Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Why We Can Drink California Wine on Sunday and the Northwest Wine Academy

My wife has been taking courses at the South Seattle Community College at the school's wine program, the Northwest Wine Academy.  We both love wine and sometimes have fantasies about becoming part of the wine life.  Naturally, I require a debrief after each class and sometimes I go along with her when she has a class project or volunteers at the school.
That’s where we are now, at the wine program’s brand new winery and classroom building, a simple, lovely design with classrooms, a lab and a tasting room for the student-made wines. There’s also a place where the wines of the school’s alumni are available for sale, many of them very good and hard to find elsewhere because some are yet very small. It is a big improvement over its first building back in 2005 when it started. Among the drawbacks of the old building was that it shared space with the welding program, which gave a metallic nose to most wines tasted there.
Barbara is volunteering for this year’s release of new student wines and the first Fall release in the new building on November 21-23. People are scurrying around the place, tasting wine, giving informal tours to family and friends and admiring the new production gear and the obvious care of the building design. Boxwood, an architectural firm renowned in the winery world, is re-using old materials in different ways. One wall is ground up shipping pallets glued into brick forms designed to insulate the barrel room where the wine ages best at consistent temperatures. The tasting room bar is
a rectangle of galvanized fencing full of eastern Washington rocks with a gray slate tabletop. If you’ve ever been to Carlton Winemakers Studio in the Willamette Valley, you’ll have a feel for the design of this one. Boxwood did both.
South Seattle’s wine program is one of several that are training participants for the growing wine industry in Washington State. Community colleges in Walla Walla, Wenatchee, Yakima, Tri-Cities, and four year institutions Washington State University and Central Washington University are offering a variety of courses covering many aspects of the wine industry. Some feature a greater emphasis on the growing of fruit and the making of the product while others focus on marketing, distribution and the interface between wine and food.
There are 28,000 full time equivalent jobs in the Washington state wine industry, about the same number of employees working at the University of Washington, and there is demand for more people. A quick peak tells me that 26 jobs are open in the Northwest this morning and another 279 openings in California.
In addition to the community colleges and four year institutions, there are other groups playing roles in developing talent. The Boeing Employees Beer and Wine Club, organized in 1978, is a powerful education resource which has spun off 20 or so wineries in Washington and many second careers in the wine business. The Washington Athletic Club has a wine club for the past seven years that shows off its extensive Washington state collection and provides wine dinners and wine tours for its members. Nearly all decent wine stores create opportunities for expanding the tastes of their customers and for producers to meet consumers. In Prosser, the Port of Benton County has just opened The Walter Clore Center, a kind of wine museum and gathering place for special events that the wine country businesses thrive on.  In Tri-Cities, WSU has broken ground on the Wine Science Center, offering four year degrees and the link to research that the wine industry, and indeed all agriculture, thrives on.  
Clore was a very particular and detailed researcher from WSU who soon fell in love with the structure of the ground he was walking on – scoured by the many glacial era floods and then dusted by Loess, the wind-blown soils that settled at depths deep enough to feed the vines at a deep down, allowing them to better survive the cold winters. He became aware of the climate pockets that gave further protection to the fruit and documented how the soils changed as they rose above the historic floods.

His experiments moved to other species of grape, European varieties that produced premium wine where conventional wisdom held that Washington’s climate wouldn’t support grapes that then grew in temperate environments like Napa, Sonoma and Santa Barbara. But all these different climates and soils and the Frenchy latitudes running across the state told Clore a different story, that this was wine grape country that the world would come to know soon enough.
California Grower
During Prohibition, grapes of any kind were in considerable demand because home winemakers could produce up to 200 gallons of wine for personal use. In fact, US wine consumption per person doubled between 1915 and 1925, the first ten years of Prohibition in Washington. California wineries shipped not only grapes for these “kitchen wines”, but bricks of grape concentrate – just add water. In the Northwest, the transportation issues made California wine grapes more difficult to get whatever their form, so drinkers made do with what was close by – Concord grapes along with any other fruit that would ferment, particularly apples.

