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Wine Enthusiast Podcast: Washington Wine, Then and Now

In this episode, Contributing Editor Sean Sullivan brings us on a deep dive through the history of Washington State wine. Featuring one of the region’s founding fathers, Allen Shoup, we learn how Washington went from a little-known region to wine-producing powerhouse.

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Read the full transcript for “Washington Wine, Then and Now”:

Sean Sullivan: My name is Sean Sullivan, I’m a contributing editor to Wine Enthusiast magazine. Today I wanted to talk about Washington State wine. I think Washington is interesting because it’s a very young and emerging wine growing region. Most of wineries here … Chateau Ste. Michelle, the largest wine company in the state, looking across all of its brands, was founded 50 years ago this year and that’s pretty much as far back as the wine industry goes. Particularly Allen Shoup because Allen Shoup is the founder of Long Shadows Vinters, a winery in the Walla Walla Valley and, was originally the CEO for a company called Stimson Lane, which is the parent company for Chateau Ste. Michelle. He worked there for, I believe it was, 17 years.

As I said, Ste. Michelle is really the dominant player in the Washington wine industry. If you look across the various wineries that they own, they are involved in well over, probably half of the overall acreage in the state as well as wine production in the state. Alan was responsible in the kind of early days of really shepherding that company to where it is today. Alan, thank you very much for being here with us today.

Allen Shoup: My pleasure, Sean.

SS: This was 1980 you first came to the Chateau if I’m correct,

AS: Right, exactly.

SS: And, then became CEO a few years later. Obviously very different times in the Washington wine industry, hardly any grape acreage in the ground, give us a sense of what the Washington wine industry kind of looked like at that point in time.

AS: It was very difficult, much more difficult than most people can imagine because, starting a wine business in an unknown viticulture region is difficult enough, but what we had early on … We had a huge freeze in ’79 that virtually wiped out the entire industry. We had to replant 2,000 acres. After about four years, we began to have freeze after freeze. Never would one freeze, except that one, kill more than 50% of the vines, but we lost enough every year, that we began to financially budget in our 10 year plan, that we would have to assume four years of harvest for a five year period. We’d lose at least a harvest every five years, a full harvest. Then we started fighting different diseases that we didn’t know about, all these different scares that we had. We spent a lot of money with research, so that was the hard part and then, of course, just going around the country and trying to convince distributors.

SS: St. Michelle was very much involved with the establishment of the Columbia Valley as a growing region, Washington’s largest federally approved growing region. Tell me a bit about what that process was like and what the goals were.

AS: It was extremely self-evident to me that Washington had a real problem, just with the name. It was very hard to convince people because people here, they live here and they’re egocentric about Washington. They just feel like, “Hey, we all know it. What do you mean?” They don’t realize that 99.999% of the people in the world, know the word Washington and it means something 3000 miles from here, even national news. Secondly, all the great wine regions were viticulture culture regions, so I knew we needed a viticulture winery. I asked Wade Wolfe who had a PhD and, worked for me, to come up with a design for a viticulture region. It was very important to me that it be all-inclusive, because I felt if it wasn’t all-inclusive, that the average … We know, psychologically, the average person who doesn’t work in a business has a list of about three things. If you ask them, you know, how many people make tractors? How many people make steel, or something, they usually can come up with three. Very difficult to go beyond that unless you’re actually in the industry. I knew that, very unlikely we would ever break into the three, but certainly we got to be somewhere on the list, as close possible.

A goal would have been name the three most important American viticulture regions; Napa, Sonoma, and Columbia valley. That would have been the kind of goal. You can’t make up a name for a viticulture and it can’t be fictitious. It has to have historical precedence.

SS: So, you have to go through the TTB, you have to send in an application that basically states the borders of the viticulture region. You need to see why its distinct as a wine growing region from other areas and, give some kind of name proof to what the growing region is.

AS: So, they do two things. One is, they want the made up viticulture region that basically would comprise every thing that they thought possibly could someday grow grapes. La Cour is a well known map, the map by Lewis and Clark when they came through Washington, they sent a map back to Thomas Jefferson and it showed the Columbia valley. So, that made it pretty easy to use the Colombia valley.

SS: For people who may be unfamiliar with Washington wine, what do you think really defines the state and its wines.

