Nestled in the heart of Washington, Yakima boasts a wine heritage that spans over a century, making Yakima Valley wine country Washington’s oldest established winemaking and grape-growing region. It is an area rich with agricultural history and presence, where most of the nation’s hops and juice grapes are now grown, housing the state’s largest concentration of wine grapes. As a result, Yakima has been transformed into a premier wine destination, an even richer tale of determination, innovation and a deep connection to the land.

Yakima Valley wine country
Much of Yakima’s current tourism revolves around its rich roots as Yakima Wine Country. People now travel across the globe to experience some of the finest wineries in the Pacific Northwest firsthand. Photo courtesy: Northwest Travel & Life Magazine

Planting the Seeds: Pioneering Viticulture in Washington Reaches Yakima

The roots of Washington wine trace back to 1825, marked by the initial planting of grape vines as the Hudson’s Bay Company introduced the initial wine grape plantings at Fort Vancouver, commemorating the state’s inaugural foray into viticulture. The momentum of this endeavor continued, with wine grapes taking root in diverse corners of the state by 1910, tracing the footsteps of the earliest settlers. These early plantings owed their existence to the pioneering efforts of immigrants from France, Germany and Italy. The Puget Sound region witnessed the arrival of hybrid grape varieties as early as 1854, and by 1860, the Walla Walla Valley had embraced the cultivation of wine grapes.

In 1903, extensive irrigation efforts gained traction in Eastern Washington, capitalizing on the runoff from the Cascade Mountains’ thawing snowcaps. This transformative initiative breathed life into the latent possibilities of the fertile volcanic soils and sun-drenched, arid climate. Italian and German grape varietals found new homes in the Yakima and Columbia Valleys, ushering in a rapid expansion of wine grape acreage.

Winemaking and Grape Growing Makes its Way to Yakima

The first documented instance of grape planting in or close to the Yakima Valley dates back to 1869, in the vicinity of Union Gap. French Winemaker Charles Schanno had taken cuttings from the famous Hudson’s Bay Company trading post and planted the first vines in the Yakima Valley on his family farm. This act alone solidifies his role as one of three individuals who would play pivotal roles in the history of Yakima wine.  

Despite this early start, grape growing and winemaking wouldn’t start to take off in Yakima until the initial decades of the 20th century. This would primarily be thanks to the two other key players in Yakima’s wine history, affectionately known as the grandfather and father of Washington Wine.

Yakima Valley wine country
William B. Bridgman pioneered the commercial planting of wine grapes in a region that has remained the focal point of the Washington wine industry to this day. Photo courtesy: Yakima Valley Wine Country

William B. Bridgman Marks the Beginning of the Modern Wine Industry

The beginning of the modern wine industry can be credited to Seattle attorney and Grandfather of Washington Wine William B. Bridgman. Everything about grape growing in Washington, particularly in the Valley, changed shortly after 1914 when the young man arrived in Sunnyside.

Bridgman established a shop, and as his law practice thrived, he turned his attention to land acquisition. Raised in a Canadian farming community on the Niagara Peninsula, his family cultivated Concord grapes, a viticultural background that would profoundly shape Washington Wine History’s beginnings. Simultaneously practicing law in Sunnyside, Bridgman played a pivotal part in Yakima Valley’s irrigation laws, crafting water resource development and sharing guidelines during his tenure as manager of the 1893-established Sunnyside Irrigation Canal.

 In 1914, Mr. Bridgeman examined his purchased land and, inspired by forthcoming irrigation laws, found the favorable elements on Harrison Hill, initiating wine grape planting. His first vines comprised Black Prince (Cinsault), Flame Tokay, and Ribier, versatile for both table and wine grapes. In 1917, more wine grapes were planted on Snipes Mountain, including Muscat of Alexandria, Thompson Seedless, and Black Hamburg. Bridgman expanded his vineyard with various varieties, selling grapes to Italian and Croatian immigrants in Cle Elum and Roslyn for personal and communal winemaking. These inaugural commercial wine grapes marked the inception of Washington’s Wine Industry.

Soon, Bridgman, a two-time mayor of Sunnyside, attained local celebrity status, assuming the role of Sunnyside’s foremost advocate. He fervently promoted farming across the Valley, capitalizing on the flourishing agricultural riches of the irrigated farmlands.

Yakima Valley wine country
Today the Yakima Valley is home to over 90 wineries all within 70 miles of each other. Photo courtesy: Wine Yakima Valley

Prohibition Threatens the Growth of Wine in Yakima

Bridgman’s foray into pioneering Washington’s Wine Industry is often regarded as ill-timed, coinciding with the emergence of Prohibition whispers spreading across America. The momentum of the alcohol industry was abruptly halted as successive state legislatures took measures to restrict it. Finally, on January 16, 1919, the states ratified Prohibition, dealing a nationwide blow to the alcohol trade, formalized through the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution on January 17, 1920.

Yet, Bridgman’s pursuit of grape cultivation did not conclude here. In fact, he witnessed a surge in demand for his grapes. This unexpected outcome was made possible due to a legal loophole that established a new avenue — the realm of home winemaking — which became an additional market for grape growers. The legislation permitted the sale of wine grapes to male household heads for “fruit preservation” through fermentation. This provision allowed individuals to create up to 200 gallons of self-produced wine annually. Nonetheless, this loophole predominantly favored grape growers and the cessation of commercial wine production halted the prospect of nurturing a wine industry across any state, including Washington.

