Like many Yakima Valley wine grape growers, Dick Boushey was an apple grower first. His last apple block has been replanted to wine grapes, but he still has a Rainier cherry block.

Like many Yakima Valley wine grape growers, Dick Boushey was an apple grower first. His last apple block has been replanted to wine grapes, but he still has a Rainier cherry block.

by Melissa Hansen

A good way to appreciate Yakima Valley’s role in developing the wine industry of Washington State is to follow the progression of Dick Boushey’s early farming years to his current operation.

Since planting wine grapes more than 35 years ago, he’s learned through trial and error, honed his growing skills, and developed his vineyard into one that’s widely recognized by winemakers and consumers.

The Yakima Valley American Viticultural Area, the state’s oldest designated appellation, is celebrating 30 years.

Good Fruit Grower interviewed growers and wineries earlier this year to learn about the region’s history, wine grape pioneers, and how Yakima Valley fits in today’s wine world. This is one of several stories that will appear in Good Fruit Grower this summer.

Apples are the number-one crop in Washington and in the Yakima Valley. Many of the valley’s early wine grape growers in Yakima Valley started out as tree fruit growers and added wine grapes in the 1980s and 1990s to their mix of crops. Boushey is no exception.

He and his wife, Luanne, started farming in Grandview, Washington, in 1975 and grew Red and Golden Delicious apples. Boushey and his father bought their apple orchard together with the idea that the younger Boushey would manage it for a year until his father moved over from western Washington.

One year turned into four, says Boushey. “That first year, Luanne and I felt like we were stuck here. We were both from the West side, newly married, and we weren’t sure this was really what we wanted to be doing.”

Two years later, Boushey added an experimental block of wine grapes to the apple orchard. He’d met Dr. Walter Clore, George Carter (Clore’s assistant), and other ­Washington State University researchers who were studying wine grapes as a “new” crop for the state. Clore, later dubbed the “father of Washington’s wine industry,” saw a future for wine grapes in the state and encouraged growers to try them.

A few years later, in 1980, Boushey planted a commercial vineyard, choosing varieties from WSU’s block that did well—Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc.

He recalls that there were only nine wineries in the state at the time. Other prominent tree fruit growers, including the Andreas (Andy) den Hoed family, Larry and Richard Olsen, Mike Miller, Wyckoff Farms, Mike and Gary Hogue, and the Newhouse family, also were adding wine grapes to their crop mix.

Temporary crop

“We were all trying to learn how to best grow wine grapes,” Boushey said, adding that the only growing information available came from California and didn’t always pertain to Pacific Northwest conditions. “There was a lot of trial and error and replanting.”

The knowledge base grew exponentially when Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery (now called Ste. Michelle Wine Estates) hired viticulturists like Dr. Wade Wolfe, Stan Clarke, and Clay Mackey, he said. Additionally, WSU began publishing research data, such as Clore’s report on a ten-year variety trial.

“It [wine grape growing] was like a little community in the early years,” Boushey said. “Our small group of growers and wineries banded together, both socially and for ­education purposes.”

Moreover, wine grapes were not taken seriously by others, even those in agriculture, he explained. “We were so minor compared to major crops grown in the valley, like ­potatoes and sugar beets. Wine grapes were viewed as a thing that wouldn’t last. A crop that would be temporary or fill a little niche—not a major player.”

Fast forward to recent years and the wine industry has become a darling of the state legislature, recognized for its contributions to state tourism, taxes, and employment. ­Viticulture and enology education programs are offered at community and state universities, and state funds are helping to build a wine science center at WSU’s Tri-Cities ­campus in Richland.

Spreading risk

Nowadays, many tree fruit and permanent crop growers have diversified and include wine grapes in their portfolio, he said. It makes business sense because labor, equipment, and risk can be shared and spread across the diverse crops.

Through the years, Boushey purchased other orchards and open ground, and has grown cherries, nectarines, apricots, and Concord juice grapes. Today, he farms about 250 acres, of which 140 are in wine grapes. His grows mostly red wine grape varieties, such as Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Sangiovese.

White varieties include Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling, along with Chardonnay, which he planted for the first time earlier this year. He recently pulled out the last of his apple trees, but still has Rainier cherries and grows juice grapes in areas not suited for wine grapes.

“I’ve thought about being all wine grapes, but I don’t think it would be a good business move,” he said. Having cherries in the mix allows him to keep the same crew working longer, helping to ensure he has workers for harvest. He sells to more than 30 small wineries that want the wine grapes picked by hand.

The advantage of spreading risk among different crops became apparent last year. A rare summer hailstorm wiped out Boushey’s cherry crop and knocked off half of his wine and juice grape crop. Crop insurance for the cherries provided some income, although he had only catastrophic insurance for his grapes and ­didn’t recover any insurance ­payment for those.

“It was very painful,” said Boushey, adding that he has never lost wine grapes like that. His vineyards are all located around 800 feet elevation or higher and have sloping air drainage, so he’s never even been frosted out. “And I’ve never lost a vine to winter injury or had to retrain a vine in my commercial plantings.”

The short wine grape crop forced him to prioritize his winery customers. “Some of my newer, smaller customers were not happy and thought I was purposely shorting them. But I didn’t want to jeopardize long-term relationships I had developed. I just couldn’t satisfy everyone and had to make some difficult choices.”

In recent years, he’s added a vineyard management component to his operation, a need he saw in the Yakima Valley. “Vineyard management companies are plentiful in California, but there are very few here,” he said. He manages around ten vineyards locally and on Red Mountain near Benton City. His Red Mountain clients are absentee growers, many with small parcels.

His vineyard management company enables him to keep more employees on the payroll longer, moving them between his acreage and custom farming duties. It also provides cash flow.

Moving up

Since he started in wine grapes, Boushey, like neighboring wine grape growers, has “moved up the hill.” The early plantings were in the lower elevations where deep, fertile soils produced big yields—not necessarily a good thing in wine grapes. “It was common to see yields of ten tons to the acre of Chenin Blanc,” he said. Frost and ­winter kill were also problems in the lowlands.

Trial and error and better understanding of matching site to the variety have resulted in the relocation of vineyards in the Yakima Valley. These days, the lowlands are planted with juice grapes and the wine grapes are planted at elevations of about 800 feet or higher.

Boushey estimated that about 14,000 acres of grapes are being grown in a long, narrow strip of land on the eastern side of the Yakima Valley that follows the base of the Rattlesnake Hills.

“Wine grapes are now grown in a small percentage of the total AVA,” he said.

The soils in the Yakima Valley were the wine grapes are grown are rocky with little topsoil. “I don’t have a lot of dirt on my hill, and I had to rip the vine row with a D-8 Caterpillar to break through the rock so I could plant the vines,” Boushey said, but he added that vine vigor is ­easier to control in poor soils.

Growers also learned that the higher elevations provide better air drainage than the valley floor. Growers can cut back irrigation in the fall so the vines stop growing and harden off, which greatly improves the chance of surviving cold winter temperatures, he explained. In other regions that are warmer, the vine continues to grow into late fall and early winter. If winter temperatures come early before the vines have hardened off, the vines can be killed.