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.”
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.
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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
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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