Top 10 NW wine stories, fresh off the vine

By Andy Perdue, Herald staff writer January 3, 2009 

It was another year of interesting stories and big news in Pacific Northwest wine country.

Weather was a big issue for growers and winemakers.

Wineries and vineyards came under new ownership, a giant in the British Columbia wine world stepped away, and we lost Papa Pinot.

With that, here are my top 10 stories for 2008 from the wine regions of Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Idaho.

More perfection for Quilceda Creek

In July, Robert Parker's Wine Advocate awarded Quilceda Creek Vintners a perfect score of 100 for its 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon. It was the third perfect 100 for Quilceda Creek in the past four years, making the Snohomish producer the first winery in the world to achieve this using Bordeaux varieties.

Shoup group buys Wallula Vineyards

Allen Shoup, former CEO of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, led a group in May that purchased the 650-acre Wallula Vineyards in the eastern Horse Heaven Hills in Washington. Shoup is founder of Long Shadows Vintners in Walla Walla, which produces several wines crafted by winemakers from around the world using Washington grapes. Wallula Vineyards was planted in 1997 by the den Hoed family on dramatic cliffs overlooking the Columbia River.

Three Rivers Winery sold

In February, Bill Foley of Foley Wine Group in Santa Barbara, Calif., purchased Three Rivers, the 14th winery to open in Walla Walla. Foley owns such wineries as Foley Estates, Lincourt Vineyards and Firestone Vineyard.

Three Rivers opened in 1999 and almost immediately was hailed as a top destination winery, thanks to its high-quality wines and beautiful tasting room. Duane Wollmuth, one of the three original owners, maintains a minority ownership and stayed on as general manager. Holly Turner remains as winemaker.

Battle over AgriVino

John Stewart, an entrepreneur from Las Vegas who owns the Abbey Road B&B in Carlton, Ore., wanted to create a wine-tasting experience like none other, so he launched AgriVino Wine Center in a former horse barn on his rural property.

The key to the operation was a self-serve wine-tasting machine. Stewart thought he had everything lined up with state authorities until the Oregon Liquor Control Commission shut him down in May, saying the operation violated a number of state regulations. A legal battle was averted when Stewart sold the self-serve machine to an employee, who planned to move it to Portland and operate it under current regulations.

Precept Brands continues expansion

Precept Brands of Seattle continued to expand its operations and reach in 2008. The 5-year-old company, headed by former Corus Brands CEO Andrew Browne, announced it was building a 53,000-square-foot operation in Walla Walla that would make 250,000 cases of wine yearly. Then the value-minded producer purchased 50 percent of two Yakima Valley wineries: Apex Cellars and Willow Crest, both in Prosser. Precept already was producing 600,000 cases of wine yearly, making it the state's third-largest wine company.

McWatters retires

Harry McWatters, the man primarily responsible for pulling the British Columbia wine industry into the 20th and 21st centuries, retired from Sumac Ridge Estate Winery in Summerland at the end of April. It ended a 40-year career as a winemaker and winery owner. McWatters helped start the wildly successful Okanagan Wine Festivals -- of which there now are four -- as well as the Vintners Quality Alliance, a standards system for B.C. wines.

McWatters is not completely out of the industry. His plans included establishing the Okanagan Wine Academy, a wine-education program for consumers. He'll also remain president of Black Sage Vineyard near Oliver and plans to finish a cookbook on B.C. cuisine.

Weather

How weather affects a particular vintage always is a story in wine country. But in 2008, it was a big issue. A cool spring led to late bud break across the Pacific Northwest, and it seemed the region as a whole never quite caught up.

Harvest started at least a week later than normal, but fortunately warm temperatures in September and October allowed winemakers to bring their grapes in at proper levels of ripeness. In December, an arctic front hit the entire Northwest and threatened to injure vines in Washington's Columbia Valley.

Washington wine deaths

Charles Lill, co-founder of DeLille Cellars in Woodinville, passed away Jan. 12. He founded the winery with his son Greg and two others with the purpose of producing Bordeaux-style blends and was a quiet force and visionary in the industry for nearly two decades. On Sept. 15, Rich Higginbotham, co-owner of E.B. Foote Winery in Burien, died. He and his wife, Sherrill, bought the winery in 1991 from Eugene Foote and turned it into an award-winning operation.

Ascentia buys Northwest wineries

In June, three of the Northwest's largest wineries came under new ownership. Columbia Winery and Covey Run Winery in Woodinville and Ste. Chapelle in Nampa, Idaho, were sold by Constellation Brands to a new company called Ascentia Wine Estates, based in California's Sonoma County. All three wineries had been owned by Corus Brands until they were sold in 2001. Ascentia later said that the wineries' focus on Riesling was a big reason it pursued the brands. In December, Ascentia announced it would not be closing Columbia's tasting room, reversing a decision by Constellation.

David Lett dies

In early October, the Northwest wine industry lost a man known as "Papa Pinot." Lett came to Oregon's Willamette Valley in 1965 with 3,000 baby vines and planted them in the Dundee Hills. He called his winery and vineyard operation Eyrie Vineyards. In 1979, his 1975 South Block Pinot Noir ranked highly in a prestigious Paris tasting of Pinot Noirs, putting Oregon on the world wine map. He also was the first to plant Pinot Gris in the state.

* Andy Perdue is editor-in-chief of Wine Press Northwest, a quarterly wine magazine owned by the Tri-City Herald.

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