All of the vines at Badger Mountain Vineyard are trained to the Scott-Henry trellis system. Bill Powers says that the Scott-Henry is more labor intensive than other trellis systems but results in higher yields, making his 80-acre vineyard the equivalent of 100 acres.
Photo by Melissa Hansen
Long before organic foods were trendy, Bill Powers was growing his wine grapes organically and producing organic wines without the addition of sulfites. But he was so ahead of the times that he had to learn by doing—there were no books on the subject or body of university research to tap into.
Through trial and error and farmer ingenuity, Powers and his son Greg have mastered the techniques for successful organic production and winemaking and could now write their own book on organic viticulture and enology.
The father-son team developed the 80-acre, Badger Mountain Vineyard into the first organically certified vineyard in Washington State and with winery partner Tim DeCook established Badger Mountain Vineyard/ Powers Winery as the state’s largest organic winery.
It helps to be growing grapes in the semidesert climate of eastern Washington, a region that’s well suited to organic farming because of low insect and disease pressures from the relatively dry growing and harvest season. Nonetheless, there are still plenty of viticultural challenges to organic grape production.
Powers, 85, is a legend in Washington’s wine grape industry and was so honored by the Walter Clore Center and inducted into its Hall of Fame in 2010 for his 30 years of involvement in the wine grape industry. He also has been recognized for his progressive and innovative farming techniques, awarded the Lifetime Achievement and Grower of the Year by the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers.
Powers moved from drought-stricken western Oklahoma to Washington’s Columbia Basin in 1956, lured by abundant irrigation water from the Columbia Basin irrigation project and land available for farming. He’d grown peanuts, cotton, and wheat, but “didn’t know anything about irrigated agriculture.” He began leasing ground in Othello, first raising cattle and then planting apples to take advantage of his frost-free location.
It was a chain of events that spurred him into planting wine grapes. After the volcanic eruption of Mt. St. Helens in1980, he decided to get out of cattle. Immigration reform legislation was under debate by Congress, putting a dark cloud over the future availability of seasonal workers needed in the tree fruit industry. At the same time, Dr. Walter Clore, retired Washington State University horticulturist, was actively promoting wine grapes as a crop for eastern Washington—a crop that could be mechanically harvested.
Badger Mountain Vineyard beginnings
Powers found an ideal site for wine grapes on the south-facing slope of Badger Mountain near Kennewick. He and his son, then in his late teens, planted their first wine grapes in 1982. They initially focused on white varieties like Riesling, Chenin Blanc, and Gewürztraminer and obtained a contract with Columbia Crest Winery.
“I wasn’t going into wine grapes blindly,” Powers said, adding that he’d learned a lot of horticulture in his 20-some years of being an orchardist.
In 1986, which was to be his first big production year, he was told in April by the winery that although they would honor their grape contract, there were too many grapes in the state and prices would be reduced to $150 per ton.
Powers began looking for a more profitable home for his grapes. By July, he decided he needed his own winery to make bulk wine. He’d made cold sales calls to wineries on the East Coast, a region experiencing a short crop due to a harsh winter. Not only did he find some takers back there, but he has kept those long-distance relationships through the years and still today sends bulk wine to customers in the East.
With the start of harvest only two months away, he had little time to get the paperwork and licensing in place for a new winery. He secured a winery partner and received license and bonding approval in about three weeks— lightning speed for what takes most about three months to accomplish. By the first part of September, he had the legal go-ahead for the winery.
The vineyard shop was transformed into a temporary winery with 30,000-gallon stainless steel tanks put in place. However, there hadn’t been time to bring in a press to process the grapes. Powers tells that Rob Griffin, winemaker at the time for Hogue Cellars in Prosser, offered the use of their press equipment—but the press was only available at night. “So, I brought truck-trailers of whole grapes in, pressed the grapes, and then had another truck waiting to haul the grape juice right back.”
About 1,500 cases of wine were bottled in the winery’s first year in 1988.
Powers made the bold decision in 1987 to go organic in the vineyard and grow grapes without chemicals. Badger Mountain Vineyard became the first certified organic vineyard in the state in 1990.
“After many years of working with conventional chemicals, I simply found a better way,” he said.
But Powers and his son, who served as vineyard manager in the early years, had to find that better way pretty much by themselves.
“In the late 1980s, nobody within WSU had organic expertise and could help me,” he said, but added that Clore gave encouragement and told him ‘Sure you can go organic. We were all organic before 1945.’” In the early years, Powers met regularly with the staff of Fetzer Vineyards, an organic and sustainable practices pioneer in California’s wine grape industry, to share information.
Learning how to make wine without sulfites was even more challenging than growing the grapes organically. Although sulfur dioxide and sulfur agents have been used in food preservation and winemaking for centuries, and the sulfur chemicals are on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) list, sulfite agents are taboo in organic wine.
“There’s no book in the world that can tell you how to make your wine organically without sulfites,” Powers said, noting that conventional white wines today have sulfites in the range of 30 to 40 parts per million and red wines around 50 ppm. Wines without sulfites don’t keep as long and lose their freshness. To compensate, they’ve learned to leave wine in storage tanks longer and bottle more frequently, doing smaller bottle runs.