In the course of writing several books and innumerable newspaper columns I’ve periodically (pun intended) looked into the history of winemaking here in Washington state. The development of the so-called modern industry can be traced back to the end of Prohibition 90 years ago this month. But in practical terms the first commercial wineries producing significant quantities of varietal wines based on vinifera grapes were Associated Vintners and Ste. Michelle back in the 1960s. Late in that decade a change in the law led to the establishment of the first retail wine shops in Washington, which also helped to kick-start the nascent industry.
A very fine account of the state’s off-and-on attempts at winemaking up to that point is here.
My own interest starts where that history leaves off, based upon a few slender books and a small collection of rare bottles. There is much information to be gleaned from old wine bottles, because the back labels were unencumbered by federal warnings and requirements, and the handful of pioneering wineries were doing their best to educate a small but curious consumer base. In keeping with my lifelong interest in marketing I find these labels most informative. What was the thinking of these early marketers? What messages were they trying to convey? How were they positioning these wines from a new and unknown region?
As luck would have it, just in the past week I came across a wine I’d never seen and only rarely heard whispers of.
Tom Stockley’s “Winery Trails of the Pacific Northwest” was published in 1977 as “a complete guide to the wineries of Washington, Oregon and British Columbia”. It included just eight entries from Washington, and only two of them (Ste. Michelle and AV – now Columbia) still exist, albeit in much-diminished circumstances. What isn’t in the book is any mention of Boordy Vineyards, whose 1971 Pinot Chardonnay was the bottle I discovered in a friend’s wine cellar.
The damaged label nonetheless clearly shows the ‘1’ at the end of the vintage, and the bottle was pulled from a cardboard box labeled 1971, so I am confident it’s authentic and I was beyond excited to do some research on the wine. The front label reads “produced and bottled by Boordy Vineyards Prosser Washington. Winemakers exclusively since 1945.”
1945? How was this even possible? I searched the internet – no help. You can Google it and you’ll quickly find that Boordy Vineyards still exists, and it has a fascinating history that does go back to 1945. But it is now, and has always been, a Maryland winery. How on earth did it come to make Chardonnay in Washington, and why is it missing in most accounts of Washington’s wine industry beginnings?
The back label speaks to my contention that a wealth of hidden history exists mainly on old wine bottles.
It reads “Boordy Pinot Chardonnay is a fine Washington White Burgundy of exceptional integrity, harkening in taste to the full, rich character of the great French Whites. For the neophyte its fullness may be a surprising quality since Boordy Pinot Chardonnay is very dry and pale in color. Produced in the wine valley of Washington, along the same parallel as the Burgundy wine district of France – latitude 45. It’s a nice parallel. Serve well chilled.”
A nice parallel indeed, and a well-turned phrase, making a connection (however spurious) to the same latitude in France. And I love the “wine valley of Washington”line also. What a great way to place an unknown region into a romantic wine setting. But back to the main question – when, how and why did Boordy venture into the Yakima valley, and what made it vanish? To find the answer I looked through every book on Washington wines (including my own) in my library, and finally found it in three different editions of Leon Adams’ invaluable “The Wines of America”. I have copied the pages here. There is some overlap among the three editions, but new information in each.
Summing up: the longest entries on Boordy dive into the history of its founder Philip Wagner, who was instrumental in bringing French hybrid grapes to America, and starting Boordy wineries in New York and Maryland. Wagner joined New York’s Seneca Foods as a wine consultant, and was flown to the Yakima Valley in 1968 to visit their Prosser fruit-processing plant. As Adams recounts, Wagner brought samples of frozen Yakima valley vinifera grape juice back east and made sample wines, which convinced Seneca to open a 200,000 gallon winery in Prosser. Those Washington Boordy wines were only made from 1971 to 1975, and the Prosser Boordy winery closed down in 1976 – one year before Stockley’s book was published.
A more recent chapter in failed Washington wineries also began with the best of intentions – my own Waitsburg Cellars project. The first five Waitsburg Cellars wines were released in the spring of 2013, kicked off with much fanfare including a little booklet of wine stories and a media party in Seattle. The two centerpiece wines featured old vine Chenin Blanc, and were intended in name and style to emulate the two classic Loire valley Chenins – one named Chevray (in homage to Vouvray) and one named Cheninières (in homage to Savennières). In that first 2012 vintage both wines were sourced from the Upland vineyard on Snipes Mountain, the same old vines that were then and still remain the basis for L’Ecole’s outstanding Old Vine Chenin Blanc.
I undertook this project with three main goals: first to showcase the power and purity of old vine Chenin Blanc; second to climb down off the ivory tower of wine reviewing and dive into the nitty-gritty reality of wine making; and third to put a spotlight on our new home town of Waitsburg. The project, much like Boordy, lasted just five vintages. I learned a lot, made a lot of mistakes, produced a dizzying number of different wines (the lineup changed every year except for the two Chenins) and perhaps did trigger more interest in preserving and showcasing old Chenin vines, which at the time were being ripped out and replaced with more lucrative varieties (hello Chardonnay) at an alarming rate.
