College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences

A Brief History of Washington Wine – Walter Clore – Washington Wine History, Part 1

Today, Washington has a wine industry worth more than three billion dollars a year, making it the second largest in the U.S. But it wasn’t always that way. As Leon Adams wrote in his classic The Wines of America (1973), “the Washington state recovery is one of the greatest human stories in the wine industry.”

Walter Clore
Walter Clore

To call the present state of the Washington wine industry a “recovery,” however, is a bit misleading. In fact, before the research efforts of Walter Clore and Chas Nagel were implemented, Washington simply didn’t have a wine industry in any modern sense of the term. Instead, Washington had a small sweet dessert and fortified wine industry based on Concord grapes (Vitis labrusca).

In the 1960s, California dominated the domestic fine-wine market, due in large part to marketing efforts by wine giant E. & J. Gallo, of Modesto, California. Gallo’s marketing campaign, centered on the message that Gallo would “Sell no wine before its time,” reeducated the American drinking public. Americans, unlike Europeans, had long been drinkers of sweet and fortified wines made from Concord grapes. Gallo’s efforts changed not only American wine-drinking habits, but attitudes toward wine. Consuming varietal wines became a sign of sophistication and prestige.

Before 1969, the Washington wine industry was stymied by protective laws that acted as a disincentive to growers of varietal grapes (Vitis vinifera) and fine wine makers. Except for a few home wine-makers who dabbled in growing varietal grapes, Washington’s Concord grape industry dominated the scene. That industry was protected by laws that made California wines illegal and Washington wine drinkers uninformed about the potential of their state to produce excellent wines. Washington growers had no reason to plant anything but Concords, even though they thought fine varietals would grow well in the state’s soils and long growing season.

1969 is a key year in the history of Washington wine, as a pair of legislative hearings was held in Yakima and Seattle, to determine if the state’s protectionist wine laws should be overturned. Legislators heard important testimony from two WSU scientists: horticulturist Walter Clore and food scientist Chas Nagel.

Clore told the lawmakers that Washington could no longer compete with California in the production of the table grapes that go into juice concentrate and jelly. But, he told them, he had been researching the potential of “the vinifera type of grape. This is the European type of grape…. We have been working since 1937, at least I have, on grape varieties and grape problems in the Yakima Valley.”

In other words, Clore’s research indicated that Washington growers had every reason to think they could compete vigorously with California in the newly burgeoning fine-wine market. Clore’s pointed out that Washington is on the same latitude as the fine growing regions of Europe; that Washington gets has a longer growing season, with more hours of more intense sunlight, and that Washington’s grape growing regions aren’t plagued with the insects and diseases that California has.

The only negative Clore could see was a greater number of days with temperatures below zero. “However, we do not have all the of the insect and disease problems that California has, so we can grow grapes on their own roots; so if [the vines] do kill back (because of the cold), they come back within the following year and you lose (only) one year’s crop.”

Not only could Washington compete with California, Clore said Washington might even be a better grape-growing region than California. Or, rather, Washington could compete if only the legislature would repeal the protectionist laws that dampened competition.

Chas Nagel, the food scientist from WSU, testified next. Nagel had recruited a wine tasting panel in Pullman, where he and his team rated up to 50 wines and compared them. When he was asked how Washington wines compared with wines grown and made elsewhere, Nagel replied, “In my opinion, quite favorably with certain varieties of any produced in the world, according to our taste panel.”

Fortunately for wine lovers everywhere, and despite intense lobbying from the California industry, the Washington legislature changed the laws that had kept fine vinifera grapes from widespread production.

Within a few years, Washington producers had the first of many hits on their hands, a white Riesling. Lots of people have contributed to the success of Washington wine, but it all comes back to the man known fondly, and accurately, as “the father of Washington wine” and “Johnny Grapeseed”: Walter Clore.

Expect Perfect Pairings

For more on WSU’s program in viticulture and enology, inlcuding interviews with students and alumni working in the industry, please click here.

The history discussed in this article is told in much greater detail in Irvine and Clore’s excellent book, The Wine Project, upon which this article relies for information about the legislative hearings held in 1969.

More on Washington wine

Wine Pioneer Ray Folwell Retires after 38 Years

Chas Nagel, Wine Pioneer, Dies

Michael Veseth, author of the Grape Expectations blog, comes to pretty much the same conclusion as this piece, that Clore and his colleagues’ testimony spurred the Washington wine industry toward the production of premium wines.

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Voice of the Vine is a free-, bi-weekly e-newsletter covering viticulture and enology at Washington State University. Each issue brings you one or two short articles featuring profiles of researchers, students, and alumni in Washington’s world-class wine industry. Subscribe today!

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Inspiring Teamwork – Arron Carter

It started with a car, a ’69 Corvette Stingray to be exact.

When Arron Carter, the director of the Washington State University Winter Wheat Breeding Program, was in high school his agricultural teacher had a ’69 Corvette Stingray. Every year this teacher would let his favorite senior take the car to senior prom. Carter had never taken an agriculture class before, but he knew he wanted to drive that car.

“Well, if I’m going to be the favorite senior,” Carter said to himself, “I’d better start taking some ag classes.”…

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Jim Moyer, associate dean of research for CAHNRS and director of the Agricultural Research Center at WSU, presented specialty crop research innovations in Washington, D.C. this fall.
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Shellfish production in Washington is a $60 million a year industry. Several major pests plague this industry, resulting in major crop loss. One of the most important pests is subterranean burrowing shrimp. These shrimp bioturbate (stir up) the sediment, causing the oysters to sink and die. For the past 60 years the industry has been using the insecticide Sevin to control this pest, but due to lawsuits its use was phased out in 2012. Without alternative control for shrimp, tens of millions of dollars in annual crop revenue will be lost and the industry will quickly lose its economic viability in southwestern Washington.

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The Environmental Protection Agency has identified agriculture as the leading contributor of pollutants to the nation’s rivers, streams, lakes, and reservoirs. These reports often do not separate animal agriculture from other agricultural enterprises, but they do note that pathogens, nutrients, and oxygen-depleting substances associated with manure are three of the top five pollutants. Some emerging issues related to manure management include: endocrine disruptors (hormones), pharmaceuticals (antimicrobials), and antibiotic resistance in bacteria. Adopting farm practices that minimize the environmental impact is important for food safety.

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Biosolids are the solids produced during municipal wastewater treatment. Composts are made from a variety of organic materials, including both urban and agriculture sources such as yard trimmings, biosolids, storm debris, food waste or manure, and food processing residues. While these materials have traditionally been viewed as waste, they can play a valuable role as soil amendments in urban and agricultural settings. They provide nutrients and organic matter and they sequester carbon, thereby conserving resources, restoring soils, and combating climate change.

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