Book Review: The Wine Project—Washington State’s Winemaking History

By John ~ August 17th, 2009.

The Wine Project—Washington State’s Winemaking History by Ronald Irvine with Walter J. CloreAs a student of history as well as Washington wine, it was probably inevitable that I eventually found a copy of this book, The Wine Project—Washington State’s Winemaking History by Ronald Irvine with Walter J. Clore. Ronald Irvine founded Pike and Western Wine Shop in Seattle in 1975. In 1991, he sold his ownership and began working at Vashon Winery, where he is now owner/winemaker. Dr. Walter Clore is generally recognized as the “father” of Washington’s wine industry. This book is basically a compilation of notes and observations that Ron Irvine made as a result of a series of trips he and Dr. Clore took through Washington wine country between 1992 and 1996, reliving its history and visiting with some of its pioneers.

Because this book was published in 1997 and is no longer in distribution, it was not that easy to find. Thankfully, I was able to locate a couple of copies, autographed by the authors, through Amazon. It was definitely worth the search. Until reading this book, I thought that the wine industry in Washington started in the 1950’s and 60’s with Associated Vintners (now Columbia Winery) and American Wine Growers (now Chateau Ste. Michelle). But I found out from this book that the first known planting of grapevines in what is today Washington State was at Fort Vancouver in 1825, and the first Washington winery was founded in 1874 by John Galler of East Wenatchee.

I was fascinated as Ron Irvine described how the Washington wine industry was profoundly and irreversibly changed by four almost simultaneous developments during the 1950’s and 1960’s:

  1. The state legislature passed what was known as the California Wine Bill that paved the way for varietal wines.
  2. The sheer competitive drive of American Wine Growers and its refusal to be outdone by California or any Washington upstart.
  3. The remarkable home winemaker group that started Associated Vintners and produced the state’s first premium wines.
  4. The Wine Project, led by Dr. Clore with important contributions by Vere Brummund, George Carter, and Chas Nagel, that linked winemakers with grape growers through the extraordinary research efforts at the Prosser Research and Extension Center.

I was shocked to read that by 1973 there were effectively only two active wineries left in the state, American Wine Growers and Associated Vintners.  Everyone else was out of business or close to being out of business. In fact, it wasn’t until 1986 that the Washington wine industry out-produced its previous best year of 1947. And if AWG visionary Wally Opdycke hadn’t been able to attract venture capital from U.S. Tobacco, we certainly would not have the wine industry we have in Washington State today. Fortunately, U.S. Tobacco had deep pockets and was willing to let Opdycke implement his visionary business plan. As they say, the rest is history.

The remainder of the book describes the tremendous growth of the Washington wine industry since 1973 and the stories of some of the most prominent growers, winemakers, and wineries since then. I really enjoyed reading about the contributions of people like Mike Wallace, Bill Preston, Rob Griffin, Fred Artz, Mike Sauer, Tom Hedges, David Lake, Mike Hogue, Alec Bayless, Mike Januik, Charlie Hoppes, Doug Gore, Rick Small, Gary Figgins, Alex Golitzin, Allen Shoup, and many, many others too numerous to mention. It is also very sobering to read the stories of the many growers and winemakers who for one reason or another have fallen by the wayside despite their important contributions to the state’s wine industry, which now numbers over 650 wineries and 350 growers.

If you appreciate Washington State wine, you’ll love this book. I think I’ll go and drink a glass of Columbia Crest Walter Clore Reserve as a toast to the man and to the future.

Filed under: American Wine, Washington State Wine, Wine Books

Reader's Comments

  1. Paul Zitarelli | August 17th, 2009 at 1:31 pm

    Sounds fascinating, John! I just ordered a copy.

  2. John | August 17th, 2009 at 3:47 pm

    That’s great, Paul. I know you’ll really like it.