Post Prohibition, tastes for the cheaper, sweet stuff hung on, in part because wineries in California were now consuming all the grapes being grown there. A half gallon of Apple Andy, a very hard cider produced by Pommerelle, provided an effective alternative and sold for $1.32 in 1950.
The National Wine Company, Nawico, had a big shop in the Fremont district of Seattle where they mixed various fortified wines, ports and sherries. Their neon sign was a local landmark. In 1965, the company advertised its version of the perfect accompaniment to that year’s Thanksgiving.

“Heat together in a sizeable kettle one bottle of Nawico Port Wine, one bottle of Nawico Burgundy wine (.84 cents!), one bottle of Brandy and a half pound of seedless raisins. Boil for several minutes, then add a hand full of cloves, a stick of cinnamon and 4-5 twists of lemon peel. Serve in a glass with a handle on it and put an almond in each cup.”

Triple Yum!!!  Not.

There are many avenues from the past that lead to today's Washington wine industry -- geologic, business, academic, cultural and political -- avenues that bring us to this wine tasting room at South Seattle Community College. I’m interested today in the political avenues that lead to the energy in this room. While wine’s antecedents in the Northwest date back to the Hudson’s Bay Company, I’m going to begin with the political narrative that started in 1966.

An unlikely combination of interests in that year made it possible to change the law making purchase of alcohol on Sundays illegal, a big impediment to the food and entertainment industries. Soon after, the Washington State Legislature of 1969 put the laws governing alcohol consumption closer to the evolving attitudes of its citizens. At that same session, legislators settled on a crucial and controversial economic choice for the state’s wine industry. In those three years at the end of the 60’s, the political and economic foundations for today’s industry formed.

After 1909, one could not legally buy alcohol on Sunday in Washington State, nor could citizens enjoy dancing, horse racing, selling cars, boxing, or other “loud, noisy or boisterous sport or amusements.” Promptly at twelve o’clock on a New Year’s evening, the drinks were picked up before the patrons could get through one “should old acquaintance be forgot.” Wine with dinner on a Sunday had to be at a private home and you had to remember to purchase it the day before.

A young man from California, former Seattle sportscaster Rod Belcher, spent 1943 in the Army Air Corps at Paine Field in Everett and once wrote a parody of Rudyard Kipling's "Road to Mandalay" on the difficulty of getting a drink on Sunday in Washington state:

"On the road to Puget Sound, where the fog and rain abound, and to get a drink on Sunday makes a man go underground."

The implementation of state laws at the end of Prohibition, the 1933 Steele Act, created other restrictive statutes that forbade patrons to drink while standing or walking and barred women from sitting at a cocktail bar though for some reason it was okay in a tavern. The interior of taverns had to be visible from the street, the better to see ladies illegally moving their drink to the pool table. What would have happened to grunge if musicians under 21 could not could not play in places where liquor was sold, another restrictive law of the time. And there was that pesky law that forbade alcohol within a mile of the University of Washington campus. Some of these laws were ignored, but sometimes the cops would show up and ruin an evening.
Lem Howell
Two young political activists surveyed this scene and saw opportunity. Lem Howell, an attorney and president of the Washington Young Democrats, was looking for an organizing opportunity that could energize Democrats in the 1966 election and recruit people for the 1968 presidential cycle. He settled on an initiative to open up Sunday alcohol sales. Howell, intimidated by the job of collecting well over 100,000 signatures, looked for help from an activist Republican and found Camden Hall, who headed up the young Republicans at the University of Washington. Unlike today, lots of Republicans roamed the Seattle savannah and there was a sturdy balance between the two parties and a willingness to work together if the opportunity was right.
Camden Hall
Both men were smart and creative and took a bold turn in forming their coalition. They approached the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Washington with the argument that the Washington State blue laws were discriminating against their church, whose services were on Saturday. Turns out that ignoring their Saturday Sabbath also grated on them. So, this coalition of Republicans, Democrats and fundamentalists went to the field, collected nearly 200,000 signatures and won the election handily, losing just seven rural counties. Some counties were close, but King and Pierce had overwhelming margins, close to three to one, and the Liquor Control Board, formed after Prohibition, long a bastion of the Alcohol Problem League, the successor to the Temperance Union, agreed unanimously with the vote on Hall's and Howell's initiative and opened up sales of alcohol on Sunday.

