Mavericks... That’s what they were...Rootin’, Tootin’ Mavericks. They listened to some “All-Hat-No-Cattle” advisors; those without risk in the game. They planted wine grapes where alfalfa grew to sell to exactly 2 wineries in Washington State, whose collective production capacity was maybe 500 cases. It wasn’t long before other wineries and home winemakers started gobbling up the grapes, but during so many of the formative years in the early 1970s the grapes that now are award-winning Riesling and Gewurztraminer were made into grape juice. That’s right, the first few vintages of what were blended into apple juice and grape juice.
And when these Buckaroos sold these grapes to the juice plants, the price often times equaled the growing and harvest costs minus a few bucks. Sometimes the crop just went to the birds... literally. My old pal Bill Preston, a point-rider in the grape biz, was all horned and rattled one night at the Chapter 11 Bar and Restaurant in Kennewick (now the DMV). He told me, “Coco (his nickname for me), those sons-a (expletive) are only getting give me 40 bucks a ton for my grapes, so to hell with ‘em, I’m gonna hire me a winemaker and build my own damn winery.” And he did. Many wineries started due to bodacious prices, so some growers bit the bullet and added value.
So you have a bunch of cowpokes that didn’t know how to grow wine grapes, growing wine grapes, then making wine without most knowing how to make wine. With rare exception, farmers are paid by crop size, but if you ask any wine- maker, they will tell you that is generally not the correct recipe for good wine. On this his feral lot they planted grapes in places where frost and cold weather was a known; poured on the fertilizer (bad); poured on the water (worse); rationalized that more leaves would produce more sugar necessary to get that big crop ripe (sounds right, but ain’t necessarily); harvested grapes oftentimes well after the first frost (dangerous). And it wasn’t just a couple acres, and it wasn’t just farmers. Led by attorney Alec Bayless, the behemoth and diversified Sagemoor Vineyards and their sister Bacchus and Dionysus plantings, were and still are huge.
The use of mostly half-cocked cultural practices would normally lead to disaster. But not with this group. They were industry shepherds for the most part and either figured things out on their own or learned in cahoots with others on how to shape up their vineyards to make good wine. And it helped having a few city slickers show up, those that had an education in grape growing, like hired guns; Dr. Wade Wolfe, Maury Balcom and Jerry Bookwalter, among others.
So those wranglers led the way to what we had until a few moons ago. For the most part, all were satisfied with German varieties like Riesling and Gewurztraminer, and the northern French varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, etc. Now we’ve got a new group with chutzpah (for you Yiddish cowboys out there) that are taking the leap of faith like those original, agricultural entrepreneurs. The greenhorns have come raging in like Hoss Cartwright planting Miss-Kittie tender Mediterranean wine grape varieties out here in this semi – arid, Hades-hot during the summer, well-digger’s butt-cold during the winter, climate. Italian varieties like Sangiovese, Nebbilio, Barbera and Dolcetto, et al. I mean, it’s not as bamboozling as planting oranges, but site selection is narrow, and different cultural practices are required, i.e. pruning, thinning, watering, etc. By all rights, they should bite the dust.
This edition of Wine Press Northwest pay some strong attention to Italian varieties that you may never have heard of, and some are so rare that you just can’t find them out of their areas of origin. Homegrown Italian varieties are so much fun to try because the flavors they present are different than what we are used to for the most part. If you are red meat eater, it’s kind of like the difference between beef and elk, with a vegetable counterpart being spinach and collard greens. Italian varieties offer a change of pace to the stuff you normally drink, not to mention as you broaden your food base, many of these wines appeal to that breadth. All good reasons to give them a shot.
Indeed, some of the normal names have become familiar with make a few boxes of Italian varieties from time to time. What is so impressive is that many of the names of wineries you will find in this edition of Wine Press Northwest are wineries even I haven’t heard of, and, hell, I drink wine all the time! These Pilgrims focus on these crazy varieties that are planted in an area that no one in their right mind would plant. Not even an old hand like Maury Balcom’s could fight the 2010 winter and the low temps killed his Sangiovese dead.
So here’s to those who financially bite the bullet, choosing roads not yet traveled, cutting a new history for the Northwest out of whole cloth. I commend you to try these unique and fun Italian varieties that are recommended in this edition, sharing them with friends at the chuck wagon accompanied by Sowbelly and a Corn Dodger, in moderation, frequently.
--COKE ROTH is an attorney who lives in Richland, Wash. He is an original member of Wine Press Northwest’s tasting panel. Learn more about him at cokerothlaw.com.
This story was originally published September 2, 2013 12:00 AM.