The California Bill and the Birth of Washington State Wine

I am spending this cold, wet day re-reading parts of Paul Gregutt’s great new book Washington Wines & Wineries: The Essential Guide (University of California Press) and his chapter on the history of Washington wine got me to thinking about the origins of the industry. Is it possible to point to any one person or event that is responsible for the birth of Washington wine?

There are several possible choices. Some would say that it happened in 1937 when Washington State University horticulturalist Dr. Walter Clore, the godfather of Washington wine, began working in his research center north of Prosser. Dr. Clore and his team are responsible for many of the advances in Washington viticulture that we take for granted today. Without Clore and his colleagues, Washington winegrowers might still be planting Muller-Thurgau and Concord grapes.

Others might argue that Washington wine was born in 1967 when Andre Tchelistcheff, the famous winemaker from California’s Beaulieu Vineyards, came to Washington and praised a Gewurztraminer made by Phil Church, a partner in Associated Vintners (now Columbia Winery). Tchelistcheff’s endorsement lent credibility to Washington wine and his encouragement helped propel the industry forward. (Tchelistcheff even encouraged his nephew Alex Golitizin to make wine in Washington — the result is Quilceda Creek Vintners, the maker of Washington’s first 100-point cabernet sauvignon.)

A third important event occurred in 1976, when the Chateau Ste. Michelle winery opened at the former Hollywood Farms location in Woodinville. The $6 million winery and headquarters complex was the largest single investment in the industry to that time and it represented a great gamble by Ste. Michelle’s corporate parent, the United States Tobacco Company (the makers and Skoal and Copenhagen smokeless tobacco). CSM, which was created through a merger of pioneer wineries Pomerelle and NAWICO before being purchased by US Tobacco, is now the Colossus of Washington wine, accounting for about 70 percent of all wine production in the state.

My choice for the key event in Washington wine history, however, didn’t happen in the vineyards with Dr. Clore or the tasting room with Mr. Tchelistcheff or at the grand opening of the Woodinville winery. From an economist’s viewpoint, the critical act (and it really was an Act) took place in March 1969. That’s when the Washington legislature passed House Bill 100, the California Wine Bill. The California Wine Bill exposed the Washington wine industry to competition from both domestic (California) and international competition and forced winemakers to improve quality or disappear.

Here’s the back story. Many wineries opened or reopened in Washington when Prohibition was repealed in 1933. Almost the first thing that they did was to seek protection from the state legislature from out-of-state competition. This protection was provided almost immediately in the form of the Steele Act of 1935, which set up a dual distribution system for wines. “Domestic” Washington wineries could sell directly to wholesalers, but “foreign” out-of-state wines (including wines from California) has to be distributed through the more rigid channels of the state liquor monopoly, the Washington State Liquor Board. The result was that “domestic” wines were relatively easy to purchase and widely available, but “foreign wines” including California products could only be purchased through state stores with their limited hours and strict controls. Later legislation provided for minimum prices in order to prevent competition from cheaper California wines.

The result of this protective legislation was exactly what you’d expect. With no competition to keep winemakers honest, quality suffered. The industry focused on the low end of the market, making large quantities of cheap, sweet, fortified wines like this NAWICO port. There was little incentive for winegrowers to seek quality (although some did) because good grapes and poor ones were all blended together. Although Dr. Clore was busy developing quality wine grapes in Prosser, Washington’s most important grape crop for many years was the Concord grape that went into Welch’s juice and Gallo’s sweet sparkling Cold Duck.

Rather than thriving behind its protective wall, the Washington wine industry collapsed. There were only eight wineries in Washington in 1969 (down from 42 in 1937) and, with a few exceptions such as Associated Vintners, their wine was mediocre at best.

The paradox that protecting a wine industry actually destroys it is not unique to Washington. I have seen it time and again in my research, in New Zealand, Argentina and in France under the EU’s old wine regime. The only thing that can protect a wine industry is competition, which forces winemakers to become more efficient and to raise quality.

With nothing to keep cheaper California wines out, Washington winemakers had no choice but to look upmarket. A quality wine industry emerged and has thrived — there are now more than 500 wineries in Washington state and new ones appear every month. Washington is unusual in the wine world in that it has developed a major wine industry that is not built upon a base of inexpensive bulk wine. Only New Zealand (which cannot compete with Australia at the bottom end of the market) and Washington can claim to have pure premium wine industries.

You can thank competition — and the California Wine Bill of 1969 — for Washington’s status as an important producer of premium wine.

2 responses

  1. This is a great piece and a concise reading of Gregutt’s great chapter on the history of Washington wine. I came to pretty much the same conclusion based on my reading of Irvine and Clore’s The Wine Project. My piece is here:
    I’m biased and, full disclosure, as a news and marketing writer for WSU, only wish that you had mentioned that Clore (and his enologist partner, Chas Nagel) was a long-time Washington State University faculty member. I’ll be linking to your article from mine. Many thanks!

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