The era of Prohibition persisted for 14 years until its repeal. Even though December 5, 1933, marked a cause for celebration, the revival of Washington’s wine industry was gradual, as more emphasis was placed on the Concord varietals that thrived in the state’s cool and damp western portion.

Yakima Valley wine country
Dr. J.D. Menzies (left) and Dr. Walter J. Clore (right) with an unidentified man in the middle, at the Irrigation Experiment Station in Prosser in 1945, as he continues his studies on wine varieties in the region. Photo courtesy: WSU Digital Collections

Walter Clore Becomes the Architect and Father of the Washington Wine Industry in Yakima

During the 1930s, as William Bridgman dedicated himself to the vineyards of Sunnyside with the lifting of Prohibition, the year 1934 introduced a youthful individual named Dr. Walter Clore to the scene. Arriving in Pullman, Clore embarked on his journey after securing a horticultural fellowship at Washington State College (now known as Washington State University-WSU). Armed with a bachelor’s degree in horticulture from Oklahoma State University, Clore made the most of his time at the college’s agricultural research center, channeling his passion for flowers and fruits.

Three years down the road, Clore assumed a position at the relatively new WSU Irrigation Agriculture Research Extension Center situated in Prosser. On an expanse of around 200 acres of unproductive land, a meticulously planned irrigation system accompanied by a collection of experimental fields provided Clore and his colleagues with the requisite area to delve into cultivating anything viable through irrigation in Central Washington. This comprehensive research encompassed a variety of vegetables and small fruits, including grapes.

Clore, acknowledged as the architect of the Washington wine industry, dedicated subsequent years to researching grape varieties suitable for the region’s conditions, taking an interest in wine grapes as a potential crop for Central Washington.

Bridgman bestowed upon Clore his inaugural grape cuttings. In the annals of Washington Wine history, this event denoted the formal passage of the wine grape legacy from Bridgman to Clore, signaling the commencement of Clore’s extensive exploration into grape varieties ideally suited for Washington’s climate. Clore’s visionary perspective on cultivating premium vinifera grapes and crafting exceptional wines within Washington spurred him to undertake on-site investigations of diverse grape varieties at various locations across the state.

Recognized as the driving force behind vineyard transformation, Clore played a pivotal role in all facets of viticulture, spanning trellising, pruning, the identification of grape varietals resilient enough to endure the region’s cold temperatures, and numerous other considerations. For this reason, he is known as the “Father of Washington Wine” by the Washington State Legislature.

In the ensuing years, under Clore’s guidance, the Research Extension Center substantially broadened its cultivation efforts, encompassing the planting of 45 hybrids, 71 Vitis vinifera, and ten interspecies Vitis hybrid rootstock.

Yakima Valley wine country
A vineyard worker harvesting grapes in Prosser in 1950. Photo courtesy: Washington Rural Heritage

Yakima Valley is Designated the State’s First American Viticultural Area (AVA)

In 1938, the state boasted 42 wineries scattered across its expanse, with the first significant commercial plantings commencing during the 1960s. As winemaking spread throughout the region as a hobby to some and a commercial enterprise for others, an early Yakima Valley winemaker known as Mike Wallace began to bring attention to the region’s need for an American Viticultural Area (AVA) designation.

This particular designation would benefit both wineries and consumers, allowing vintners and wine enthusiasts to attribute unique characteristics, climatic features, quality, reputation, and other attributes of wine made from grapes grown to its specific AVA geographic region. In addition, the designation benefits wineries as they get to be part of a prestigious or well-known AVA, which garners more positive views of their vineyard’s grapes and finished wines.  

Wallace’s winery, Hinzerling Winery, which he started with his father in 1976, along with Kiona Vineyard and Winery, Yakima River Winery, and Tucker Cellars, led the charge for the application, being the only four significant wineries in the region at the time.

Together, they formed a sort of loose wine growers’ association, and each of the four winemakers took on a different part of the application. Approval came within a few months, and the new status was a game changer. The designation added a lot of value to both the Yakima Valley and Washington regarding name recognition. At the time, it was the only AVA in the Pacific Northwest, meaning anytime there was a write-up about Washington’s wine industry, Yakima Valley was always mentioned. This led to a lot of good press and notoriety as the region’s wine industry and was a significant boost that would carry Yakima wine country into the 21st century.

Yakima Wine Country Continues to Grow Rich Roots

Today, Yakima Valley is home to over 90 wineries and five American Viticulture Areas within 70 short miles of each other. The region alone contains more than 19,000 acres of producing vineyards, including some of Washington’s oldest and most venerable wineries. Together, they produce over half of Washington’s wine grapes. In addition, the region is one of the few within the state where white varieties outnumber red.

As we raise our glasses to the past, it’s evident that Yakima’s wine country has woven a rich tapestry of history, culture and innovation. The journey from humble beginnings to a world-class wine destination underscores the passion and dedication of those who have nurtured the land and vines. As Yakima continues to evolve, one thing remains certain: its story will be told through each uncorked bottle, carrying the legacy of a region that turned dreams into reality along the grapevine.

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