Cliff House, on the national historic landmark.

Another family winery, this one is also run by the next generation. The Mielke’s daughter, Kristina Mielke van Löben Sels, spent some time working in a Sonoma winery for several years before becoming the head winemaker at Arbor Crest.

Her husband, Jim van Löben Sels, is Arbor Crest’s general manager and viticulturalist. Grapes are sourced from some of Washington’s well-established and respected vineyards and include Sagemoor, Dionysus, Bacchus, Conner Lee, Stillwater Creek and Klipsun Vineyards.

A recently shared bottle of their Bacchus Vineyard (unoaked) Chardonnay reminded me of how much I admire these well-made wines. And having a seasoned winemaker who spent some time making wine at Sonoma’s Ferrari-Carano, it’s no wonder.

Their Conner Lee Vineyard Chardonnay is made in a full-bodied style and sees French oak, Riesling from Dionysus Vineyard and the Bacchus Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc round out the white wines.

Reds include a Conner Lee Cabernet Franc, a Cabernet Sauvignon from 5 fabulous vineyards, the Cliff House Red Table Wine, Dionysus, a Bordeaux blend, Merlot from original, ungrafted rootstock, Wahluke Slope Sangiovese, and Syrah from Stillwater Creek Vineyard.

Spokane now has a Cork District with at least 22 tasting rooms scattered around the very pedestrian friendly downtown area. Some are local, some are not. But it makes for a great weekend getaway to explore the wines of Washington.

Cheers!

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