I have many reasons to love wine. One is for the memories evoked when a bottle is shared. They might include the meal, the setting or the friends I'm with. Often, it's all three.
Perhaps even more is the history that wine brings. At their very essence, special bottles of wines capture a moment like nothing else. They are time capsules of a vintage, a season during which grower and vintner toiled to produce a beverage that then changes, develops and evolves for weeks, months, years or even decades.
Every bottle of wine tells a story. Sometimes, it's a romance novel or a playful haiku. More often than not, it's a brief story in a mass medium. On rare occasions, it's an epic, a masterful work that reveals itself one chapter at a time.
I love how wine tells a story. Perhaps it is my background as a newspaperman. Perhaps it goes back to my time in college, when I minored in history. Perhaps it's a natural curiosity. Perhaps it's simply an excuse to enjoy wines so I can understand where they came from and what they have to tell us.
On the grand scale of civilization's efforts to craft wine, the Pacific Northwest would seem to be woefully short on history. Grapes have been grown in Washington since perhaps 1825, according to Ron Irvine's important book The Wine Project: Washington State's Winemaking History (1997, Sketch Publications), but anything resembling an industry didn't show up until 1905, when Stone House Winery got started in the Yakima Valley.
About that time, a Canadian named William B. Bridgman showed up in Washington. He was a proponent of irrigation and twice was elected mayor of Sunnyside. In 1914, he began planting grapes. The first vines he put in the soil were not classic European wine grapes, but he began to go in that direction in 1917 when he planted, among other varieties, Thompson Seedless and Muscat of Alexandria. The latter is among the oldest wine grapes in history, owing its name to the Egyptian city where it was used to make wine.
Our nation's dubious, misguided effort to rid itself of alcohol consumption began to gain traction about the same time and officially started just three years later, so Bridgman had to suffer through 14 years of Prohibition before he could resume his vision for what Washington should become. When America came to its senses and repealed the 18th Amendment, he was among the first get started, launching Upland Winery. It lasted nearly 40 years.
Bridgman envisioned a Washington that could produce wines on par with California, even Europe. When he died in 1968, he might well have seen his hard work and hopes as nothing more than failure. He certainly had not been able to make commercially successful dry table wines from vinifera grapes as he'd hoped. But he did something more important: He got the industry started, then he nurtured it by convincing a scientist named Walter Clore that wine grapes were viable in Eastern Washington.
These days, Clore is known as "the father of Washington wine," the Johnny Appleseed of the industry who convinced so many to plant grapes throughout the region (including British Columbia). Clore, who passed away in 2003, is rightly revered in these parts. A wine center in Prosser is being named after him. Washington's largest producer has honored him on the label of its finest wine.
Yet time has left Bridgman largely in the shadows.
Back in 1993, Washington Hills launched a label called Bridgman Cellars to honor the man. Four years later, Irvine's book told his story and helped a new generation learn about Bridgman and understand his importance to the state. Yet he has remained largely unnoticed and forgotten.
Through the decades, however, something remarkable occurred: A few of those vines Bridgman planted in 1917 survived. After Bridgman died, Al Newhouse bought the vineyards on Snipes Mountain near Sunnyside. A few rows of Muscat of Alexandria, Thompson Seedless and Black Monukka from 1917 remained, as did a block of Black Muscat that Bridgman planted in the 1950s.
In 2006, Newhouse's grandson Todd launched called Upland Estates. (Read more about the new Snipes Mountain AVA on Page 62.) The grapes for the new Upland wines come from Snipes Mountain, where the vision for the Washington wine industry began nearly a century ago. Upland's repertoire includes an ice wine made from those ancient Muscat grapes.
In the throes of harvest last fall, I visited Upland Vineyards. I was most interested in seeing those old soldiers. The trunks of some of the Thompson Seedless vines were so large, I would have struggled to wrap my arms around them, and some of the clusters were three feet long. It was an honor to taste those grapes, to walk where Bridgman had walked, to feel his presence amid these elder statesmen and to hear the reverence with which Todd Newhouse - who wasn't yet born when Bridgman passed away - spoke about the pioneer, the man he dubs "the grandfather of Washington wine."
On a rainy day in late February, I returned to those old vines. With Newhouse's permission, I took some cuttings from the Thompson Seedless to replant in my backyard. It's a way for me to have a connection to Bridgman, an opportunity to honor him in my own small way.
Last November at the annual Tri-Cities Wine Festival, an Upland Malbec won best in show. And somewhere in the mist of that late autumn day, amid those special old vines, the spirit of William B. Bridgman was smiling.
ANDY PERDUE is editor-in-chief of Wine Press Northwest.