Mike Miller opened Airfield Estates Winery in 2007 and is joined by son Marcus as winemaker and daughter Lori as marketing director.
Washington State grower-winery owner Mike Miller says he learned some hard lessons in the early 1980s, a time when farmers were particularly hard hit by economic recessions due to falling crop prices, declining agricultural exports, and double-digit interest rates and inflation.
In 1978, Miller had 15 acres of wine grapes. A year later, after contracting with Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery, he expanded to 100 acres. But as grape acreage across the state was spreading, the winemaking infrastructure wasn’t keeping up. "There was a period of time when the biggest issue facing the wine industry in the Northwest was a lack of cooperage," he recalled. "You couldn’t find enough tanks and barrels."
Miller said that created a situation where winemakers, including the dominant Chateau Ste. Michelle, were looking for ways to escape from contracts with growers. As a result, Miller said, "We were rethinking our associations and started looking to the south. One year, in 1985, I sold all my grapes to California."
Today, his grapes from Airfield Estates’s 850 acres of grapes are back in Northwest wine production. Miller sells to some 20 different wineries, including Chateau Ste. Michelle, but nowadays he is protected by long-term contracts that include an evergreen clause, a provision requiring buyers to renew their commitment after seven years of a ten-year contract. "Now, we always have two-and-a-half years of security in front of us," he said.
But the ultimate protection is one he built himself. "I built a winery," he said. Airfield Estates Winery in Prosser released its first vintage in 2007. Now, he’ll always have a buyer for his grapes.