One of the original vines planted in 1917 by William Bridgeman, still in production today.

One of the original vines planted in 1917 by William Bridgeman, still in production today.

by Chelan David and Melissa Hansen

The Newhouse family always knew they had a unique site to grow grapes. But with the recent approval of the Snipes Mountain American Viticultural Area, a subappellation of Washington State’s Yakima Valley, they can now promote and share that uniqueness with consumers.

While it’s one of the newest appellations in Washington, it represents one of the oldest grape-growing areas of the state.

Snipes Mountain, southwest of the town of Sunnyside, was named after Ben Snipes, cattle baron of the 1850s, who headquartered his ranch there. The mountain became home to vinifera grapes in 1917 when Sunnyside mayor William Bridgeman, author of many of the Yakima Valley’s irrigation laws, began planting Upland Vineyards. Bridgeman, sensing an increase in demand for wine grapes due to the country’s Prohibition laws of 1916 and the state of Washington’s strong anti-alcohol sentiment, began planting wine grapes instead of the table grapes that many of the nearby farmers were growing. He capitalized on a section within Prohibition laws that allowed individuals to make wine or cider (up to 200 gallons of wine and cider from fruit) at home and grew grapes for home winemaking use.

By 1934, he had developed 165 acres of wine grapes under contract with more than 70 growers. That year, he opened Upland Winery, the first winery in the state east of the Cascade Mountains and reputed to be the first in the state to commercially make European-style wine. Upland Winery was making wine from vinifera grapes rather than fortified wine from fruit and labrusca or Concord grapes.

The winery thrived for over a decade, but two extremely harsh winters in a row, 1948-49 and 1949-50, took their toll, and Upland Winery began a slow decline. Bridgeman eventually sold the vineyards and the winery, and the winery was shut down in 1972.

Bridgeman encouraged Dr. Walter Clore, Washington State University horticulturist, to plant vinifera wine grapes at WSU’s experimental station in Prosser in 1940, and even supplied him with cuttings, according to information contained in Ronald Irvine’s book The Wine Project: Washington State’s Winemaking History. Though Clore is recognized at the “father” of Washington’s wine industry, Bridgeman was a significant influence in the early winemaking years and could be considered the “grandfather.”

Snipes Mountain

In 1972, Alfred Newhouse bought all of Bridgman’s Upland Vineyards, located entirely within the Snipes Mountain AVA. Alfred’s son Steve would continue to expand their acreage on Snipes Mountain and nearby Harrison Hill over several decades. Today, the Newhouse family has 700 acres of wine grapes in what is once again called Upland Vineyards, as well as another 600 acres of tree fruit, juice and table grapes.

With slopes facing in all four cardinal directions and an elevation that ranges from 750 to 1,300 feet, the mountain provides a unique microclimate that is ideal for growing a wide range of wine grapes.

“Different varieties prefer different growing conditions and slope orientation can greatly affect these conditions,” said Todd Newhouse, grandson of Alfred. “For example, the gentler north slope of Snipes is cooler than the steeper south slopewhich can see temperatures as much as nine degrees higher than the valley floor. Therefore, you have the luxury of choosing where to best grow a certain variety. It’s one reason why we grow over 30 different varieties of vinifera that we sell to various wineries.”

Mainstream varieties grown by the Newhouse family on Snipes Mountain include Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Gewrztraminer, Grenache, Malbec, Merlot, Mourvdre, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Syrah, Viognier, Morio Muscat, Zinfandel, and Muscat of Alexandria. But they also grow lesser-known varieties like Aligote, Graciano, Melon, Muscat Hamburg, Souzao, Tinta Madiera, Tinta Cao, Touriga Nacional, and others.

Snipes Mountain’s unique microclimate also results in little damage from winter temperatures. Upland Vineyards has been fortunate that during the last three major freezes in Washington, they have had almost zero trunk mortality.

The soils on Snipes Mountain are also very distinctive, consisting almost entirely of older soils with a higher proportion of rocky composition from ancient floods than the surrounding Yakima Valley and Columbia Valley AVAs. Because of the mountain’s elevation, the ancient, rocky soils, dominated by fist- and melon-sized rocks, were mostly untouched by the Missoula floods that deposited large amounts of foreign topsoil on the valley floor.

Unique AVA

Snipes Mountain was designated last February as Washington’s tenth AVA, the second smallest AVA in the state. It encompasses about 4,150 acres. Like the mountain itself, the AVA possesses some unique qualities, said Todd, who worked with WSU soil scientist Dr. Joan Davenport to petition for federal AVA recognition. For one thing, when the petition process started in 2006, the area didn’t have any wineries, a distinction tempered by the fact that the appellation designation is for viticulture, not enology, he said.

“That, coupled with the fact that Upland Vineyards makes up close to 85 percent of the almost 800 acres of vineyards within the AVA boundaries, made it a case unlike most AVAs,” he said.

Reviving winery

Todd and his wife, Amber, recently revived the name of Upland Winery, which opened in 2008 and is the only winery located on Snipes Mountain. They plan to keep Upland Estates Winery small, selling wines through direct sales and marketing. Last year, they made 700 cases.

The primary motive for the venture, according to Todd, was being able to select grapes from the best areas of the best blocks and make them into tiny lots of world-class wine. “We were already using our expertise, experience, and site to grow world-class grapes, so why not take that a step further and make world-class wines?”

Some of the original vines planted in 1917 are still producing today. The Uplands Winery Muscat Ice wine, comes from some of the oldest cultivated vines in the state. Another old vine block of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, planted in 1973, is sold as “Old Vine Cabernet.”