April 2 passed this year with no fanfare. Few in the Washington wine industry paid attention to the date, other than to wonder how cool spring would be and how soon grapevines would awaken from their winter slumber.
Yet, it was the 40th anniversary of a monumental change. April 2, 1969, marked the first day of the modern Washington wine industry. That was when Gov. Dan Evans signed into law House Bill 100, commonly known as the California Wine Bill.
Perhaps the only person in the state of Washington to remember the importance of that day was Ron Irvine, owner of Vashon Winery and author of The Wine Project, the most important book ever written on Washington wine.
Prior to April 2, 1969, Washington winemakers enjoyed unparalleled protection from the growing California wine industry in the form of tariffs that made selling wine here difficult. After the California Wine Bill passed, Washington was forced to compete with California on a level playing field. At first, the California Wine Bill was devastating to Washington wineries, but today we can thank those who made it happen.
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Dating back to the repeal of Prohibition in the mid-1930s, Washington (like California) primarily made sweet, fortified wines sold in taverns. These were favored by the unsophisticated palates of consumers during that period and continued to be made well into the 1960s.
A few winemakers dabbled in high-quality European - or vinifera - wine grapes, including W.B. Bridgman, who grew Riesling and other varieties near Sunnyside. But most of these grapes were blended into wines often made with Concords or other non-vinifera varieties.
It wasn't until the early 1960s that American Wine Growers - the winery that became Chateau Ste. Michelle - began to dabble in vinifera-based wines as tastes in dry, lighter table wines grew. In 1962, a group of home winemakers led by University of Washington professor Lloyd Woodburne created Associated Vintners, the first Washington winery to work exclusively with vinifera grapes.
For years, the California wine industry saw great opportunities in the Pacific Northwest. According to Irvine's book, Californians crushed the nascent Oregon wine industry in the mid-'50s when protective tariffs were removed. Back then, Californians didn't think Washington had much of a future as a wine-producing state and hoped to flood the state with its emerging higher-quality table wines.
California nearly won the battle in 1967, according to The Wine Project, but fell one vote short of getting a bill passed in the Washington Legislature. The California wine lobby used brute-force tactics, basically buying votes to try to open what it saw as an important market. Back then, the Legislature was in session every other year, so the Californians eyed 1969 as the next opportunity to strike. They decided to take a different approach, which they ultimately found successful after a bruising battle in committees and with a Washington wine industry that very much realized it had to change but felt it needed more time to make it happen.
Irvine's meticulously researched and well-written 1997 book goes into great detail on the California Wine Bill and how it came to be, and it should be read by anyone who cares about Washington wine.
One of the key moments of the battle, Irvine points out, was when Dr. Walter Clore of the Washington State University research station in Prosser testified before state lawmakers. Clore, known as the father of Washington wine, had been researching the viability of European wine grapes in Washington since 1937 and was convinced the state could compete with California wines in quality. He said as much that day in Olympia:
"We have investigated the varieties of wines that are known around the world for their high quality in producing premium wines, such as Chardonnay, Semillon, White Riesling, Chenin Blanc, and others. Red wines would be Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Grenache and others," Clore said, as quoted in The Wine Project. "Many of these grapes here are more productive in our climate than in California, particularly when compared to the fine areas of the Bay region around San Francisco," he added. "We feel, if our research continues to prove this point, that we can compete very favorably in producing top table and varietal wines with any other region in the United States, and we can do it with California, and we can do it with other parts of the world."
Clore understood what few others could at that point: Washington had the potential to thrive if given the opportunity. However, as long as protective tariffs kept higher-quality California wines at bay, Washington winemakers would have few reasons to take on the challenge.
When House Bill 100 passed and became law, the state was flooded with California wine and Washington residents began to have access to wines of greater quality at fair prices. As expected, many wineries went out of business, and it took a few years for the industry to recover.
Yet it re-emerged in the 1970s. AV (which later became Columbia Winery) and Ste. Michelle led the way, and important vineyards were planted. Sagemoor Farms north of Pasco was planted in the early 1970s, as was Mercer Ranch Vineyards (now Champoux Vineyards) in the Horse Heaven Hills. Preston Wine Cellars and Hinzerling Winery opened in 1976, followed by Leonetti in 1977 and Quilceda Creek in 1978.
There is little doubt Washington would have become an important wine-producing region without the California Wine Bill, but it would have done so kicking and screaming as it clung to its sweet, fortified past. The California Wine Bill forced the issue, and we can be thankful for it every time we raise a glass of Washington wine.
ANDY PERDUE is editor-in-chief of Wine Press Northwest.