AS: I think it’s difficult because, I think were still evolving. If you look at what I have seen from 1980 to now, its night and day. We still haven’t mastered site selection, we haven’t mastered what clones to put in what sights. It’s also exciting that we probably as an age of wine makers and wine [inaudible 00:05:53] are much younger than anywhere else. We have all this young, creative talent that isn’t steeped in tradition and is willing to experiment. If you’re just forced to say what’s the difference and, do it in a generality, most people would say were not as masculine as California lets say Napa, and were not as feminine as Bordeaux. Were somewhere in between, I guess that’s not a bad place to live although, obviously we have many examples, which would exceed both sides of those.

SS: One of the characteristics of Washington is that, a single grape variety doesn’t really define the state. We grow a lot of things well here. Do you look at that as a help or hindrance to Washington wine kind of making its way on the world map.

AS: I think it’s a help because it keep us creative and exploring. There’s just so many grapes that we’re discovering that we can do well with. It’s way too early for us to define … I just think it’s kind of a luxury right now that we have. Certainly we wouldn’t grow as fast, we’d be like Oregon if had depended on, as they were for so long, one grape. That’s a lot of eggs in one basket and, Oregon been really able to explode except for that. The volume of the wine that is produced in Oregon is a fraction of what we produce.

SS: Do you think Washington will ever be known for a single grape variety?

AS: I think more likely Washington will be like California. In which, it’ll have the Russian river known for Pinot Noir, Napa Valley known for Cabernet. That kind of break up of different viticulture areas. As example, I bought wineries in Napa Valleys running Ste. Michelle and, anybody who didn’t plant their grapes at Cabernet was losing money. We bought a Chenin Blanc, 40 acres of Chenin Blanc from a very famous producer right by Plum Creek Winery, right there on Silverado trail. He just loved Chenin Blanc and, we made a world class Chenin Blanc. We couldn’t pay him anything for the grape and we couldn’t sell it so that’s the reality. Certainly some places are going to grow Chenin Blanc and are going to rediscover them and they’re going to be phenomenal. As I say, were young, we haven’t found what clone grape could put on the soil, much less in deciding which regions of Napa. We have given red mountain to Cabernet.

SS: Sure

AS: As it deserves. That’s about as close … We give the rocks, the few that we have that to Syrah.

SS: It’ll definitely take a lot of time to sort that out. You talked about how no one really saw what Washington would become back in those early days, when did you first start to really realize that there was something kind of special about the Washington wine industry.

AS: It’s interesting you ask that question. It was relatively early on, as we were going through the library of wines we pulled out a 75′ and 76′ Cabernet, Ste, Michelle Cabernet, and we open them. This had been 84′ or 85′ and, they were ambrosia. We put them in blind tastings and they had compete with first growths, they were just beautiful. How that happened, none of us know because we didn’t have … Those were not made …

SS: Young vines

AS: Well, and not made with the kind of technology that we were using now and the kind of equipment or anything else. But, they were, and that’s what convinced some of us. It took us a while to learn how to do that but, now many, many examples of those kinds of wines. So, that’s when I became comfortable. I gave a speech early on saying … Cause we were a white wine industry, they would concede that Riesling in Washington was kind of our cross to bear. Kind of a backhanded compliment in a way since nobody bought Riesling. I gave a speech where I said eventually Washington would be known more for its reds than its whites and, I was laughed at a bit. I know my [inaudible 00:10:05] reminds me about it that, I had said that. And, that’s the case and it was because of those two vintages of a single line.

SS: Yeah and, now I think although Riesling still plays a big role and white wines do in general, Washington is very much considered a red wine state.

AS: Yes, exactly. Even though, Ste. Michelle probably produces more Riesling than all the other wineries in America combined.

SS: Yeah. Over a million cases of their Colombia Valley Riesling alone.

AS: Right.

SS: Robert Mondavi is really considered by many probably the father of the Napa Valley wine industry. A true icon who came to the valley very early and, established one of the most prominent and well known wineries in California. Was probably, more than any individual, responsible for spreading the gospel of Napa Valley wine, which is the most dominant wine region in the United States at this point and was really one of your mentors. Talk a little bit about that relationship and what you learned from him.

AS: Bob and I for some reason got along very, very well and, he called me his soul mate. We just shared the same views on all these issues and didn’t know it until we were in various kinds of forums where we’d be reinforcing one another’s comments. I think the two most important men in the American wine industry unequivocally are Ernest Gallo and Bob Mondavi. Ernest Gallo brought wine to the masses in a way that couldn’t otherwise have been done and, Bob Mondavi instilled this desire to make world class wines and brought the PR tools to get that story out. The most brilliant thing, in my mind done in marketing PR in the wine industry was, the joint venture between the Baron Rothschild and Bob Mondavi. If you think of what that did, it brought the imprimatur of one of the worlds greatest known lines, highest … first growth into California, into Napa. Certainly Mondavi got a lot of credit but, he promoted everybody and that was always his vision, was to promote everybody just like it was mine.

