Olsen brothers branch out
Apple growers have diversified to wine grapes.
Leif (left), Larry, and Dick Olsen grow premium wine grapes to the west of Red Mountain, shown in background.
Olsen Brothers Farms spreads over 2,000 acres northeast of Prosser, Washington, along the rolling hills of the Yakima River Valley, home to some of the best fruit trees in the world. “Apples are my first love,” said Larry Olsen with a smile. “Apples are such an interesting crop to grow. They’re a challenge, but it’s wonderful to feel so good about a product, and to send that out into the marketplace. We are producing something that is really good for people, and that’s really good to eat, too.”
But if his heart belongs to apples, a hefty portion of his land belongs to grapes. Nearly half—800 acres—is planted to wine grapes. Over the years, the Olsens’ crop has found its way into many of Washington’s famous wines, including Hogue, Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Crest, and others. But this year, a portion of the best of the crop will stay at home. The Olsens have begun construction on a new winery called Olsen Estates. Located at the Port of Benton’s North Prosser Business Park, the new wine production facility will include a crush pad, fermentation area, barrel and case goods storage, and tasting room, with a capacity to produce 12,000 cases annually.
Dick and Larry Olsen grew up in Prosser, a town where most families ride the ups and downs of the farm economy, but agriculture was not their family’s livelihood. Although their father had worked as an orchardist, he raised his family by operating a small grocery store. Still, farming was a part of their history. Their grandfather, a Norwegian emigrant, first planted fruit trees in Prosser in 1906. His grandsons found their way back to the fruits of the Mid-Columbia in 1972, when they bought 80 acres of apples, an investment that has since grown to produce a variety of crops, including hops, cherries, blueberries, and grapes.
But their résumés are heavy with apples, and both have served in a variety of posts. For example, Dick was president of the Washington State Horticultural Association in 1985 and chair of Tree Top in 2003-2005. Larry was chair of the Washington Apple Commission and of the U.S. Apple Association in 2004. Larry was even named the Vance Publishing’s National Apple Man of the Year in 2004.
But none of that has kept them out of the vineyard.
Neither of the Olsen brothers had planned a career in wine. For that matter, they hadn’t planned on farming anything at all. The brothers studied journalism and advertising in the 1960s at the University of Washington, and spent some time working in those fields. When their father’s heart disease disabled him, Dick left his job at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and returned to Prosser to help run the store. Family friend Grady Auvil urged him to consider buying an 80-acre orchard that included 75 acres of apples and five of cherries. Dick called his brother Larry, who was working in Los Angeles. Intrigued by a return to their roots, they bought the acreage. “We had it in our blood,” Larry said.
It’s a repeating pattern. Leif Olsen, Larry’s son, will oversee wine grape production for Olsen Estates. Like his father and his uncle, Leif avoided agriculture in college and studied business instead. But an internship at Chateau Ste. Michelle in Paterson, Washington, led to a job as a production manager, where he worked “hand-in-hand” with the vineyard managers and winemakers.” The roots that anchored Larry and Dick also had a hold on Leif, and he returned to Olsen Brothers Farms after six years at Chateau Ste. Michelle.
Today, Leif oversees 17 different varieties growing in the vineyards rising at an impressive elevation above the Yakima River, nearly a mirror image of the famed vines of Red Mountain sitting at eye level across the valley. The younger Olsen is enthusiastic about the quality of the wines coming out of his vines, although the vineyards’ diversity makes it difficult to pick one or two varieties that he’s willing to describe as the stars. “They’re all shaping up well,” he said.
If the Olsens didn’t come back to agriculture by design, they came loaded with good instincts. The first few years after buying the first orchard went well, and the brothers began adding land to their holdings.
“We realized that we would have to diversify if we wanted to continue to survive,” Larry said. “We’d seen some really good farmers that were losing their farms” because they focused on only one or two crops.
By 1980, the Olsens’ farm included nearly 800 acres of apples, cherries, hops, and Concord grapes. But that year, the brothers took a risk. They bought 30 acres of land devoted to wine grapes.
“There were very few people growing wine grapes at that time,” Larry said. “We realized that if the industry was going to be successful, getting in on the ground floor was going to be important. We were just putting our feet in the water.”
Their earliest vines were Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon, and they harvested their first crop with mixed success. “The Riesling did well. The Cabernet got frozen back to the ground,” Larry said. “We had done a poor job of preparing the vines for winter.”
Larry said that early experience etched an important principal into their minds—when planting wine grapes, location is paramount. Riesling, for example, can thrive where Merlot or Cabernet, which demand more heat, might suffer. They continued to expand grape production, paying close attention to site selection, but they also studied the demands of the marketplace. “We were looking at which vines we could produce well in Washington State, but also in the world market. That’s an advantage Dick and I have in farming,” Larry said. Their backgrounds in advertising and marketing had taught them that the consumer is king. “Instead of planting something and then trying to sell it, our goal has been to first find out what the consumer wants.”
The Olsens have aggressively diversified their crop mix throughout the operation. “We haven’t had Red Delicious apples for quite a few years,” Larry pointed out. The mix of apples they harvest reflects their sensitivity to changing consumer demands. Gala is their largest crop, followed by Braeburns and Fuji. They also grow Jazz, Pink Lady, and Granny Smith.
The Olsens’ grapes are evenly divided between red and white varieties, including Bordeaux standards like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc, as well as Syrah, Mouvedre, Cincault, Gewurtztraminer and Viognier, among others. They’ve weighted their production toward grapes, Larry said, because they’re a good hedge for other crops that are more vulnerable to drought. Apples, he points out, soak up as much as three acre-feet of water per season. Grapes thrive on 12 to 15 inches.
And now, after 25 years of contracting their grapes to a variety of different wineries, the Olsens will put their own name on some of their best. “We were producing all this fruit and seeing it go into bottles with labels like Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia Crest. We decided to show off our fruit in estate-bottled wines,” Larry said.
The new winery will produce two tiers of wines—Olsen Estates varietals, and two higher-quality premium blends, one a Rhone-style and one a Bordeaux. They have contracted with veteran winemaker Ron Bunnell to craft their wines. Their first release will be 2007.