Associated Vintners -- Washington's Academic Winemakers

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 4/05/2016
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 11206

Associated Vintners (AV) was a Seattle winemaking firm formed primarily by a group of University of Washington faculty members. Its backstory is perhaps the classic local instance of home garage-based weekend hobbyists made good. With a modest initial goal of making premium wine from vitus vinifera grapes grown within the state back in the 1950s, AV went on to great things. Buying its own vineyard acreage in the Yakima Valley in 1963, it was the first winery in the state to market vintage-dated varietal wines locally and was credited, as early as 1969, with launching "a revolutionary industry." Led by UW professor Lloyd S. Woodburne (1906-1992), the AV shareholder team evolved and the modest facilities expanded over time. Finally renamed Columbia Winery in 1983, it planted the first Pinot Gris grapes and first commercial Syrah vineyard in Washington, and experienced fantastic commercial success. Settling into a major modern facility in the "wine country" of Woodinville, in East King County, in 1988, Columbia was subsequently sold to various mega-corporations -- most recently E & J Gallo in 2012 -- but retains its proud status as the state's oldest continuously operating winery.

Wine and the Good Life

It was in 1951 that University of Washington psychology professor (and eventual Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences) Lloyd Woodburne took his first steps toward a grand future in winemaking. Housebound due to a medical situation -- he'd rambled through a patch of poison ivy while returning from a summer camping vacation in Oregon -- he passed the time by reading Phillip Marshall Wagner's classic 1930s book, American Wines and How to Make Them. "It really hooked me," Woodburne later recalled: "I became fascinated with the idea of making my own wine" (Reed, July 14, 1969).

So, after being intrigued by this whole realm of wine, who better for Woodburne to seek some advice from than his UW colleague, Professor Emeritus of English Dr. Angelo Pellegrini (1903-1991)? Italian-born -- but raised in McCleary in Grays Harbor County from the age of 10 -- Pellegrini was a well-known local aesthete and raconteur who had published his debut book, The Unprejudiced Palate, back in 1948. "Pelle" also penned a popular "Notes on Enjoyment of Bread and Wine" column for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and later (in 1965) would publish his classic Wine and the Good Life. Along the way Pellegrini, like many other Seattle-area Italian Americans, had developed a tradition of buying bulk grapes from Martini Winery in California's Napa Valley and making a batch of wine at home annually. Asked by Woodburne just how difficult it is to make wine from scratch, Pellegrini replied, "It's as easy as boiling an egg" (Woodburne, 1).

Well, as Woodburne and his wife Betty were about to learn, not quite. But 1951 saw him buying a few five-gallon carboys, a siphoning hose, and an open-top 50-gallon barrel (as a fermenter). And, with a borrowed grape crusher and grapes from California, via train shipment to local importers Anthony "Tony" Picardo and/or the DeSanto Brothers in Seattle's industrial Georgetown neighborhood, the juice began to flow. Woodburne's debut as an amateur vintner, however, produced a decidedly less-than scrumptious wine. Indeed, it "was pretty poor stuff. My wife refused to drink it, and I used it mostly with ice and soda water" (Woodburne, 1).

Home Brew

As most of the wine being produced in Washington at that time was not much better -- and the vast majority of vineyards in Eastern Washington were then devoted to table grapes and sweet Concord grapes sought by the juice industry -- the notion of producing good wine was rather novel. Thus, a couple of the Woodburnes' friends saw his quest as intriguing. Together they bought some grapes after the fall harvest of 1952, and these budding winemakers began crushing grapes in the garage of Woodburne's home at 4552 E. Laurel Drive in Seattle's Laurelhurst neighborhood. Within a couple years, the volume of grapes they were buying justified the cooperative purchase of a grape-crushing machine and a screw press, which were set up in the garage. Interestingly, although these friends could crush together, federal law still prohibited them from fermenting the juice cooperatively. So they each proceeded to make their own wines at their own homes.

Then in 1954 when California-grown white grapes became difficult to source, Woodburne headed to eastern Washington's Yakima Valley to scout potential new suppliers. At that time most valley grape growers were involved with such non-vinifera varietals as Concord (used for sweet grape juice) and Thompson Seedless (for eating), or vitus labrusca oddities like Delaware grapes (used for making sparkling Champagne-style bubblies). But in Sunnyside, Woodburne met up with a veteran grape-grower, William B. Bridgman, who had first planted vines on Harrison Hill as far back as 1914. Bridgman was helpful, and very hopeful about the activities of this new group of academic winemakers from Seattle, but he did not believe that the successful growing of vinifera grapes -- the ones used in the great wines of Europe -- was possible in Washington.

