Mid-Columbia's most juicy legacy — wine grapes

For the Tri-City HeraldSeptember 30, 2012 

If not for the Dust Bowl of the 1930s or the veterans lottery, chances are the Claar family wouldn’t be growing wine grapes in the Columbia Valley.

In 1979, Army veteran Russell Claar first planted riesling along the Columbia River’s White Bluffs north of Pasco. A few years later, his daughter Crista, and son-in-law Bob Whitelatch left active duty in the Navy to run the vineyard.

“I’m an only child, so my dad hoped I would find a man who would want to be a farmer,” Crista Claar Whitelatch said. “He didn’t think it would be a Navy man, though.”

Their family vineyard contributes to an annual economic impact that the Washington Wine Commission was valued at $8.6 billion within the state. It’s almost tripled in the past five years.

The state’s 350 vineyards bear a combined 44,000 acres of wine grapes, a distant No. 2 in the country to California with 543,000 acres.

White Bluffs Vineyard began with riesling — Washington’s No. 1 wine grape — and includes cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot gris, sangiovese and sauvignon blanc.

“It’s a unique growing environment, about 500 feet above the Columbia River and looks straight across Hanford to Red Mountain,” Claar Whitelatch said. “It’s on a classic south-facing slope with caliche soils that are really fantastic. The vines like the dry soil, and it’s all on drip irrigation.”

The family also grows cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, malbec, petite sirah, syrah and viognier on blocks near Taylor Flats Road.

Their combined plantings cover 120 acres, and there are plans to expand to 200 acres as the farm continues to be transitioned from apples, apricots, potatoes, onions and alfalfa. Wine grapes require less water than many crops.

“My dad was born in Kansas during the Dust Bowl, and his father lost the farm and was told to give up farming because of his health,” she said. “My grandfather saw a flier about Washington, so he moved the family to Pullman and became a policeman.”

Ross Claar was the first of three law enforcement officers shot and killed during Pullman’s Easter Massacre of 1949.

His son, Russell Ross Claar, graduated from Washington State College in 1942 with an architectural engineering degree, joined the Army and went to fight in World War II.

“He came back and worked for GE on the design team for the N Reactor,” Claar Whitelatch said. “At that same time, the farms on the blocks were starting to come under irrigation, and they had the veterans lottery. He applied and bought one of the farms.”

He won the rights to Block 15, Unit 94 in the Columbia Basin Project Farm Lottery. In time, Claar Whitelatch’s maternal grandfather, Ed Albro of Sunnyside, bought Unit 206 nearby and offered a remarkable prediction.

“He loved this area, and in the early ’50s, he stood out on the bluff overlooking the Columbia and said, ‘This will be vineyard someday,’ ” she said.

Now it’s White Bluffs Vineyard.

Claar Whitelatch grew up in Richland — just a few houses from future Red Mountain vintner Tom Hedges — but the Claars left Hanford to work in the Puget Sound area and leased the farm for almost 30 years. In 1979, they retired and began to spend more time on the White Bluffs. And Russ planted those riesling vines.

Four years later, Claar Whitelatch transitioned to the Naval Reserve and her husband, Bob, retired from the military, which had prepared him for vineyard and winery work.

“The Navy taught him about pumps, and he learned to weld from the enlisted people because if something breaks at sea, there is nobody to call,” she said. “You get out the manual and learn how to fix it.”

The next year, 1984, the federal government established the Columbia Valley American Viticultural Area. Claar Whitelatch said her family is considering filing a petition to create a White Bluffs AVA.

For years, the family sold its fruit to large wineries such as Chateau Ste. Michelle and Washington Hills.

“We’ve also sold juice to wineries in New York and Iowa, and we’re still selling to South Carolina — tanker trucks with 6,000 gallons — all over the U.S.,” she said. “Washington has such quality fruit that other states like to use it in small percentages to help their own wines.”

International magazine Wine Spectator ranked eight Washington wines on its famous Top 100 list of 2011.

The Whitelatch boys carry the names of both families and have become rooted in the business. James Claar Whitelatch, 24, graduated from Kennewick High School’s international baccalaureate program and manages the vineyards. John Claar Whitelatch, 29, a Pasco High School grad, heads up marketing and sales.

Their vineyards earned designations as Salmon Safe and Low Input Viticulture & Enology (LIVE) for sustainable practices, which also helps growers market their fruit.

“It’s a two-year process that involves setting aside natural habitat and working off a list of usable pesticides and chemicals,” she said. “We’ve found that restaurants and our retail customers on the East Coast really like wines promoting sustainable practices, so our 2011 and 2012 wines will have the Salmon Safe and LIVE logos on them.”

Vineyard plantings in the Taylor Flats block allow for machine harvesting. White Bluffs requires hand-harvesting, which is costlier and preferred by many winemakers.

“Labor has been OK this year,” she said. “(In 2012) we had 40 to 50 people picking. We have a full-time crew of nine, and but we have a lot of the same people who come back year to year.”

The Claar family operates a tasting room along Interstate 82 in Zillah and recently took control of Le Chateau Winery, which it co-founded with Dick and Dianne Hoch of Kennewick. They closed the Walla Walla tasting room, but Claar grapes will continue to go into that label, as well as the flagship Claar Cellars label and value-minded Ridge Crest brand. That means the Claar Whitelatch clan operates three of Washington’s 739 wineries.

“The winery business is really harder than it looks, but making wine from your own grapes is value-added, more profit for the business,” she said. “We are selling most of our wine on the East Coast, and we’re looking at doing quite a bit of export in China and India. They say that India will outpace China in population.”

The 2012 crop lived up to expectations that it would be the largest wine grape crop in state history, yielding a record 188,000 tons — surpassing the 2010 mark of 160,000.

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