Tedd Wildman, described by some as a perfectionist, has developed a reputation for growing high quality grapes.
A common thread ties together many of the major initiatives implemented by Washington State’s wine grape industry in the last decade or so. They’ve occurred because a core group of industry members have volunteered. Tedd Wildman is among that group.
The state’s wine industry has matured in the last two decades, and Wildman with it. At 52, he’s no longer the “young vineyard consultant” that Ronald Irvine described in 1995 in his book The Wine Project, Washington State’s Winemaking History. Today, Wildman is in his prime. He is a partner in Stone Tree Vineyard and manages its 250-acre wine grape planting on the Wahluke Slope near Mattawa.
A Midwestern native, Wildman came to Washington in the early 1980s as a graduate student studying entomology at Washington State University. He received his master’s degree in 1984 and worked on pests of asparagus, hops, and wine grapes. Before going into private consulting, Wildman collected soil moisture data for growers using a neutron probe and met regularly with the late Dr. Walter Clore and Dr. Wade Wolfe to discuss the soil moisture vineyard data of their clients.
“I owe those two guys for teaching me quite a bit of viticulture,” Wildman said, musing that his time with Clore was invaluable. “Walt was still considered in his prime when I worked with him.” Wildman also owes Clore in a personal way—he met his wife, Anke, a German immigrant, when she was living with the Clores while studying at WSU.
Wildman provided pest control advice to tree fruit and hop growers. He teamed with Wolfe, who was also a private consultant, in the late 1980s. The two formed an association to provide pest and viticultural advice.
At the time, there were few independent grape consultants like Wildman and Wolfe that could offer advice to growers without a vested interest in recommending that they buy a particular chemical or fertilizer.
“Back then, most growers had to rely on the services of fieldmen representing agricultural chemical companies,” Wolfe said. “Part of the motivation as consultants was to have our own business. But we were also trying to push a reduction of chemical and fertilizer use in the vineyard operation, encourage the use of softer pesticides, and save the growers money.”
The two looked at water stress in vines, nutrient conditions, and provided comprehensive input to growers, Wolfe said. Moreover, they could provide outside opinions on crop load and quality control that didn’t come from the winery.
“Tedd was a quick learner and astute observer who took very quickly to wine grapes as a crop,” said Wolfe, who now is owner and winemaker at Prosser’s Thurston Wolfe Winery. “He was able to use his pest expertise to provide quality information to the industry when it was so sorely needed. There were not a lot of independent consultants with expertise in wine grapes then.”
When Wolfe left the consulting business in 1991 to be general manager of Hogue Cellars, Wildman—just 33 years old—was suddenly on his own, holding an impressive client list that included Sagemoor Farms, Tagaris Farms, Indian Wells Vineyard, to name a few.
“He played a very significant role in research and pest regulatory issues,” Wolfe said about Wildman. “Tedd has been very influential in sitting and working on the Washington State Pesticide Registration Commission (he was a founding member) and the Wine Advisory Committee reviewing research proposals.”
In the early years of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers, industry volunteers like Wildman had to do much of the leg work because there was virtually no paid staff. The grape association, formed in 1983 as a marketing cooperative and reorganized in 1986 as a nonprofit trade group, was initially managed by an association management firm that mostly organized mailings and meetings. Current executive director Vicky Scharlau took the reins in 1999.
Wildman recalls being impressed when attendance for the group’s one-day annual meeting in 1994 reached 100. “I thought we had really arrived,” he said. At the time, fewer than 13,000 acres of wine grapes were planted in the state. Last year, nearly 2,000 attended the three-day event; statewide acreage is now estimated at 36,000 acres.
In the last two decades, Wildman and other industry leaders of the statewide grape growers association helped build a solid foundation for the young wine industry. Examples of their efforts include: developing a comprehensive viticulture and enology education program; revamping the grape foundation block to provide clean plant material; developing continuing education opportunities for growers and wine producers; creating a line item for research in the Washington Wine Commission’s budget (totaling about $200,000 annually); and creating political presence in Olympia for grape growers by hiring a lobbyist and forming a political action committee. Of the many projects just mentioned, the accessibility of clean plant material has been one of Wildman’s passions.
Beyond state borders
Even in the foundation-building days, Wildman said that the young Washington wine industry recognized the importance of participation in federal issues. Industry members gained federal support in 1990 for the Northwest Center for Small Fruits Research, a consortium of state university and federal scientists who collaborate on research for grapes, berries, and small fruits. Also, the grape association participated at the national level through membership and representation in Winegrape Growers of America.
“We’ve very much had a sense of our place in the national industry all through those early years, but it really intensified in what I call the ‘modern era’ of the last five years with our efforts to create a national program that could guarantee the availability of clean plant material,” he said.
The concept of a national clean plant program, which Wildman helped promote, has evolved into the National Clean Plant Network, housed under the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. Tree fruit and grapes were among the first commodities targeted by the network. The network is a partnership of national clean plant centers organized to provide clean, propagative plant material, provide diagnostic and disease elimination services, and maintain blocks of disease-tested plant material.
“Tedd recognized that clean plant material was fundamental for the future of our industry,” said the grape association’s Scharlau. “The very first conversation I had with him when I was hired was about the need to improve Washington’s and the nation’s clean plant programs.”