As for Woodburne, he was excited to see healthy grapes being grown outside of California and he opted to buy some Delaware grapes. And some Thompson grapes for good measure. Many years later he would ruefully confess: "We first bought Delaware grapes in Eastern Washington which, I'm now ashamed to tell you, we blended with Thompson Seedless" (Reed, July 14, 1969).

After a few years of such amateurish experimenting, Woodburne's original partners dropped out, leaving him with all their communal gear. But word had gotten around about the winemakers and their steadily improving wine. So new associates came aboard, including UW law professor Dr. Cornelius Peck (who joined Woodburne in 1956); businessman (and son of Frederick Padelford, the Dean of the UW Graduate School and Chairman of the English Department) Phil Padelford (1956); industrial chemist and printing-ink businessman Lew Leber and his brother and ink-business partner Ted Leber (1958); chemical engineering professor Charles Schleicher (1958); Boeing engineer Allan Taylor (1959); meteorologist and climatologist Dr. Phillip Church (1959); pediatric allergist Warren Bierman (1960); and lastly UW fisheries department instructor Don Bevan. Interestingly, Woodburne's inspirational peer Angelo Pellegrini never joined -- perhaps because he was already a paid consultant to another local firm, the American Wine Growers (eventually Washington's mega-successful Chateau Ste. Michelle Vineyards winery).

In 1960 Woodburne held a meeting with William Bridgman at Seattle's Roosevelt Hotel and they discussed various aspects of the potential future of the wine industry in Washington. Then in January 1961 Woodburne's group of 10 vintners signed a decade-long contract with Bridgman to acquire Semillon and ruby cabernet grapes from him. Additional grape varietals were also sourced, including Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Grenache. That year Woodburne decided to send to a few experts to get their feedback, and sample bottles of each went to Andre Tchelistcheff (1901-1994), the venerated vintner with California's esteemed Beaulieu Vineyards winery. Tchelistcheff "liked all of the wines and declared that the [1960 Grenache-based pink sparkler] was as good as Beaulieu Vineyards" (Irvine, 204).

A Vintners' Association

It was the matter of having a dependable supply of vinifera grape varietals that still troubled the vintners. As Woodburne would later recall, "The 10 regular wine makers, after a lengthy discussion of grape supply, discovered that we could have our own vineyard if each of us could invest as much as a good golf club membership would cost" (Woodburne, 4).

Such talks also began touching on the topic of incorporating. If they bought vineyard land together they would need to establish a formal business partnership -- and furthermore, if they applied for permits to form a legally bonded winery, they would finally be able to cooperatively ferment wine together under one roof instead of individually at home.

As discussions ensued regarding the possible formation of a more formal winemaking association, Peck proposed the name Academia Winery. Although that idea was ultimately rejected, Peck drew up the required paperwork and in 1962 this gaggle of 10 hobbyists incorporated -- under the perfectly accurate name Associated Vintners, Inc. (frequently shortened to "AV"). That same year William Bridgman sold the new firm 5.5 acres of land on Harrison Hill at the southwest edge of Sunnyside in the Yakima Valley, and the planting of vines began in 1963.

Church's studies of the climatology of Eastern Washington, which revealed the region's similarity to France's famed Burgundy region -- and the not unrelated matter of which specific grape varietals would thrive in these conditions -- encouraged the partners. "Based on his study, they decided to plant the noble [vinifera] grapes of Europe" (Irvine, 205). Peck later recalled "that very little was known about growing vinifera grapes in Washington. So the group's members planted nine different varieties on their five acres, in order to see which grapes, if any, might survive" (Gregutt, 16). From California they bought, in 1963, starters of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Grenache, Semillon, and White Riesling. Then, from an American Wine Growers' vineyard in Grandview, just down the valley from Sunnyside, they also got Delaware, Grenache, Pinot Noir, Semillon, and the French hybrids Seibel 13053 and Seibel 10094.

Unusually severe weather that hit in December 1964 destroyed most of the first plantings and the following year produced no crop. But because the roots had survived beneath the frozen ground, in 1966 the vines sprouted nicely and with the resultant product, "Their efforts were rewarded with a wine of such high quality that it marked a turning point in viticulture in the state of Washington" (Purser and Allen, 70).

