Basin Wine History

The earliest European settlers brought wine grapes from their various countries to the Columbia River Basin and made wine in sagebrush country. ‘Dutch’ John Galler had a winery and vineyard in Malaga in the late 1800’s and sold wine at a stagecoach stop between Wenatchee and Ellensburg. People who tried his wine described it as a sour white wine, perhaps similar to todays Semillons and Chardonnays. A winery on the Clearwater River near Lewiston, Idaho sent their Cabernet Sauvignon to the St. Louis World’s Fair where they won a gold medal. These early settlers were following ancient tradition. The oldest record of winemaking dates from a pot made 7000 years before Christ with wine residue on the inside. Excavations in Egypt have uncovered amphora with both vintage and vineyard marked. It was the Greeks who first began taking vines with them to their new colonies. The towns of Nice and Marseille were originally Greek colonies established to trade with the barbarous Gaul. Since they brought grapes with them they probably introduced viticulture to France.

The Romans were probably the first to carry grape vines north of the Alps. In Switzerland there is a grape that when made into wine has a pronounced salty flavor. Legend has it that this salty flavor comes from the perspiration of the Roman legionnaire who carried the vines over the mountains. Many of the great vineyard sites north of the Alps were planted by the Romans and have been cultivated now for over 2000 years. During the reign of the emperor Tiberius his physician descended into the cellars of the imperial palace and tasted all the wines to make sure they were acceptable for the emperor’s health. He tried 200 year old wines and his tasting notes, which have survived, clearly portray his pleasure.

It was the Christian church which then carried the culture of the vine further a field. Wine, transmogrified into the blood of Christ, was a necessary adjunct to mass. Everywhere the early Christians went they took grape vines with them. Thus it was the Catholic church traveling with the Spanish conquistadors who first brought grape vines to north America and the Missions in California had the first vineyards in the future United States.The oldest winery in North America is in Mexico and was established in the 1500’s.

Several of the founding fathers of this country were big wine buffs. Thomas Jefferson acted as ambassador to France and regularly purchased wine for George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. Jefferson also tried to plant grapes at his home estate, but they mysteriously died. There is a small soil dwelling insect called phylloxera, native to the East Coast of North America, which feeds off of grape roots.European grapes have an allergic reaction to this bite and die. When phylloxera was introduced to Europe it devastated the European wine industry and to this day European vineyards are planted on modified American grape rootstocks which are not allergic to the bite of phylloxera.

When prohibition came it more or less put an end to the wine industry in Washington State. After prohibition several wineries came into being, two of which were purchased by the founder of Chateau Ste Michelle. That gentleman was encouraged by Dr. Walter Clore from the Irrigated Research Station at Prosser who had been doing pioneer work with European grapevines. In effect it was Dr. Clore who opened one of the latest chapters in the history of wine, that of the burgeoning wine industry in this state. Thus we raise a glass to Dr. Clore’s memory who passed away in the 1990’s.

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