Among the unintended consequences of my foray into winemaking was the loss of my two principal wine writing assignments, as my editors at the Seattle Times and the Wine Enthusiast concluded that my objectivity as a reviewer had been irreparably damaged. Apart from the fact that there was absolutely no truth to that assumption, I mention it only because I am just now, a decade later, rebuilding bridges to the Washington wineries whom I’m afraid felt suddenly ignored. That was never my intention. My work as a wine writer has always been centered upon covering the emerging wineries of the Pacific Northwest, principally in Washington and Oregon, and losing the connection to Washington was much more painful for me than the financial blow. With this Substack I hope to mend any broken fences and pick up where I left off, along with great gratitude and appreciation to all the Oregon wineries that have continued to support my writing throughout this past decade.
So it’s time to get back to critic-ing!
I mentioned the L’Ecole Chenin Blancs that inspired me. Here is a rundown of the winery’s latest (Fall ’23) releases. L’Ecole is mostly known for its exceptional red wines. But the white wines are every bit as exceptional and should not be missed. Purchase them here.
L’Ecole 2022 Seven Hills Vineyard Luminesce – This estate-grown Semi-Sauv is a stylistic nod to this classic blend as made in Bordeaux rather than Australia, with plenty of acid, no malolactic fermentation and just 15% new wood aging. The 2022 vintage ran late and allowed for extra long hang time, benefitting the layering, depth and texture of the finished wine. The satiny linalool character of the Semillon is nicely countered by the light herbaceousness of the Sauv Blanc. It was bottled about six months ago and has melded beautifully. 1630 cases; 13.5%; $25 (Walla Walla Valley) 93/100
L’Ecole 2022 Semillon – Compiled from seven different sites scattered across the Columbia Valley, this elegant white wine is lightly dappled with baking spices, lending it an apple pie flavor. The lemony acids bring freshness, and the addition of 18% Sauvignon Blanc adds touches of clean herbs. If you’re looking for a versatile dry white wine not called Chardonnay, this is a great choice and a fine value. 5500 cases; 13.5%; $18 (Columbia Valley) 91/100
L’Ecole 2022 Old Vines Chenin Blanc – I’m a believer in old vine Chenins, and to my knowledge there are no better examples in the Pacific Northwest than this. Rather than the simple fruit bombs that many Chenins bring to mind, this old vine bottling is delicate, dusty and detailed, a subtle wine that rewards your attention with cascading details and surpassing depth. Apple, white peach, zesty orange and dusty spices come together gracefully. If experience is any indication, this wine should age well for another 10 – 15 years. 180 cases; 13%; $24 (Snipes Mountain) 93/100
L’Ecole 2022 Chardonnay – The cool climate vineyards that comprise the bulk of this wine create a style perfectly in sync with L’Ecole’s other dry white wines. Subtle, lightly spicy, nicely layered and elegant, this is a stunningly good wine at this price. The fruit smacks of tangerine, pear and papaya, and the long finish remains clean and tart all the way through. The wine seems to gather focus and strength in the mouth, and if you stay with it you’ll find it trails out for a minute or longer. I’d bet it will age for a good decade, though it’s already drinking in fine condition. 6500 cases; 13.5%; $23 (Columbia Valley) 92/100
L’Ecole 2022 Evergreen Vineyard Chardonnay – Many top Washington wineries are turning to northern vineyards for their white wines. This AVA is the epicenter for many of them, especially grapes from Evergreen. Fruit flavors are spicy and tight, running the gamut from citrus to white peach to pineapple, with a kiss of mint. Still compact, this needs a bit of extra aeration. 420 cases; 13.5%; $36 (Ancient Lakes) 91/100
L’Ecole 2020 Seven Hills Vineyard Perigee – This is 54% Cabernet Sauvignon, 24% Merlot, 12% Cabernet Franc, 6% Malbec and 4% Petit Verdot – a full-on Bordeaux blend, comparable to the Apogee but sourced from a different vineyard. It‘s more accessible than the Apogee when first opened, with forward fruit flavors of berry and plum supported by polished tannins. With sappy citrusy acids underneath, and a wreath of forest floor highlights, this layers on flavor through the finish. Drink now to 2030. 1200 cases; 14.5%; $60 (Walla Walla Valley) 93/100
L’Ecole 2020 Pepper Bridge Vineyard Apogee – Strong, tannic, compact and dark-fruited, this is a substantial wine blended with 56% Cabernet Sauvignon, 28% Merlot, 12% Malbec and 4% Cabernet Franc. Tight as a tick, brooding and packed with dark fruits, pepper, espresso and graphite all the way through the finish. It still drank beautifully on day three, making it a surefire candidate for extended cellaring. Drink now to 2035 and beyond. 1200 cases; 14.5%; $60 (Walla Walla Valley) 95/100
This showcase vineyard sits atop a huge wall of fractured basalt. This too is a wine for the cellar, compact, aromatic and dense. Layer upon layer of cassis, blackberry, plum and a wash of barrel flavors and baking spices poke through. Re-tasted on the second day the aromatics explode open, a luscious mix of berry, plum, baking spices, asphalt and licorice. Flavors follow, a rich, dense and tannic wine with long term aging potential. Back to it on the fourth day the acids are propped up, but it is still drinking beautifully and showing excellent fruit. A triumph. 530 cases; 14.5%; $75 (Walla Walla Valley) 97/100