Step through the doors of Airfield Estates’ wine tasting room in Prosser, and you step back in time to the 1940s. Strains of swing-era songs filter in from hidden speakers. Wall space is dedicated to black-and-white photos of World War II military planes.
One photo, dated 1942, shows a line of planes in front of a 70-foot water tower, hangars, barracks, and a weathered mess hall. The photo doesn’t give any indication that the land surrounding the buildings would soon be used for agriculture. Back then the property was part of the Sunnyside, Washington, airbase where military pilots were trained until the war ended. Airfield Estates owner and WSU alum Mike Miller grew up in that mess hall. “It had a walk-in refrigerator, commercial grade,” Mike said. “As a 5- or 6-year-old, I thought everyone must have one of these.”
Mike is full of stories about the former airbase that gave the family wine business its name. In 1941, Olympia Air Transport Company leased non-farming land from Mike’s grandfather, Lloyd, to build the airbase. After the war ended and the base shut down, the site and buildings reverted back to Lloyd, who converted them for agricultural production. “These unique buildings became the headquarters of the Miller family’s farming operations up to today,” Mike said.
WSU history for the Millers started even before farming. Mike’s uncle, Howard, was the first in the family to attend and graduate from Washington State College in the early 1930s. Mike’s father, Don, attended WSC for two years before leaving as a junior to join the Army Air Corps during WWII. After the war, Don returned to the Sunnyside farm. Mike followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the US Navy in 1967. He served as an aviation electrician for four years and then attended WSU, graduating with an agronomy degree in 1974.
While Mike was away in the military and at WSU, Don began planting wine grapes. In 1968, inspired by WSU horticulturist and “Father of Washington Wine” Walter Clore, Don started an experimental vineyard of Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Riesling. By 1971, he was confident enough to plant 10 acres of commercial wine grapes, and was able to sell the first yields in Canadian markets.
Forty-one years later, the vineyard now spans more than 860 acres and includes 27 varieties. And the fourth generation of Millers—son Marcus, head winemaker, and daughter Lori Stevens, marketing director—has joined the family business. Airfield Estates began offering its own brand of wines in spring 2007. “And that’s been pretty much the end of Cougar football for me,” Mike joked.
A Soaring Reputation
In the last five years, Airfield Estates has increased production from 2,300 cases to 30,000 cases. In addition, Mike opened another tasting room in Woodinville, Washington, in 2010.
Airfield Estates wines have attracted attention at local and national competitions, including Counoise, a Rhone variety similar to Grenache. “We sent this down to the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition two years running [2010 and 2011], and both years it took gold,” Mike said.
– By Nella Letizia