High Standards

The AV partners well knew that they would need to commit to having extremely high standards through every step of the winemaking process including using the best available fruit from the best vineyards. "Early on the group had decided that they would do whatever was necessary, within monetary reason, to produce a superior product to distinguish themselves from previous Washington wines" (Irvine, 207). Aging their wines before releasing them was another smart decision because "the reputation of the Washington wine [at that time] was so bad that we did not want to risk putting out a young raw wine on the market" (Woodburne, 9). So AV chose to age white wines for one year in the barrel and another in the in bottle, while red wines received twice that treatment.

In 1966 the wine world's noted expert and journalist Leon D. Adams (1905-1995) came up from California to tour the Yakima Valley's agricultural areas. He was none too impressed by the local wines he tasted. But then Woodburne was invited to bring over some AV wines and Adams was so impressed with his host's Grenache-based rose that he exclaimed that the group ought to form a commercial winery. AV member Cornelius Peck later recalled: "We were winemakers, and we knew we were on to something pretty darn good. In 1966 we all made wine in our basements; afterwards we said 'Holy Christopher!' -- if it's this good we should make wine commercially" (Gregutt, 17).

In 1967 AV leased a warehouse at the Par-Mac Industrial Park (116th Avenue NE and NE 116th Street) near Kirkland on King County's Eastside, and its years as a commercial operation got underway. That same year Andre Tchelistcheff was in Seattle visiting the American Wine Growers firm, the longtime local makers of fruit and labrusca (i.e. non-vinifera) wines, and Woodburne invited him to the Kirkland facility. Impressed with the vintners' academic approach, he also accepted the offer of a nice salmon dinner at the home of Dr. Church, where they tasted the host's wine and the esteemed guest deemed it "the best Gewürztraminer made in the United States" (Meredith, 141).

It was in 1969 that AV finally sent its first commercial wines -- a relatively meager 250 cases of the 1967 Gewürztraminer and Riesling -- to market. A market, that is. AV had arranged to have just one retail store, the QFC supermarket at Seattle's University Village shopping center, carry its products. So it caught everybody by surprise when Seattle Post-Intelligencer food columnist Stan Reed simply raved about AV and its wines. Indeed, he trumpeted that "A new industry has been born in Washington," and that AV was nothing less than "a revolutionary industry within this state" (Reed, July 11, 1969).

The result of that publicity was a run on the wines at QFC and AV was sold out within a week. This was a happy pattern that was to continue every June for the next few years, while the AV reds -- Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon -- remained cellared for an additional two years of aging. The Gewürztraminer, in particular, became a regional hit, sales skyrocketed, and AV had to upgrade to larger facilities twice over subsequent years.

Keep on the Sunnyside

The AV partners soon realized that they were now in the position to develop larger vineyards and in 1972 -- the same year that they added two new substantial investors/stockholders, Peter Rawn and Willard Wright -- an 80-acre parcel was purchased north of Sunnyside. The initial planting of 25 of those "Church Vineyard" acres consisted of six varietals (Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Noir, Semillon, and White Riesling).

Up into 1975 the shareholders contributed all the necessary labor on their weekends, while they also served on various winery committees -- with the lucky Winery Operation Committee being responsible for regular tastings of the wines-in-process. In May of that year Woodburne retired two years early from his UW post in order to serve as AV's president and winery manager. In 1976 AV expanded operations, moving up from the little Kirkland warehouse to a newly built facility at 4368 150th Avenue NE in Redmond, which allowed them to double output volume.

That same year saw the Enological Society of the Pacific Northwest award AV its first Gold Medal (for the 1972 Cabernet Sauvignon) and a Silver (for the 1972 Pinot Noir). Many more awards would follow over subsequent years. AV's regional prominence saw the firm, and Woodburne, spotlighted nicely in what was the very first book published about the emerging Washington wine scene, 1977's The Winemakers of the Pacific Northwest by Elizabeth Purser and Lawrence Allen.

Then, in September 1979, AV hired an official winemaker -- David Lake (1943-2009), a Canadian with the coveted title of Master of Wine from Britain's Institute of Masters of Wine -- who had been recommended to Woodburne by David Lett at Oregon's pioneering winery Eyrie Vineyards. The wine that Lake made from that year's harvest was another hit, with the Cabernet later being acclaimed by Andre Tchelistcheff himself:

"This is one of the best Cabernets I have ever tasted. It is a wonderful wine, deep, with a velvety texture, enormously complex, very much in the style of a classic Medoc -- a lovely wine, perfect in every way; not one single flaw that I could find; artistically complete, balanced and perfect" (Meredith, 142).

