Mike Wallace, winemaker for nearly 40 years, is most proud of his Rainy Day Fine Tawny Port, winner of numerous medals at wine competitions.
The idea to designate Yakima Valley as Washington State’s first American Viticultural Area came to Mike Wallace while he was visiting California’s wine country in the early 1980s, when northern California growers and vintners were carving out appellations and subappellations.
Wallace recalls attending a meeting at the Sonoma County courthouse, listening to testimony in support of creating new AVAs.
“I heard what was needed to prove that an area was distinct and unique and thought, ‘we can do that in Washington,’” he said. Good Fruit Grower interviewed Wallace in late spring as part of its in-depth look at the state’s first appellation.
Napa Valley was the first wine region approved in California, achieving AVA status in 1981, and was the second AVA approved in the nation after Augusta, Missouri.
Later that year, Sonoma Valley received its AVA status. Although both areas today have 15 or more subappellations that have been carved from the original AVAs, the subappellation craze got started in Sonoma.
When Wallace returned to Washington from his California trip, he convinced a group of growers and wineries to join him in developing the framework for the state’s first AVA.
Appellations have been used for centuries in Europe to legally define and protect geographical indications and communicate to consumers where the grapes are grown. In the United States, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau of the Treasury Department designates wine grape growing regions based on distinguishable geographic features.
History of the region, geology, microclimate, and natural boundaries are all part of the AVA petition process. Wallace enlisted the help of Helen Willard of Prosser to write the region’s historical account. John Williams of Kiona Vineyards and Winery assisted with mapping boundaries for the new AVA.
Help also came from John Rauner of Yakima River Winery; Stan Clarke, formerly of Chateau Ste. Michelle and Quail Run (later Covey Run); Tucker Cellars; and others.
After the Yakima Valley appellation was approved in March 1983, a group of Yakima Valley growers and wineries formed the Yakima Valley Wine Growers Association to promote the region and develop touring maps. Wallace served as president of the group and as the first president of the Washington Wine Institute.
At the time, Wallace said, you could count the wineries in the new AVA on two hands—his own Hinzerling Winery, Kiona Vineyards and Winery, Yakima River Winery, Tucker Cellars, The Hogue Cellars, Quail Run, Chinook Winery, and perhaps another.
The state’s wine regions were just beginning to be discovered. The following year, Walla Walla Valley AVA was approved, encompassing parts of Oregon and Washington, and Columbia Valley, which included both Walla Walla and Yakima Valley viticultural areas. It became Washington’s largest appellation.
Fan of wine
Like many in the wine industry, Wallace didn’t start out with plans to be a winemaker. While on military assignment near Napa in the early 1960s, he learned the difference between fine wine and inexpensive jug wine. “I’d been drinking Carlo Rossi in the service, and then I learned what good wine was,” he said. His Napa wine drinking would leave a lasting impression.
Wallace returned to Washington and was on track to be involved in the medical world. He received his biology degree from Western Washington University and was working at the University of Washington’s medical school when a national grant that funded his job ended.
That was the excuse Wallace needed to pursue his wine interest. He enrolled at at the University of California, Davis, to learn the science of winemaking. He worked for a couple of wineries before returning home to start his own vineyard, funded by a small group of family and friends.
In the 1970s, Washington State University’s wine grape research was in full steam at the Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser, led by Dr. Walter Clore. Wallace found suitable land in the Prosser area for a small vineyard, chose varieties based on Clore’s research trial, and got ready to plant vines.
“I’d taken all the courses and knew how to grow vines, but that was in California,” he said. “I had no idea how to do that in Washington.”
In 1972, Wallace planted 23 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, and Riesling. That winter, more than half of the vines died when the temperature dropped to -7°F. He replanted the next year, and added a few more acres.
Wallace wasn’t the only one planting wine grapes. From 1968 to 1972, more than 1,000 acres in the state were planted in Washington, according to author Ron Irvine, who documented the events in his book The Wine Project.
Chateau Ste. Michelle had several vineyards near Grandview and near Benton City; Sagemoor Farms and Bill Preston planted vines near Pasco; Don and Linda Mercer planted vineyards near Alderdale; and there were others, Wallace said.
As he waited for his vines to grow and produce fruit, he worked for WSU from 1972 to 1976 on an economic development project studying wine grapes. Wallace traveled around the state with WSU researchers looking at wine grape research trials.
“I learned what worked and what didn’t,” he said. “My goal was always to have a small winery and make estate wines, but I was much better prepared after working on the economic grant.”
Hinzerling Winery, named after nearby Hinzerling Road, is Yakima Valley’s oldest family owned and operated winery and best known for its small lots of ports, sherry, and dessert wines. Wallace has been winemaker for nearly 40 years, though he sold the vineyard about 20 years ago.
These days, Wallace, in his mid-70s, focuses on white and red ports, rosé, and a few varietal wines. He teaches winemaking classes at Yakima Valley Community College. He’s most proud of his Tawny Port, a dessert wine still winning gold medals at wine competitions. He believes that his best wine—and the state’s best vintage—is a 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon. He still has a few ’99 Cabernet bottles from his wine library that he’s selling for $99.
From the start, Wallace knew that Yakima Valley had the foundation to be a premium wine grape growing region because of its basalt uplifts and sloped ridges with southeast exposure, a relatively long frost-free season, and light, sandy loam soils.
But he’s been surprised at the wide variety of cultivars that do well in Yakima Valley.
“I’m really surprised that Syrah does as well as it does in the valley,” he said, adding that the red variety does well as a dessert and table wine.
He’s even more surprised at the growth of the Yakima Valley and state’s wine industry. When he started in the mid-1970s, wine grape production was less than 20,000 tons and there were about 15 wineries in the state. Today, more than 750 wineries are bonded, and production reached 160,000 tons last harvest.
The Washington Wine Commission lists about 80 wineries in the Yakima Valley appellation.