Cultivating a sense of place
Tasawik Vineyard owners tread softly.
Erik Dahle and Sara Broetje planted their vineyard on a bluff near Prescott, Washington.
Growing good wine grapes starts with good soil, water, and a good understanding of agriculture. But many growers also rely on an innate sense of place, a connection to the land and the climate and the other elements of a terroir that can distinguish a crop. Erik Dahle and Sara Broetje bring all of that to Tasawik Vineyards.
After completing a two-year program in viticulture at Washington State University at Prosser, Dahle is now enrolled in WSU's enology program. Broetje brings deep agricultural roots. She grew up on the hills above the Snake River, where her family's expansive orchards produce fruit they ship around the world. She met Dahle as a college student in Seattle, and the two of them returned to Prescott, Washington, in 2000 to help run Broetje Orchards. She has worked as the orchard's general manager, and Dahle manages all of Broetje Orchards's information systems.
Their vineyard sits on the edge of the orchard, and includes two acres of Merlot, three acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, one acre each of Sangiovese and Syrah, and one half acre of Viognier. They crushed their first wine in 2005. And in August, eight years after they started their venture, they opened the doors at their tasting room at the Winemakers Loft in Prosser.
Dahle and Broetje have been working to create the vineyard and winery for nearly a decade, but the story really began years ago, when Broetje was a child roaming the countryside surrounding her family's orchards on a four-wheeler, often visiting her favorite spot, a bluff sitting high above the Snake River on fractured basalt layered with silt and loam deposited by Ice Age floods. It's the spot where she and Dahle planted their vineyard.
Sense of place
A sense of place is the guiding element behind everything they do at Tasawik, Dahle said. The original Tasawik was a Native American village on the shores of the Snake River, Broetje explained, when the water at that time ran in violent rapids. It was the only respite Lewis and Clark found along that stretch of the Snake. A fish on the winery's label is a replica of a petrograph found at Tasawik before the site was flooded behind Ice Harbor Dam.
The vineyard has altered the landscape, but Dahle and Broetje employ methods that protect the natural biodiversity of the site. "We had the chance to go into an undisturbed dry area and leave the natural vegetation," Dahle said. "We tried not to disturb the natural environment. For the most part, we cut a trench and planted the vines and left everything else as it was." Instead of a cover crop between rows, "We have a nice mixture of natural weeds and sagebrush." Drip irrigation allows Dahle to tightly control the vineyard's water supply.
"It kind of follows the philosophy of the whole orchard," Broetje added. "We want to be really, really soft. We're virtually organic." Ralph Broetje, her father, focuses on natural methods of pest control like mating disruption, enabling him to avoid most chemical sprays. Her family's orchards, Broetje said, are "one pesticide away from being organic."
The vineyard's layout takes full advantage of the land's natural contours. It slopes to the southwest, with a change in elevation of around 800 feet from top to bottom. The upper rows are cradled between two sides of a wide crease in the hill, framed by basalt cliffs. At the lower end, Syrah grows on ground so steep and rocky that crews had to dig the terraces by hand. Those vines yield only about two tons per acre, Dahle said, but the quality is high. "The Syrah is showing a lot of promise there. I'd like to plant more of it. The only thing we're struggling with is the yield."
The small acreage of the vineyard and its rugged soils mean a lot of the work is done by hand, but Broetje said that brings extra advantages. "We can be very specific about controlling the quality," she said. Sangiovese grows just above the rows of Syrah, but shows a very different profile. "These vines are very vigorous, with huge grape clusters," Dahle said. "We have to thin a little more aggressively here."
As they expand the vineyard, Broetje said they'll continue to take advantage of the natural distribution of soils. She pointed out several fingers of land jutting from an ungraded section of the bluff. "Each one of those has a unique soil composition," she said. "We can plant unique varieties specific to each finger. That's going to dictate future plantings, and how much. We're going to carve out little niches and really focus on quality."
In October 2007, Tasawik moved into the Winemaker's Loft at Prosser's Vintners Village. It is one of five tenants at the loft, each with its own 500-square-foot tasting room and barrel storage.
Besides giving them access to a steady stream of tourists, the Winemaker's Loft enables Broetje and Dahle to bring everything under one roof, from crush to fermentation to barrel storage. Mike Haddox, who has made wines for Silver Lake and Columbia Crest, developed the studio with new winemakers in mind. All the tenants share the top-of-the-line equipment and lab he assembled, as well as Haddox's expertise. In addition, Haddox has been at their sides throughout the winemaking process, with advice on everything from sulfur dioxide levels to tips on how to help a wine in need of extra oxygen.
Tasawik's lease at the loft extends for three years, and includes a maximum crush capacity of 30 tons, with storage for up to 1,000 cases. The 2005 vintage produced around 620 cases. Broetje said they plan to sell about 70 percent of that from the tasting room, and the rest through contacts she is establishing at specialty wine shops and restaurants in the Seattle area. Wines include Tasawik Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and a reserve blend, all priced between $25 and $40, as well as a lower-priced red blend called Studio B, named for their address at the Winemaker's Loft. Broetje calls it "our groovy red blend," and plans to market it to wine drinkers between 22 and 40 years old.
When Tasawik wines debuted in April at the Yakima Valley's Spring Barrel Tasting, Broetje said the response confirmed their belief about the land. "There were hundreds of people who came through, and we got lots of really good comments on the reserve wines.
"You know, you work for years getting here, and you think it's good, but you don't really know," she said with a smile. "After Spring Barrel Tasting, we knew it was good."