Clean plant material fundamental
Tedd Wildman has long been on a quest to ensure that growers have access to clean plant material.
The young vines in grow tubes are replants due to disease-contaminated plant material.
When Tedd Wildman began planting lesser-known red wine grape varieties on Washington State’s Wahluke Slope ten years ago, he was careful to source plant material from certified nurseries. But not careful enough.
At the time, certified plant material was in short supply in the Pacific Northwest and the United States, particularly for some of the more “exotic” varieties like Tempranillo, Malbec, Primitivio, Cinsault, Mourvedre, Barbera, and such that comprised most of what he planted in the early 2000s. Though he was careful to source only certified material from the out-of-state nurseries, in retrospect, he realizes he should have tested it for virus on his own.
“I’ve been pulling out individual vines since I started planting,” he said. His disease-contamination experience at Stone Tree Vineyard only reinforced to him the importance of clean plant material and availability, an issue he has focused on for decades. It spurred his involvement in revitalizing the original Washington State University grape foundation block to create the Northwest Grape Foundation Service, ensuring that all grape growers and nurseries have access to disease-free plant material. Moreover, he’s been involved at the national level to strengthen the nation’s grape clean plant centers and programs.
Before becoming a wine grape grower, Wildman was a private viticultural consultant for about 15 years. He was ready to transition to the grower category—and even had a site picked out—but needed a financial partner. He met his partner Mark Wheeler, a pediatrician, during an introductory winemaking educational course through introductions by Jack Watson, retired Washington State University extension educator. “Jack pointed him out to me. He said, ‘This guy is looking to invest in some vineyard property.’ When I asked Mark what he had in mind, he said he wanted to purchase about 40 acres. I told him I had something in mind, except that it was a little bit bigger, but that it was ‘sexy’ ground.”
The “little bit bigger” site was a 250-acre apple orchard near Mattawa on the Wahluke Slope. The south-facing, high elevation ground had good air drainage, was owned by the state Department of Natural Resources, and came with contract irrigation water.
With great confidence in the warm site, he planted mostly red varieties that at the time were considered exotic. Now, varieties like Mourvedre and Petit Verdot seem less exotic and are in demand by many wineries. He planted one token white, Viognier, in 2006 when the vineyard planting was completed. Wildman chose varieties that were challenging or difficult to grow, such as Grenache, and when feasible, planted different clones of the same variety to offer wineries blending options. More than 15 varieties are planted in 50-some blocks.
Clonal selection was based largely on data from California because research data on clones grown in Washington was not available. For the clones, he planted small blocks—some less than an acre—so that if they didn’t work out, it would be “oh well” instead of “oh no.”
“So far, I haven’t picked any dogs,” he said.
Initially, much of the tonnage was contracted to Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. Stone Tree Vineyard now supplies nearly 30 wineries, including notables like Allen Shoup’s Long Shadows wineries, which produce a collection of ultra-premium wines.
Wildman believes that the Wahluke Slope is the ideal location for wine grapes. It has it all—water, good soil, a frost-free climate, and available labor in the area. Though the vineyard is all planted, with no room for more vines, he’s not necessarily through planting. “I’m all done here,” he said, “But I’ve got my eyes on some other sites.”