Wade Wolfe, winery manager for Hogue and owner of Thurston-Wolfe, arrived in Southeast Washington in 1978 with a doctorate in viticulture from UC Davis. At the time, Clore was a consultant for Chateau Ste. Michelle, for whom Wolfe was working.
“I spent a large part of my first summer wandering around looking at vineyards, getting a feel for the terrain here with Walt,” he says. “He showed me a lot of vineyards, the history behind them, why people did certain things, what they were doing right and wrong.
“We are a young industry,” says Wolfe. “We’re still learning our potential. But we’ve learned a lot, through the University and research, from the groundbreaking work by Clore and Nagel—and the subsequent work on the cultural level, by Sara Spayd and Bob Wample.” Wample, Clore’s successor, was the viticulturist at Prosser, until he took a position in California.
Clore turned 90 July 1. After his wife Irene died, he moved to a retirement home in Prosser. The food’s good, he says, and they let him drink wine. He still consults with Stimson Lane, the parent company of Columbia Crest and Chateau Ste. Michelle.
“Walt was out scratching around in the 50s, in areas that became our vineyards, looking for perfect sites for classic European grape varieties,” says Ted Baseler, president of Stimson Lane, owner of Chateau Ste. Michelle, Domaine Ste. Michelle, and Columbia Crest. Clore’s work is not done.
In recognition of that work, says Baseler, Columbia Crest’s 1999 Reserve will be named the Walter Clore Private Reserve Red.
If Clore has any regrets, it is that one of his favored grapes never caught on in Washington. Recent figures from the Washington Wine Commission indicate 29,000 acres in Washington planted to Vitis vinifera varieties, and growers continue to experiment with new varieties.
Lemberger Grape Thrives in Washington and Oregon
Limberger, re-spelled “Lemberger” by the marketing folks in an attempt to disassociate the grape from the cheese, caught the affection of Clore. It also caught the interest of Julio Gallo, who spent considerable time in Washington evaluating its young grapes and wine. In fact, he preferred it to Washington’s Cabernet. During one visit, Clore asked him if he’d be interested in the variety.
Sure, said Gallo, “But I want a whole trainload. I have to have a million gallons to put anything on the market.” At the time, the only Limberger vines in the state were at the experimental vineyard in Prosser. So much for Gallo of Washington. Even now, with proven potential and with fine Limbergers produced by Hogue, Thurston-Wolf, and Kiona, the Limberger grape remains confined to a mere 100 acres in the whole state. Still, Clore has not relinquished hope.
“Push the Limberger,” he says as I leave his apartment.
The Future of Washington Wine
In his preface to The Wine Project, Clore writes of his growing up in a teetotalling Methodist household and of his gradual understanding of wine not only as a horticultural challenge, but as a civilizing influence.
Following his lead, Vicki Gordon wants to change our culture. This desire, which many Washington wine people seem to share, has to do, it seems, with the social and cultural meanings of terroir.
“We need more wineries,” she says as we drive from the Gordon Brothers vineyard to the tasting room on the outskirts of Pasco. “We want one on every corner out here.” This is not a sentiment you would hear from a shoe merchant or a grocer. Neither would you hear it from a wheat farmer. More shoes, more groceries, more wheat simply mean lower prices. And more wine?
To Vicki Gordon it means a change in how we think. A change in how we live. A change in how we do business.
“From vineyard to bottle to table,” she says, “you maintain a sense of place with wine. When you go to the dinner table, the only thing you know where it came from is the wine.”
Even though many of the grapes in Washington are being grown by former, or current, wheat farmers, there is a dramatic difference in how their product reaches the consumer.
Himself a former wheat farmer, Rick Small says he knew he would need to be more vertically integrated to make it in farming. “We produce wonderful wheat in Washington, but it’s all com- mingled. You don’t get anything extra. You don’t get the recognition. No one comes up to you and says, gee, I just had the bushel of wheat that you guys grew over on that hill. And I realize this wheat doesn’t make bread. It’s too bad.”
Small, the Gordons, and others I talked with want to see Washington agriculture further explore that vertical integration, the direct marketing, the connection to the consumer that Washington wine has accomplished. Not only do they like to know where their wines are going, they like to know where their food’s coming from.
The model, however, is valid only to a point. Ted Baseler of Chateau Ste. Michelle observes that wine grapes are different from other crops. They are not commodities, he says, and they have tremendous differentiation.
The first distinction is price variability. “If you go into a grocery store and look at apples, there might be some minor price variation,” says Baseler, “but it’s a small percentage difference. But if you look at wine, you find a product with dramatic variation. A wine list can include an $18 bottle and a $1,000 bottle.”
Those variations are dictated by quality, scarcity, and image, says Baseler. He calls wine a “cultural crop.”
Admittedly, no one envisions an end product for wheat, or even apples, that could result in such variation. However, says Small, “I’ve always argued that other guys in the Walla Walla Valley should do more of the same. I think the guys who grow onions could do it.
“Our way of doing ag in the United States is to just produce the raw product, with value stuck on by big corporations; and agriculturists—the people with dirt under their nails—are just getting screwed.”
Small praises the new White House-Crawford restaurant in Walla Walla for giving credit to individual farmers for the local food that they serve. Producing local food for local markets and drawing in outside visitors to enjoy those local flavors is the direction many desire.
And wine provides the lead. Tourism and hospitality are not a panacea and are not without associated problems, but they can help effect a change toward making agriculture more diverse, more consumer oriented, more cultural.
There are 200 commercially grown crops in
Washington, says Jeff Gordon. Let’s explore the sense of place
expressed by those diverse crops.
“The neat thing about Washington right now,” says Gordon, “it’s all frontier.