In the 1969 session of the Washington Legislature, the alcohol laws were reorganized and made less intrusive. More important in that session, however, was the legislature’s willingness to take on the entrenched, protected sweet wine industry within the state and open the state to 
California wines even when their industry was far ahead of our own. Alcohol was still dangerous political territory in a state that had adopted Prohibition in 1916 ahead of most states, but after the success of the Sunday sales initiative, the Wine Institute of California decided on a full court press to ease the restrictions on its wine products.
Unfortunately for its supporters, this bill became known as the California Wine Bill which made it even more controversial. California and the Pacific Northwest had an uneasy relationship, particularly in that year. Governor Dan Evans campaigned in 1968 on a pledge that “California will not get one drop of Washington water.” Governor Tom McCall, in Oregon, was telling Californians to “Visit, yes. But for God’s sake don’t stay!” Time Magazine first used the word "californicate" in 1966 and by 1969 northwest states had thousands of bumper stickers urging its citizens not to do that awful thing to themselves. A purchase of 4,000 acres of Concord grapes in Yakima had people thinking that Ernest and Julio Gallo were going to start controlling this state’s industry as they controlled California. Alas, it was only to make Andre Cold Duck, a red, sweet, bubbly wine synonymous with celebratory events for the average Joe.
California's problem was that their wineries could only sell wine to the state Liquor Control Board which applied a tax and marked them up for the trouble of storage, distribution and shelf space in the state’s liquor system. The markup was, on average, about 84%. A two dollar California varietal presented itself to a Washington consumer at about $3.50. Choices of which California brands the Liquor Control Board would buy were also unfair. On the other hand, Washington wines, still mostly sweet and fortified, could be sold directly to wholesalers and grocers after paying a ten cent a gallon tax and were broadly available on most grocery shelves.

By 1969, there were only eight wineries in Washington, mostly big and producing sweet wines, but pathfinders in the new industry of premium wines were beginning to make good wine and believed they could compete. They liked to say that when Washington was done, Californians would be making raisins.  
While overblown, the sentiment had considerable energy behind it.  The Leonetti family in Walla Walla, for years made lovely wine mainly for its own use. Others, like Professor Angelo Pellegrini, by now a famous cook and food writer, would get shipments of grapes from his friend Robert Mondavi and produce his own.  A club of six University of Washington professors and four other friends began making their own fine wines -- Associated Vintners -- with Pellegrini’s help, in 1962. First in the Laurelhurst neighborhood and then in Kirkland, they bought grapes and made good wine. With Doctor Clore’s help, they bought land in the Yakima Valley and planted their own grapes. A production error blew out their first vintage but they offered a Riesling in 1967 that had critical praise.  In 1967. Ste. Michelle Winery, the successor company to Nawico and Pommerelle, offered its first Cabernet Sauvignon in 1967 and planted its first vineyard in 1972.
Most legislative victories start with a great lobbyist. When the California wine industry made its first attempt in 1967 to get rid of the preferential treatment of Washington wines, Ivan Kearns was the lobbyist for the Washington Grape Growers Association and and was famous for his deep friendships in the legislature. In that session, Kearns kept the Californians at bay.
Tom Owens
But Kearns retired at the end of the 1967 session and the California Wine Institute had a great lobbyist of its own ready for the 1969 session, Thomas J. Owens, known as Tommy Raincoat, for his very fine London Fog with what seemed to have a hundred buttons on it. There would be a perfectly put together suit underneath, usually a crimson tie with silver stripes over a perfect white shirt. He liked a vest and looked trim in it.

Tom brought a full bag of skills to the California Wine Bill. He’d worked in the Seattle City Attorney’s office and knew local government. He was a cocky advocate and highly competitive. But he was also a lot of fun. His approach differed from the low key Kearns, but it still developed and maintained relationships. He was also married to wine and the good life. His wife was Angelo Pellegrini’s daughter. In one of his books, Pellegrini referred to Owens as “the scamp.”