Seeing that, that was the model of … I knew we had to do something similar to that in Washington. I worked for a long time to make that happen.

SS: So Chateau Ste. Michelle has always had a big focus on relationships. It’s somewhat the seal of approval of a classic wine region like Bordeaux to have someone from that region come to there and, say they want to grow wine grapes and make wines there, is essentially giving their seal of approval on that particular wine region. With these partnerships, specifically there’s 3 that’s Chateau Ste. Michelle has, there’s one … The first one in 1995 with Col Solare with the Antinori family from Italy, the second one from Ernst Loosen with Germany and, then a third one a Rome partnership. They’re essentially saying taking particular styles of grapes or styles of wines and, making those varieties in conjunction or, in partnership with these international wine makers, is essentially giving them kind of a seal of approval in some way.

AS: Yep.

SS: Talk a little bit about those partnerships and what you think they’ve done for the Washington wine industry.

AS: I don’t think we had the impact with these partnerships that Bob had with the Baron Rothschild. Partly because, the Baron Rothschild was also very PR oriented. So, you had these two giants promoting … We don’t have a Bob Mondavi here, nor do we have a joint venture with anybody as big picture as the Baron Rothschild. Piero Antinori and I got to know each other and, he came a couple times and I got the idea, “Let’s see if he’ll do it.”

So, I asked Piero and he said, “Well, I’ll bring in [inaudible 00:13:55] we’ll look at it.” Came a few weeks later, he was there at the time, he came within a month. They went over … We had 50,000 barrels of red wine so, they certainly could see what we’re doing. Came back to my office at the end of the week and says, “Well, why not lets do this.” I said, “Well, how do you want to get started? Your lawyers, our lawyers? I’ve got this document that is about two inches thick, that we worked on with Michel Rolland, it’s got every contingency in the world.” “Well, let me take that and, we’ll look at it.”

Piero calls me back and says that he’s looked over the document and says, “It’s a pretty good document but, I think it has three mistakes.” I shudder thinking, “Oh no, I can’t go through this again.” He says, “But, I don’t think you will mind, they are all for you.” He found three things that we were being too generous with.

SS: Interesting.

AS: I always thought, “That’s the way I’ll start partnerships.” What could be better than that.

SS: So Ste. Michelle kind of the first chapter and, then I guess you left Ste. Michelle in 2000, if I recall correctly.

AS: 2000 yeah.

SS: Then 2002 you started Long Shadows Vinters. Talk to us a little about the idea behind starting that winery.

AS: My dream as a child was to own my own business so, I always, always had that frustration … Running Ste. Michelle was as close as you can get because, nobody in the parent company ever, ever gave me instructions. I reported them through budget, they wouldn’t sometimes not give me as much money as I wanted but, never did they tell me how to make the wine. They supported me on everything we wanted to build or, plant. It was very, very supportive. In many ways it was like running my own company but, in that case, it wasn’t mine. I used to think, when I was putting these ventures together that, somebody should do that, and bring some of the worlds greatest winemakers to Washington and, let them only make one wine but, that wine would be one of the specialty of the grapes that they specialize in.

So, I decided to do that and, I basically used the same motto, which is, I gave each of these people … By this time I’ve gotten to know all these people and, I gave each of them 25% interest in the equity of their brand. I have since bought all of those equities out. Gil makes now Saggi …

SS: Gil Nickel? …

AS: Gil Nickel our super wine maker. Course always made Chester Kidder and he makes now Saggi, that was because those partners … The father got too old and the son was too rich, he just couldn’t afford to take the time to do it. What I offered to buy the equity out he didn’t even want me to pay him but, you know I still gave him a nice chunk of money.

SS: So, you brought some wines from Long Shadows with us here today, kind of walk us through some of these wines. The first one that looks like this is the 2004 Pirouette, which I believe is the first vintage of this wine if I’m correct.

AS: Right. When I had the vision to put this business together, I knew I had to get some really well known wine makers to get this to work so, quickly I got Michel Rolland. I had developed a very close relationship with him before he was known. I visited him in Bordeaux, I brought him over to be a consultant and, he agreed to the deal. He was also working with Agustin Huneeus at Quintessa, so he had bonded with him. Agustin for … First tasting. Came to me at one point when I had John Duval from Penfold who, made Penfolds grange and, Randy Dunn to make our Cabernet and, he came to me and said, “I owe you a winemaker, all these other people without exception are wine makers. I owe you a wine maker, I’m going to give half of my interest to Phillipe Melka if you don’t mind.”

