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Changing of the guard

By 2002, the company was 30 years old. Partners were all Seattle businesspeople, and there were many of them. Alec had died in 1991. Most partners had entered into the business mid-career; they were 40-50 years old; now they were 70 or 80. The 90s had seen wine become cool; boomers were drinking a lot of wine. Having stayed the course, the partners were able to pay off debt and make good money. Erik Hanson had been the GM for 15 years and Winslow was still running the company at the age of 70. As things were profitable, they didn't want to sell. Kent Waliser was hired in 2002 as the GM and Vineyard Manager; he is also part owner. He had a growing background with Dole Food Co., working in the Washington apple business. Dole had pulled out of Washington, so Kent was looking for work. "I didn't have wine experience, but liked sales and marketing," he says. On his first day he found out their biggest client, Ste. Michelle, was phasing out their contracts. As Winslow was retiring, John Vitalich was hired as Managing Director. From 2002-2014, he and Kent ran all the vineyards owned by separate partnerships, adding acres, planting apple trees, and replanting grape varieties.

Kent Waliser, courtesy of Sagemoor

Albert died in 2010. In 2012, the biggest partner was Winslow who was still sharp, but in his 90s. His daughters (heirs) were in their 60s. They needed to think about what was going to happen to the company. "Winslow was tough as nails," laughs Kent. "His eldest daughter Debbie was the one who drove the point home - we need to sell the company. She told him that if he died the next day, she would sell it within a week. And if she died first, the next sister would sell within a week. The partners decided we wanted to keep the company together as an entity. The wine industry had taken off, we had lots of customers and didn't want those customers to have to buy from multiple vineyard owners. We also wanted to keep employees and management together. We had water rights for 1200 acres, not easy to come by. When Chateau Ste. Michelle went from 75% down to 10% of our grapes, we added new customers, helping grow boutique companies over the years, like Januik who went from 4 tons of grapes to their current 160. We have 130 customers and didn't want to sell to someone who would break this up."

Winslow Wright circa 1997, courtesy of Sagemoor

No one knew Sagemoor was looking for a buyer. Kent approached the Allan Brothers in 2013. Sagemoor had 450 acres of tree fruit and 900 acres of wine grapes. Allan Brothers had no wine grapes and wanted to diversify. "They were on board with our business plan, and our management team was able to stay on to continue our programs. On May 1, 2014, the partners met to vote on the sale. Winslow was in Swedish Hospital when we told him it had sold. His reaction was, 'I wish we could have figured a way not to sell it.' He just didn't want to give up."

They weren't done growing their acreage. In 2016, they purchased the 210-acre Gamache Vineyard on the white bluffs above Basin City to the east in the Columbia Valley AVA.

Kent proposed a wine project to the Allan Brothers, and they were willing to move forward. "I wanted to use our upper-end grapes and make an amazing Cabernet," says Kent. "In 2014, we started our Cabernet Stars in a Row, using our estate vineyards. It's important to me that the vineyard story comes out in these wines. So labels list the vineyard manager, winemaker, grape blocks. We make three wines and have three different winemakers. Stars in a Row is made from Bacchus and Dionysus grapes by John Abbott from Devona Winery. Miguel The Man, a Merlot/Cabernet Franc blend from two blocks of Weinbau on the Wahluke Slope is made by Chris Peterson of Avennia. The actual Miguel, Miguel Rodriguez, has worked at Weinbau since 1986. Without Rehearsal is a Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon blend from Dionysus, Gamache, and Bacchus vineyards made by Ali Mayfield of Ali Mayfield Wines. Both Without Rehearsal and Stars in a Row are made with grapes from the '72 vines. These are the legacy wines of the industry."

Miguel Rodriguez, the real man, courtesy of Sagemoor

Kent is now working with Professor Kevin Pogue of Whitman College on getting the White Bluffs area designated as an AVA. "It's a very unique geological area. It's now under a final review."

Bacchus, Dionysus, White Bluffs, Duvall Images

Like all industries, companies have to react to changing conditions. "Up until 2019, all our grapes were sold each year," says Kent. "Then in 2019, the industry didn't harvest 20% of what was grown. The projection for 2020 is the same. We were able to sell 95% of what we grew in 2019, but who knows what will happen this year. You either have to reduce the supply or add sales, and they're not selling fast enough. When corrections come like this, it can be an opportunity. Some growers are taking out old plants and trying new varietals."

Whatever comes along, it's a good chance Sagemoor will be front and center, growing excellent grapes for others and hopefully continuing to make unforgettable wines from their own legacy grapes.

Click here to read Part 1

Connie Adams/May 2020

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