One of Washington State’s southernmost vineyards, planted within a mile of the Columbia River near Dallesport by Don Graves, is also one of the older vineyards in the state.
Graves, 93, remembers first meeting Dr. Walter Clore, Washington State University extension horticulturist, in the late 1950s. Clore is credited with founding the state’s modern wine industry.
“Dr. Clore came down here and thought that this area would be an ideal grape-growing region,” said Graves during an interview with Good Fruit Grower last fall. “He was a very nice man.”
At Clore’s urging, Graves planted a test plot with the planting material supplied by Clore. “We planted 24 different varieties, and they all did very well,” said Graves. “Once the vines began producing, George Carter of WSU made wines out of the fruit. They especially liked the Grenache wines, and Clore would take the Grenache wine with him on elk-hunting trips.”
In the early 1960s, Graves decided to expand the test plot and turn his pasture into Graves’s Vineyard. He planted 16 acres of grapes.
Graves said he was nervous about how the grapes would survive the winters. “In 1949 when I got out of the service, it got down to minus 25 degrees, so cold that the Columbia River froze over,” he said, adding that he walked across the river to The Dalles, Oregon.
“That winter was always in the back of my mind, but it’s never been that cold since,” he said. “I’ve never lost a crop to winter temperatures and only had one year where I had a short crop because of a cold spring.” The close proximity to the Columbia River has a great moderating effect on temperatures.
The varieties he planted—Cabernet Sauvignon, Chenin Blanc, Grenache, and Riesling—were suited to the region and have grown well through the years. “The Grenache did very well, but it was not a good seller and nobody really wanted it,” he said. “Eventually, I pulled it out and replanted it with Syrah, and that’s done very well. Now, Grenache is popular, but it wasn’t back then.”
Graves had much to learn in his early grape-growing years. As a grape pioneer, he had few grape-growing neighbors to watch and learn from. Most were growing cherries and vegetables, not grapes.
“The big challenges were learning how to prune, when to water, and fertilize. Dr. Clore came by quite often to guide me,” he said.
“I worked full-time for Bonneville Power, so I knew about equipment and had some background in agriculture from my younger years,” he said. But he admitted he had much to learn about wine grape growing.
In the 1960s, there were not only few in the state growing grapes, but there were few wineries that were buying the grapes.
In the beginning years, he sold grapes to wineries as well as home winemakers.
Commercial wineries that he sold to included Oregon’s Edgefield Winery of Troutlake, Elk Cove Vineyards of Gaston, Cathedral Ridge in Hood River, and Mountain View Winery in Bend. Later, Graves added Washington wineries to his client list, including L’Ecole No. 41 and Waterbrook Winery of Walla Walla and E.B. Foote Winery of Seattle.
“Now, there are lots of local wineries and vineyards in the area,” Graves said.
The Columbia Gorge wine appellation, which includes both Washington and Oregon, was established in 2004, and currently has nearly 30 wineries.