I had somehow … Phillipe Melka’s reputation had escaped me so, I didn’t really know he was but, I trusted and then found out his credentials; being at Petrus and, Haut-Brion and everything. That was pure luck that I got him cause, he didn’t know me and, I didn’t know me, But, he came along and he’s obviously the architect of Pirouette and still does the blending.

SS: So a Bordeaux style blend on …

AS: A very Bordeaux … That’s what we’re looking for a Bordeaux wine.

SS: So, one of the things I’m really struck by on this one again, this is the 2004 Pirouette from the Long Shadows Vinters is, that this is a 12 almost 13 year old wine and, still an incredible freshness and vibrancy to the lovely black fruit flavors. If I were blind tasting this wine I don’t think I would ever imagine that this wine is over a decade old. Obviously one of the hallmarks of a great wine region is the age ability of its wines. How do you see Washington wines aging?

AS: I think there was a period there probably right up until 2000 where we had a fear. It was a standard thing. If you look at the reviews that we got from everyone and, they would say when to drink, we were given a 10 year window of drink ability. We were afraid and, I didn’t think that many of us were making good enough wines. Just the way we made wine, we changed our practices so dramatically during the 90’s that we were making, red wines specifically. I had a tasting just recently with one of your competitors and, I thought I had two bottles of the ’76 I found … Of the ’56 Cabernet that I talked about and, I wasn’t sure. He tasted through all the wines, made the same observation on how young all these different wines … And, I went through all, not just some of the show wines, but all the wines and finding how well they were aging.

When he got to that wine he says, “Clearly the best wine of the group,” That was ’75 so, I’m now totally convinced that Washington wines will age with the best of them.

SS: Yeah. One of the things that’s the most exciting to me about Washington wine is that the … It is very early days here where you look at winery like Ste. Michelle just celebrating its 50th anniversary, this year most the vines in the state are considerably younger than that but, the quality of the wines that are being produced is astronomically high. Even though, as you say, there’s a lot of site selection and clonal work that has yet to be done in the state. Tell us about this second wine you brought here. Do you want to go to the Chester Kidder or …

AS: Yeah, lets try the Chester Kidder. I’m not a wine maker but, I wanted to have my own line so I was … This is my mothers maiden name and my grandmothers maiden name and, I was going to kind of design it myself. What I did is that when, everybody started raving about Gil so quickly, I said “I got to give him a wine.” So, this is Gil’s wine. Gil made this wine and, even though it carries my family name its Gil’s. He decided early on the loved the Syrah here and, he wanted to make a, we call it, a new world Bordeaux. A new world Bordeaux in the addition of Syrah. Again, neither he nor I had a reputation as wine makers or anything, this one took a long time and, now it’s got almost a cult following. It’s very exciting.

SS: Yeah. Certainly I think one of the things you see in Washington in compared to other regions of the world is, a lot of people using Sryah in Bordeaux style blends. Wanting Syrah in Cabernet’s and, I think on this wine here we see a lovely marriage of these two varieties. You got that nice kind of black cherry note of the Cabernet with a really nice soft plushness of the Syrah, delightful one. And, the third one you brought for us you want to open that one up. This is the Long Shadow’s Sequel. So, as we’re opening this bottle here, talk a little bit about some of the things you’ve kind of learned … Long Shadows at this point is I guess celebrating its 15th year which, is kind of remarkable. Talk about some of the things that you’ve learned through this project.

AS: It reinforced the importance of extreme dedication to quality. That the quality starts in the vineyard, that I believes still in Washington today. It’s probably the vineyard manager is probably more important than the site. I just think that me have examples of great vineyard managers on very average sites growing phenomenal grapes and, we vineyard managers on great sites growing non phenomenal. That’s really been reinforced, that we need to keep putting more time and attention. That was a huge problem in the beginning because, all the farmers didn’t drink wine and, weren’t grape growers. There’s diversified farmers that put in grapes as a way of diversification. Now, most of them drink wine and, the ones that have survived well have passions for wine and, passions for growing grapes. But, you can name them. You yourself would know and, it wouldn’t be that big of a list.

SS: Yeah.

AS: The other thing is the importance of cleanliness, the importance of space in a winery, the importance of technology. We just bought a new destemmer that it’s just amazing what it can do and, very expensive piece of equipment. I think all this new technology … I mean Randy Dunn gets a little upset with it. Randy’s the one that when the grapes are sorted and, we’re pulling out all the stems and everything and letting the stems go on the ground, he’ll pick the stems back up and throw it on the conveyor belt cause he wants them.

