The Wahluke Slope is often considered the backbone of the Washington wine industry, and no one embodies this region more than Milbrandt Vineyards.
The Wahluke Slope American Viticultural Area stretches across a remote corner of the Columbia Valley for 13 miles near the towns of Mattawa and Desert Aire. It's essentially a gravel bar created 12,000 years ago near the end of the last ice age. The Columbia River creates its boundaries on two sides, with the Saddle Mountains on the north.
Federally approved in 2006, it covers nearly 81,000 acres. It has a well-earned reputation for its ability to ripen red wine grapes consistently and seems impervious to Eastern Washington's occasionally harsh and vine-damaging winters, a trait that helps the region be a consistent supplier of hearty wine grapes vintage after vintage.
The Milbrandt brothers — Butch and Jerry — entered the wine scene when they decided to begin planting wine grapes in 1997. Today, they have 13 vineyards spanning nearly 2,000 acres. Together, they have helped put both the Wahluke Slope and the nearby Ancient Lakes of Columbia Valley AVAs on the map.
They were born into a farming family that moved from the Midwest to Oregon in the 1950s, then later to the Columbia Basin town of Quincy, where they farmed 160 acres of various crops. Their pivot was on a bit of a whim.
"Well, I was having lunch with (grape grower) Jack Jones one day," Butch said. "He was going down to Columbia Crest next week and take a tour, and so I went along. When I came back that day, I had a contract with 80 acres of grapes. And that's how it happened. Just that simple. It was that kind of a fluke, but it's not unusual for farmers who do that sort of thing because each year you're looking at the crop you grew last year."
For a few years, they focused on growing for others, including Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. The brothers’ Evergreen Vineyard, planted in 1998, has since expanded to more than 1,200 acres. Famed for its Riesling, the fruit has been the centerpiece for some of Washington's top wines, including Ste. Michelle’s Eroica collaboration with famed German Riesling producer Ernst Loosen.
In 2007, no longer satisfied only with selling grapes to others, the Milbrandts created their own brand, Milbrandt Vineyards, with a winery in Mattawa and a tasting room in Prosser's Vintner's Village. They've since opened additional tasting rooms in Woodinville and the Cascade town of Leavenworth.
Thanks to consistently ripe grapes from the Wahluke Slope and the high-acid wines from the Ancient Lakes region, Milbrandt has been able to produce wines that consistently resonate with consumers and critics. Because they use their own fruit, they're able to control costs, so their wines are often affordably priced.
In Wine Press Northwest's annual Platinum Judging, Milbrandt has earned an impressive 10 Platinum medals through the first 19 years of the competition.
Additionally, last fall, Wine Spectator magazine ranked Milbrandt's 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon No. 43 on its annual Top 100 wines of the world. At $17, it ranks among the best bargains on the prestigious list.
In recent years, the company has gone through a restructuring. When Butch turned 70, he started to think about retirement, but he loved the wine industry and wanted to stay in it. He and Jerry decided to split the assets. Jerry loved farming, so he kept the majority of the vineyards as well as the custom-crush facility in Mattawa — Wahluke Wine Co. Butch kept Milbrandt Vineyards and Ryan Patrick, a brand they had purchased a few years prior. Butch also held onto the vineyards around his home that overlooks the Columbia River near Sentinel Gap.
With Kendall Mix as his winemaker, Butch and his son, Buck, pushed forward with building those up to a combined 80,000 cases. Mix, a former Ste. Michelle winemaker, heads up both brands, though they are differentiated by their fruit sources, including highly regarded Elephant Mountain in the Rattlesnake Hills.
During the past two decades, the Milbrandts have helped to shape the emergence of the Wahluke Slope and Ancient Lakes regions. And that is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.
ANDY PERDUE is the founding editor of Wine Press Northwest magazine and now is the editor and publisher of Great Northwest Wine and the wine columnist for The Seattle Times.