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Growing top-quality grapes since 1972

It's hard to imagine Washington before a wine industry and fascinating to hear stories of the early days. Leaps of faith were taken.

In 1968, a 250-acre farm had ended up with the bank in Sunnyside. Enter Alec Bayless, a prominent Seattle lawyer who had attended Rice University in Houston and was a Francophile with a love of agriculture, and Albert Ravenholt, a partner in an apartment complex in Bainbridge which had been taken by eminent domain. They decided to form a limited partnership and use the proceeds from the apartment as seed money to buy a farm. Their purchase went through the day before the farm went into receivership.

Albert Ravenholt at far right in vineyard, courtesy of Sagemoor

Then came the wild idea. Alec was interested in wine; Albert was a visionary. To start vineyards, they knew they would need more dollars and therefore more partners. They approached friends, people at church, anyone they thought might be interested. Albert's father-in-law was the postmaster in Sunnyside, and he knew William Bridgman who had brought wines back from World War II and was one of the first people to plant wine grapes in the Yakima Valley.

At the time, the wine industry in Washington primarily produced fortified sweet wines made from grapes and fruit. The National Wine Company and Pommerelle Wine Company were widely recognized producers, making millions of gallons of sweet jug wine. In the 1950s, Associated Vintners was a group of amateur wine makers. They turned professional in 1962 (later changing their name to Columbia Winery), buying land in Yakima and exclusively using European wine grapes. Also in the '50s, Dr. Walter Clore (a horticulturist who started his research in the '30s) and Washington State University were conducting trials on which grape vines were the best for the soils and climates in Washington. In 1954, a merger of National and Pommerelle created Chateau Ste. Michelle. By 1967 table wine surpassed dessert wine in sales in the U.S. for the first time.

It was really our own fault that Washington produced sweet fortified wine. After Prohibition was repealed in 1933, one of the first things wineries did was ask for protection from the state legislature from non-Washington competition. They got it in the form of a dual distribution system for wine. Washington wineries were able to sell to wholesalers, but out-of-state wineries had to be distributed to the Washington State liquor monopoly (our Liquor Board). Consequently, it was much easier to buy Washington wines than any others; most winegrowers didn't pursue quality because high- and low-quality grapes were blended together. While Dr. Clore was working on quality wine grapes, the Concord grape (used in Welch's juice and Gallo's Cold Duck) was the biggest crop. Instead of helping the Washington wine industry, the legislation caused it to basically collapse. In 1937 Washington had 42 wineries, in 1969 it had eight.

One of the partners that Alec and Albert recruited was Syd Abrams, a neighbor of Alec's. He had worked for Gallo and the California Wine Institute. The Institute hired a legislative representative in 1958 to help overcome trade barriers in all 50 states. Syd helped author the California Wine Bill in 1967; Governor Dan Evans signed it into law in 1969. The bill allowed competition from California and internationally in Washington.

Into this changing atmosphere came Alec, Albert, Syd, and Winslow Wright. They left the farm as it was for several years, then began planting in 1972. Not knowing what might grow well, they planted a "mother block" to test numerous varietals. Sagemoor Vineyard has 80 acres of wine grapes, and still has 10 acres of 1972 Cabernet Sauvignon plantings. It's next door to their Bacchus and Dionysus vineyards. Bacchus also has 180 acres of wine grapes. In 1972, it was planted with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Riesling, and Chardonnay. After 30 years, Cab Franc and Syrah have been added; Chenin Blanc removed. Dionysus, planted in 1973, contained Cabernet Sauvignon, Gamay Beaujolais, Zinfandel, Gewurztraminer, Trousseau Gris (Grey Riesling), Chardonnay and Semillon. After that same 30 years of experimentation, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay are still there, the rest has been replaced with Riesling, Merlot, and Petit Verdot.

A young Wade Wolf (now of Thurston Wolfe Winery) with Winslow Wright, courtesy of Sagemoor

In 1974, Sagemoor signed their first contract with a winery, Associated Vintners (now Columbia Winery). They also signed with Chateau Ste. Michelle and still sell to them; it is Sagemoor's longest continual contractual arrangement.

In the 70s, more partners/investors were brought in. Various vineyards were owned by different groups of investors. In 1981, the German company Langguth planted Riesling and other white grapes in their Weinbau Vineyard and also built a winery onsite. Their first vintage was in 1982; they went bankrupt in 1986. The building is still there and has been occupied by Saddle Mountain and Snoqualmie Vineyards, as well as Ste. Michelle. Mike Januik made wine in that building. Sagemoor partners did not want the winery building but purchased the Weinbau Vineyard. Their acreage was 240 acres in 1986, adding another 100 in 1997, and another 100 in 2007, all pieces that touched each other.

Bacchus and Dionysus vineyards by Duval Images

The grapes were winning awards: In 1981, Leonetti's 1978 Cabernet won the Windows of the World Best Red of America competition using Bacchus grapes from Columbia Valley. Leonetti bought grapes from Sagemoor until 2000 when Chris Figgins took the company to an all-estate winery. Rick Small, founder of Woodward Canyon in 1981, and Baker and Jean Ferguson, founders of L'Ecole in 1983 bought grapes from Sagemoor.

Stay tuned for part 2 in next month's issue.

Connie Adams/April 2020

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