Wine has caught fire over the last two decades in North Central Washington. Locally produced wines and grapes contribute to a state industry that conservatively supports some 30,000 jobs, pays $543 million in state and federal taxes and contributes some $9 billion annually to the state economy, according to an April 2012 study prepared for the Washington State Wine Commission.
Here’s a look at a history of industry milestones in NCW, based on The Wenatchee World’s archive, the recollections longtime area winemakers, and local researchers. World reporter, wine blogger and wine maker Rick Steigmeyer contributed ample guidance.
Wine industry milestones
German hunter and trapper, “Dutch John” Galler, is thought to have been the first to plant a vineyard in the Wenatchee area. At age 105, Galler told The Wenatchee Daily World in a two-part interview Aug, 15-16, 1918, that he raised grapes and made wine. In later accounts, his children and family friends said he’d sell the wine from his Malaga farm to railroad workers and travelers over Colockum Pass.
North Central Washington residents are thought to have been making wine in small batches to enjoy and share but not necessarily with locally grown grapes. By now, the region’s cold winters and frosty springs were thought too severe to support wine grapes.
Champs de Brionne Winery, owned by Vince and Carol Bryan, becomes the first to plant grapes north of I-90. They harvested their first grapes in 1984. The Bryans later sold that property, along with The Gorge Amphitheater. About a decade later they launched the boutique Cave B Estates Winery and vineyards.
Columbia Valley AVA created. At a total 11 million acres it today encompasses NCW’s Wahluke Slope, Lake Chelan and Ancient Lakes AVAs.
Cameron Fries launches his White Heron Cellars in Trinidad with grapes grown by others, including Wenatchee Valley Vintners, an early vineyard planted by Mike and Debbie Hanson near Pangborn Memorial Airport. It was later killed by frost. Fries planted his first grapes in 1990.
The Wenatchee World has a policy against publishing articles involving alcoholic beverages, including wine.
Warren Moyles plants what is thought to be the first sustainable Wenatchee-area vineyard on an acre of land between Cashmere and Dryden. His grapes, planted lower in the ground, insulated with straw and drip irrigated, flourished and defied the naysayers who insisted the region was too cold. Moyles is today considered by many to be the “godfather” of Wenatchee Valley wine.
Severe freeze kills thousands of acres of grape vines in southern Washington. Chateau Ste. Michelle Estates urges Columbia Basin farmers to plant vineyards and sell the grapes, on contract for reliable yearly returns. The basin’s millions of years of volcanic activity, glacial scraping and cataclysmic floods proved ideal for producing intensely flavorful grapes.
Chateau Ste. Michelle’s offer did the trick, triggering an explosion in grape growing in the Columbia Basin. Brothers Butch and Jerry Milbrandt plant their first grapes on the Wahluke Slope near Mattawa. Jack Jones began converting large tracts of potatoes and onions to vineyards. Other Columbia Basin landowners followed suit.Meanwhile in Chelan, Steve and Bobbi Kludt planted the first grapes to become wine pioneers with their Lake Chelan Winery and Wapato Point Cellars.
Apple prices plummet in a market glut amid competition from China and New Zealand. Alfalfa, wheat and row crop growers were dealing with big market swings. Planting grapes on contract seemed like a good deal. Orchards came out. Large and growing vineyards in the Mattawa and Quincy areas were already selling grapes for Chateau Ste. Michelle and scores of small, award-winning wineries.
The NCW wine industry enters period of aggressive growth. The Moyles’ La Toscana and the Kludts’ Lake Chelan Winery become the first in Chelan County to get state winery licenses. Many more would follow.
Port of Chelan County gets $25,000 state grant for study that reveals that small, boutique wineries can be economically feasible in NCW. Many wineries use the study results to successfully qualify for bank financing. The port has contributed funding and expertise to help wineries organize and market their wines, including $5,000 in 2006 for Lake Chelan to apply to become an AVA. It has contributed $50,000 to $60,000 annually for marketing since 2009.
Wahluke Slope AVA created. Between 1991 and 2010 (the latest state figures available), acreage dedicated to wine grapes here increased from 736 acres to 6,645 acres. Large plants to process grapes built in Mattawa.
Lake Chelan AVA created. Wine grapes were growing on 247 acres there by 2010. About 30 wineries are currently in operation.
World Publishing’s Foothills magazine launches the annual North Central Washington Wine Awards to recognize local industry excellence.
Ancient Lakes AVA created. Nearly 1,400 acres were cultivated in grapes by 2010.
Chelan, Douglas, Grant and Okanogan counties today contain 69 wineries. More than 43,000 acres are producing wine grapes with the region’s four AVAs. Vineyards in the Wahluke Slope and Ancient Lakes areas continue to supply the grapes for many of the state’s 850 wineries. Washington is the country’s second-biggest wine-producing state after California.