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PHOTO COURTESY OF WASHINGTON WINE COMMISSION

The Yakima Valley American Viticultural Area, established by the federal government on March 23, 1983, is celebrating its 30th anniversary. In this issue, Good Fruit Grower begins an in-depth look at Yakima Valley’s early roots in the wine industry. Subsequent stories will focus on the vineyards and wineries of the region.

The Yakima Valley appellation, the state’s largest and oldest winegrape-producing region, is known as the backbone of Washington State’s wine grape industry. But in recent years, the region’s achievements have gone largely ­unnoticed by a media more focused on newer wine areas in the state.

The Yakima Valley AVA represents a large swath of land that follows the Yakima River, encompassing parts of two counties and three sub-appellations. The AVA’s boundaries begin in the north at Union Gap and reach south to Benton City, including Red Mountain. Its western boundary is the ­Cascade ­Mountain Range and to the east are the Rattlesnake Hills.

Some 16,000 acres in the AVA have been planted to wine grapes, with many of the vineyards planted in the 1960s through the 1980s. Columbia Valley AVA, with 7,000 acres of vineyards, is the next closest region in terms of acres planted. Since the Yakima Valley AVA’s inception in 1983, three sub-appellations have been designated—Red Mountain, Rattlesnake Hills, and Snipes Mountain.

Wine industry cradle

History is very important in the wine culture, says wine writer Andy Perdue of Richland, Washington. “In the wine world, we often look at wine as a moment in history. For Washington State, the Yakima Valley is where the wine industry all got started,” he said.

“Even though there were wine grapes planted in other places in the state during the 1800s, like Fort Vancouver (now known as Vancouver), in the Lewis-Clarkston area, Walla Walla, and others, Yakima Valley is considered the cradle of Washington’s wine industry,” Perdue said.

Good Fruit Grower interviewed Perdue, who has extensive knowledge about the Pacific Northwest wine industry, for his perspective on the Yakima Valley AVA. The veteran journalist has written about Northwest wines for more than two decades and was founder and former editor of Wine Press Northwest, a quarterly consumer magazine. He wrote a book about wine and serves as a wine judge for competitions throughout the western United States and Canada. Most recently, he and Eric Degerman launched Great Northwest Wine, an online wine ­publication (www.greathnorthwestwine.com).

The first grapes in the Yakima Valley were planted in 1869 near Union Gap by French winemaker Charles Schanno. The cuttings came from vineyards at The Dalles, Oregon, and Fort Vancouver, Washington. But that was just a prelude.

The state’s entry into what’s considered today’s modern winemaking era—using European cultivars to make varietal wines instead of wines from Concord and labrusca varieties—began in Yakima Valley with William Bridgman. The Canadian-born lawyer arrived in Sunnyside, Washington, in 1902 when he was 20 years old. He left the family farm in Ontario that grew juice grapes and other crops to attend college in Minnesota. After college, during a train trip to the Pacific Northwest, the young attorney saw agricultural opportunity in eastern Washington. He settled in Sunnyside, the heart of the Yakima Valley, to specialize in irrigation litigation and helped draft the state’s first irrigation laws, some of which are still followed. Bridgman served twice as the town’s mayor.

Bridgman bought land on the southeast slopes of Snipes Mountain and nearby Harrison Hill, well aware of their air drainage advantage, Ron Irvine wrote in The Wine Project: Washington State’s Winemaking History, a book Irvine co-authored with former Washington State University horticulturist Dr. Walter Clore. The book details the history of Washington’s wine industry.

Bridgman planted table grapes on Harrison Hill in 1914. But it was in 1917 that he made history, planting some of the state’s first European wine grapes on Snipes Mountain. As Bridgman continued to expand his plantings, he traveled to vineyards in California and New York to learn more about the varieties needed to produce quality wines, wrote Irvine. Bridgman propagated his own nursery stock and imported cuttings from Europe, California, and New York, eventually selling cuttings to others and creating a network of vineyards throughout the Yakima Valley and Columbia Basin.

Bridgman became one of Washington’s earliest wine producers when he launched Upland Winery in 1934. Upland was the first winery east of the Cascade Mountains and is said to be the first to commercially make European-style wines instead of the sweet, fortified wines that were popular. Upland used varietal labeling for its wines, and made the state’s first dry Riesling wine. When Upland was founded, Bridgman had more than 165 acres of wine grapes under contract from more than 70 growers.

Passing the torch

Perdue said that it was Bridgman who encouraged Clore, a new WSU horticulturist, to take an interest in wine grapes as a potential crop. Clore began work at WSU’s research station in Prosser in 1937. “Bridgman gave Clore his first grape cuttings, and unwittingly passed the wine grape torch off to Clore, who would later become known as the father of Washington’s wine industry.”

Bridgman sold his winery in 1960. He died in 1968, and the Upland Winery closed its doors in 1972.

At the time of the sale, total state grape production was around 52,000 tons from 11,000 acres, according to Irvine. European varieties were just beginning to be planted in the Yakima Valley by the state’s early wineries that would later become industry flagships like Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and Columbia Winery.

“Bridgman passed away before the wine industry really matured into what he had hoped it would be,” ­Perdue said.

But the state’s rich history is alive today.

In 1972, Alfred Newhouse of Sunnyside bought all of Bridgman’s Upland Vineyards on Snipes Mountain and Harrison Hill. Today, some of the original vines planted by Bridgman in 1917, as well as those he planted in the 1950s, are still producing. Third-generation wine grape grower Todd Newhouse and his wife, Amber, have revived the old Upland Winery. Upland Estates Winery opened in 2008 and features wines made from Newhouse-grown grapes from Snipes Mountain and Harrison Hill. In 2009, Snipes Mountain AVA was designated.

“Todd and the Newhouse family have really reinvigorated this area of the Yakima Valley, as well as interest in Snipes Mountain, where it all began,” said Perdue, adding that the Snipes Mountain history is a very important part of Washington’s wine industry.

“What’s a little bit sad to me is that we’ve forgotten about Bill Bridgman,” Perdue said, noting that Clore received most of the credit for founding the state’s wine industry. “Except for the fact that Ron Irvine wrote about Bridgman in The Wine Project, I’m not sure anyone would remember him.

“I’ve heard Todd say that if Clore is the father of the state’s wine industry, then Bridgman should be ­recognized as the grandfather.”