The vote passed the House easily and found its way to Senate. It went to The Rules Committee first to see if the committee thought it was worthy of a Senate vote. The Rules Committee at that time acted in secret, alleging that a little secrecy was the way to avoid political pressure. In fact, they were really not avoiding pressure, but keeping control of everything the legislature did.

A few years later, as a young man, I was told by my editor to go into the Rules Committee room before the meeting and refuse to leave.

Puffing up, I said: “I’m not leaving until the meeting is over.”

“Well, the meeting is over,” Chairman of Rules and Lieutenant Governor John Cherberg said, banging down the gavel. The committee convened elsewhere in a few minutes. I realized that they had done this before.

As the regular session of the 1969 Legislature ended on Friday, The Rules Committee listed the bills that would be voted on during the Senate’s last day. The California Wine Bill was not among them. Papers at the time recorded the vote as 9-8 against sending the bill to a vote, though, as per the rules of the day, no names were associated with the votes.

Governor Evans called a special session immediately as several other important bills, abortion rights, for example, had not been acted on. Two weeks later, as the special session wound down, the California Wine Bill was back in Rules and was subject to the same close vote, 9-8. Only this time, the wine bill had the nine. It passed the Senate easily.

Talking with a friend when I was thinking of writing this piece, he said:

“Do you know, that was a $20,000 vote to get out of Rules?”

We will never know whether there was cash moving that day or not, though we should not be surprised. We do know that the bill worked as advertised. The cheap, sweet and heavy alcohol wines lost market share and California wines replaced them on the shelves. But the Washington state premium wine industry exploded, taking back market share over the years from the California colossus and is a $14 billion dollar industry today.
The Wine Academy’s winemaker, Peter Bos, is supervising the crush of the Cabernet grapes that have just come in from Eastern Washington. Bos has worked in the Washington industry since 1977 and, because of his extensive connections with growers, the grapes crushed at the school are all donated. Donated grapes are welcome, but come with issues. Perhaps they are picked a bit late, or sat in the field for a few hours longer. But Bos looks at problems as a set of questions his students can answer.

“Perfect grapes don’t have as many unique problems that need to be solved. Lots of things can go wrong with grapes, but many of those problems can be dealt with. The more problems, the more solutions my students can find and the smarter they’ll be.”

As we walk around the filling tanks, we chat up some of the students, a broad spectrum of professions and ages. One is a pathologist, another a student getting an interesting credit. A third is a winemaker himself. He owns an upscale Pioneer Square deli, Delicatus, and produces his own wines there.

“Why wouldn’t you want to work with a guy who has worked in the Washington wine industry for the last forty years?” he says.

Reggie Daignaeult is the manager of the wine program and brings distribution, wine buying and restaurant expertise to the program. She’s got a great nose, honed while growing up in Philadelphia where her Dad made dinner rolls for local restaurants in her basement. Along with the business side of wine, she teaches sensory evaluation and a course Barbara and I hope to take together next year, Wines of the World.

I like the atmosphere she and others have helped create here. There is absolutely nothing stuffy about the place and the mix of professionals and amateurs among the students creates an additional and very rich level of learning. These are the people you will one day see in the terrific wine industry that has grown up in this state. Some will serve you, others will be that knowledgeable customer next to you.

They are the people who populate that not-so-mythical winery down the road on a perfect day. You sample some wines, learn from the conversation and, upon leaving, exchange a knowing look with your partner, saying:

“You know, I really liked that."

The Northwest Wine Academy at South Seattle Community College will release six of its student wines November 21, 22, 23 and also show you around their new home. The wines are:

· 2012 Chardonnay
· 2012 White Merlot
· 2010 Petit Verdot
· 2011 Lemberger
· 2011 Mourvedre
· 2011 La Scuola (an Italian blend of         
Sangiovese, Barbera and Nebbiolo)
They will be open between 2 and 7PM.
On Friday, November 22, Wine Academy alumni winemakers will offer their own wines for tasting between 5PM and 7PM.
South Seattle Community College is at 6000 16th Avenue SW.
There is no charge.

Northwest Wine Academy