PROSSER, Wash. — Wade Wolfe's career in the Washington wine industry has been played out in three acts: viticulturist to business manager to winemaker.
Along the way, the co-owner of Thurston Wolfe Winery in the Yakima Valley town of Prosser has left indelible marks on Washington wine country in ways that have benefited every winery in the state.
For these reasons -- and his ability to craft some of the Northwest's best wines -- we have chosen Thurston Wolfe as our 2012 Pacific Northwest Winery of the Year.
"Wade is not only a terrific member of the industry, but he's also a leader," said Ted Baseler, CEO of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. "He's given selflessly over the decades to further the industry, not just his own endeavors. We're lucky to have him in the Washington wine industry."
Wolfe came from California, but his roots are in the Northwest. His father grew up in Eastern Washington before he joined the Air Force during World War II and later moved to the Sacramento area. Wolfe earned his bachelor's and doctorate at the University of California-Davis, then spent a brief period working at the University of Arizona on a viticulture project before being lured to Washington by Chateau Ste. Michelle.
He arrived in 1978 as the wine giant's viticulturist, and he was part of the plantings in the Horse Heaven Hills near Paterson, where Columbia Crest was built.
"Ste. Michelle was starting a rapid expansion at that time," Wolfe said. He took on the role of working with growers until the job became too big for one person.
In the late 1970s, the federal government put into place a system for identifying wine grape growing regions called American Viticultural Areas, or AVAs. In the Northwest, the first AVA was the Yakima Valley in 1983. A year later, the 11-million-acre Columbia Valley AVA was approved, in large part because of Wolfe.
"Ste. Michelle wanted to do it to promote the region as it went into a national market," Wolfe said.
Walter Clore, a Washington State University scientist who is hailed as the "father of Washington wine," retired in the mid-1970s and was hired by Ste. Michelle as a consultant. He and Wolfe worked together on submitting the proper paperwork for federal approval.
Today, the Columbia Valley AVA is the most widely recognized region in Washington, and most of the state's 11 other AVAs are within the Columbia Valley.
While he was at Ste. Michelle, Wolfe hired someone who would change his life: Stan Clarke. Clarke would go on to become a winemaker, a school teacher, a wine writer and a college instructor.
After leaving Ste. Michelle, Clarke helped start a winery called Quail Run (later Covey Run) and was its winemaker in the early days. In 1985, Wolfe left Ste. Michelle to work as a consultant, and Clarke introduced him to Becky Yeaman, who was the sales manager at Quail Run. They began dating and were married two years later -- the same year they began Thurston Wolfe.
Clarke and Wolfe were best friends, and their relationship lasted until Clarke passed away in November 2007. To honor his pal, Wolfe named his Cabernet Sauvignon -- Clarke's favorite variety -- The Teacher. Fittingly, the 2007 vintage was the top wine in Wine Press Northwest's 2010 Platinum, beating all other gold medal winners.
Wolfe and Yeaman launched Thurston Wolfe in 1987 in a building that, frankly, was never intended to be a winery, but it worked well (today, Alexandria Nicole Cellars occupies the space). Thurston Wolfe's production remained small because the couple didn't have room for much more than 1,000 cases.
In 1991, Wolfe took a job with Hogue Cellars as a viticulturist and later general manager. During his tenure, Hogue grew from 200,000 cases to a half-million.
"It was a lot of fun working for the Hogue family," Wolfe said fondly.
But running a winery is not a 40-hour-per-week gig, which meant Thurston Wolfe was relegated to nights, weekends and holidays. In 2004, Wolfe left Hogue to focus his full attention on his family business.
"We knew we needed to build a new facility because we were expanding," he said.
Construction began in 2005 in an area of Prosser near the interstate that had no wineries. In February 2006, Thurston Wolfe became the first winery to open in the Vintners Village. Today, a dozen wineries and a restaurant are within walking distance. The winery has grown from 1,500 cases when Wolfe left Hogue to 6,000 cases today, and the wines are available in several states.
Wolfe's time at two of the state's largest wineries gave him valuable insights on the business of winemaking and, more importantly, where the region's best grapes are. Most of his focus is on reds from the nearby Horse Heaven Hills and Snipes Mountain and whites from the cooler Yakima Valley. Zephyr Ridge in the Horse Heaven Hills is a particular favorite, where he brings in such varieties as Petite Sirah, Lemberger, Zinfandel and Primitivo.