SS: Wants the stems in there. Doesn’t want the clean fruit that …

AS: Not … He wants … He and Michel Rolland got discussion once and, Michel tasted the wine and says, “I think it’s too rustic.” And, Randy says, “What do you mean? I think it’s rustic, but I think it’s wonderful.”

SS: So, tell us about the sequel project. This is the 2005 …

AS: Yes.

SS: Long Shadow sequel.

AS: This was initially a project because, John Duval who had been with Penford Grange for many years … I mean Penfold, the wine company, had been at Penfold Grange for many years, had retired same time I did, same year I believe and, decided to start his own winery. So, I went to him … I had met him but didn’t really know him, but when I talked to him about the project he got really excited. So, he came over and, he, like every other wine maker said without exception, ” We’re not trained to make the wine that we make at our own vineyards.” We’re not trained to make … Randy clearly has not made a Hall Mountain Cabernet, you know his Cabernet here is so soft, it’s almost the antiphysis. They all say that and, he made it clear that he’s not trying to make another Penfold Grange, he’s just trying to make really highly balanced wine in the spirit of Penfold Grange.

But, he won’t make one of these big robust wines that we’re known for. He’s quite a purist. He takes longer to blend, he doesn’t want to be interrupted while he’s blending. He’s just focused, he takes two days Michel Rolland takes two hours. Just a different style in so many ways. He’s really been proud of this project and, comes here a lot to over see it. He’s been a wonderful partner and it’s unfortunate the Syrahs scores very, very well. Reasonably priced, our most reasonably priced wine I think, and yet, it’s the lowest production that we do.

SS: Yeah. Certainly the consumer demands for the Syrahs aren’t as high as many of us would like to see.

AS: Exactly, and it’ll probably come back, we’ll all see them come back.

SS: So, we’ve talked a little bit about viticulture, looking forward of the wine industry what do you see as kind of the critical next steps to developing the industry.

AS: You know I’ve been pounding on this drum ever since I came here and, I’ll still pound on it which is, I don’t think we’ve yet done enough to build awareness of the region. I think we don’t, ill just be candid,  I think we misspend our money by not trying some … To be going to Europe and going to Asia and taking our wines to events over there, rather than be taking them to region cities and, particularly influencing wine writers and the wine media. I think we should foot much much more time. We should charter jets and, bring them here, we should take them … It’s a free industry. The writers need us, they need new stories almost as much as we need them. It’s to say, I think that’s what we have to do. If we don’t, I think we’ll … It’s going to happen, there’s no doubt, I’d like to see it happen in my lifetime. And, I don’t think it will, I’m 74 years old, if we don’t become more aggressive in telling the story. It should not surprise people on the streets of Chicago that Washington’s making great wines.

SS: Yeah, It takes a long time to get that kind of awareness.

AS: There are things that are going to happen and they are going to be wonderful and, they’re going to happen just because of progress. We’re going to see these young, bright new wine makers making better and better wine as they experience. We’re going to learn viticulture practices are going to get better and better. New … I was just shown a new site that could be one of the best sites in the state that nobody even … It’s 4000 acres site. That I think will be all planting to grapes and there’s already water for it, which is the most critical factor. It’s all up for us and we’ll see more and more California people come up here. It’s a very, very exciting future for Washington.

SS: Future is very very bright.

AS: Just as I think is a very exciting future for America in general, we’re still not a wine consuming nation. We still don’t drink per capita much more than we did in 1970. It’s just that we drink different. The wines of the 70’s the Boom farms and the ripples and the Spenyadas and Lambrusco’s and all of those bulk lines and things have disappeared. Everybody has moved upscale, so now the cork finish wine, which in the 70’s was some of the consumption. If we consider screw cap and cork, quality wines, it’s probably 50% of the consumption. So, that’s grown and the dollars have grown and the awareness has grown but, total consumption. So, were drinking 3 gallons per capita. No wine country in the world drinks less than 10. If we went to 6, we would have to double the amount of vineyards and production in this company. So, that’s very exciting and wine is not a fad, once people discover it, wine is like great literature or poetry. Once you touch it you don’t give it up. You don’t go to another drink. Because of what it does for food. It makes food and the dining pleasure so special.

SS: Well, Alan Shoup Long Shadow Vinters, thank you so much for being here with us today. Pleasure talking to with you.

AS: Indeed, it was my enjoyment. Thank you.

SS: Cheers.

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