He loves Snipes Mountain near Sunnyside for Cabernet Sauvignon, and the scientist in him is fascinated with its unusual soils. He now makes a blend called The Geologist, named after Becky's brother Michael, a geophysicist who is involved in the winery operation.
Michael isn't the only family member with a wine named after him, though.
Sweet Rebecca is a dessert wine named after Becky, and the drawing on the label features her fiery red hair. Their son Josh was born in 1990, and his initials appear on the JTW Port. Wolfe got his name on a blend called Dr. Wolfe's Family Red. And their rescue dog, Chance, is the inspiration for a rose called Second Chance.
Wolfe is pretty happy with the size of his operation, but he believes the Washington wine industry still has a lot of growth left, even with the sizable expansion it has enjoyed over the past decade.
"We have a good opportunity to peak over 75,000 acres (from 40,000 today)," he said. "And I wouldn't be surprised if we had 1,000 wineries in 10 more years."
He also thinks major wineries from California and Europe could expand into the state. Much of this he credits to his first employer in Washington.
"Our industry wouldn't be what it is without Ste. Michelle," Wolfe said. "All of us, whether or not we've had an association with Ste. Michelle, have to be very thankful and recognize them for what they've done for the industry and really paved the way for the rest of us throughout the U.S. and, potentially, the world."
While Wolfe is often humble and quick to give credit to others, most people in the Washington wine industry realize just how important he has been to the state.
"From an educated viticultural standpoint, he has been the go-to guy ever since the day he arrived," said Rob Griffin, owner of Barnard Griffin in Richland.
Griffin and Wolfe have followed somewhat similar paths, both coming from California in the mid-1970s, both working for Hogue and both running family wineries. Today, Griffin sees Wolfe as the successor to Clore, who passed away in 2003.
"Wade has always been generous with his time and knowledge to the industry." e
Visiting Thurston Wolfe
588 Cabernet Court
Prosser, WA 99352
Hours: Open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursday-Sunday from April 1 to Dec. 31.
Directions: Thurston Wolfe is in Washington's Yakima Valley. To get there, take Exit 80 off Interstate 82 in Prosser. Turn south (right, if you're coming from Seattle) onto Gap Road, then left onto Merlot Drive. You will pass a number of fast-food joints. Turn right onto Port Drive, and you will see the winery on your right, just past Willow Crest.
For more information on Thurston Wolfe, go to www.thurstonwolfe.com.
How the Pacific Northwest Winery of the Year is chosen
The Winery of the Year is selected by the editors of Wine Press Northwest and is based on a set of criteria, including longevity, quality, reputation, industry involvement, facilities and other considerations. A winery may win the award only once.
Past Pacific Northwest Wineries of the Year
2011: Zerba Cellars, Milton-Freewater, Ore.
2010: Vin du Lac, Chelan, Wash.
2009: Wild Goose Vineyards, Okanagan Falls, B.C.
2008: Dunham Cellars, Walla Walla, Wash.
2007: Elk Cove Vineyards, Gaston, Ore.
2006: Barnard Griffin, Richland, Wash.
2005: Ken Wright Cellars, Carlton, Ore.
2004: L'Ecole No. 41, Lowden, Wash.
2003: Sumac Ridge Estate Winery, Summerland, B.C.
2002: Columbia Crest, Paterson, Wash.
How the regional wineries of the year are chosen
Regional wineries of the year are selected by the editors of Wine Press Northwest based on blind tastings, visits, accolades and other considerations. Wineries of the Year must have completed at least five vintages, while Wineries to Watch must have been in business no more than five years.
Washington Winery of the Year: Alexandria Nicole Cellars, Prosser/Woodinville
Washington Winery to Watch: Westport Winery, Aberdeen
Oregon Winery of the Year: Willamette Valley Vineyards, Turner
Oregon Winery to Watch: Illahe Vineyards, Dallas
British Columbia Winery of the Year: Pentage Winery, Penticton
British Columbia Winery to Watch: Cassini Cellars, Oliver
Idaho Winery of the Year: Fraser Vineyard, Boise
Idaho Winery to Watch: 3 Horse Ranch Vineyards, Eagle