By 1980 AV had grown to such an extent that it was producing 25,000 gallons, or 10,000 cases, of various wines made from grapes acquired from various Washington vineyards. By now it was clear that AV had successfully evolved from a hobby business to the genuine article. But some bank loans and rising interest rates convinced AV's new president, Willard Wright, that the company needed to sell off the Harrison Hill and Church vineyards.

Flow on Columbia

In 1981 AV decided to upgrade to a new headquarters building at 1445 120th Ave NE in Bellevue, which at 20,000 square feet was three times larger than the previous facility. Meanwhile, additional big changes were afoot. New shareholders -- for a total of 30 -- were added, and the majority investor, Dan Baty, was named AV's new president. In 1982 the AV shareholders held a big celebratory 20th Anniversary event at the Space Needle restaurant in Seattle, where Lloyd Woodburne and partners and friends (along with the national wine media) gathered as 13 vintages -- dating back to 1967 -- of AV Cabernet Sauvignon were tasted.

Led by Baty, the decision was eventually made to sell off AV's vineyards, as fruit was now readily available, and that money was used to finance growth in production capacity. Although David Lake was dismayed by this loss of control over the vineyards themselves, he persevered through the changes. More of which awaited ...

In 1983, "[w]ith Lake on the scene, the winery's designation as an 'association of vintners' was no longer accurate, and the name was changed to Columbia Winery" (Holden, 49). Now aiming for the big-time, Columbia brought aboard Swiss wine-maker Max Zellweger as operations manager. The following year, Columbia -- in direct collaboration with the Red Willow vineyard -- planted Washington's first commercial Syrah vineyard and later, in 1988 and under Lake's able leadership, began bottling a distinct vineyard-designated wine. History was also made at Otis Vineyards, which under Lake's direction had become the first in the state to plant Pinot Gris grapes.

In 1986 Columbia made news when Lake successfully sold 1,000 cases of its 1984 Chardonnay to the London Sunday Times Wine Club -- a notable commercial feat that was the then-largest "export shipment of a varietal from the Northwest in history" (Holden, 52). The ongoing success was so great that by 1988 Columbia needed to expand. Luckily, a few years prior, a unique facility had been built -- right across the road from the (circa 1976) Chateau Ste. Michelle winery in Woodinville -- for the Haviland Winery, which subsequently failed. Now available, the location and building at 14030 NE 145th were ideal, Columbia acquired the property, and the little rural King County town of Woodinville was set on its path as the Puget Sound region's wine-biz destination area.

The AV/Columbia Legacy

Although Columbia wines have generally been known as being better for cellaring a bit than for immediate enjoyment, its reds (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc) and whites (Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay, Semillon, and Riesling) are all very popular. With an admirable nod to its founder, Columbia's dry Gewürztraminer has been marketed under the "Woodburne" label.

Meanwhile, Dan Baty (and family) formed a new business entity, Corus Brands, which represented Columbia and then additional wineries via agglomeration. In 1995 it bought the Paul Thomas Winery of Bellevue and continued marketing that brand; in 1996 it acquired Covey Run Vintners, a Yakima Valley winery based in Zillah; and in 1997 did the same with Idaho's Chateau Ste. Chappelle winery. All this activity made Columbia one of the great heavyweights in the state's ever-expanding wine industry.

With David Lake's retirement in 2006, Covey Run's Kerry Norton was elevated to the Director of Winemaking position. Along the way, Corus was sold to a mega-corporation, Constellation Brands, and in 2008 Columbia was sold off to a new California-based enterprise, Ascentia Wine Estates, which crumbled in 2012, selling Columbia off to the historic E & J Gallo Winery company of Modesto, California.

And thus ended an era: A winery with impeccable and longstanding ties to its Northwest roots had been grafted onto an outside firm with little local connection. But Columbia -- although long plagued by marketplace confusion arising from the arrival of the unrelated Washington-based mega-winery Columbia Crest -- continues making award-winning wine in 2016, and its facility remains a popular local attraction. Further complicating the history of the Columbia/AV name, in early 2016 news broke of the formation -- by Dan Baty's Precept Wine firm -- of an all-new "Associated Vintners" grouping of four previously unaffiliated winemakers/wineries: Andrew Browne's Browne Family Vineyards, Peter Dow's Cavatappi Winery, Ross Mickel's Ross Andrew Winery, and Paul Gregutt's Waitsburg Cellars.

There is, however, no confusion about the lasting legacy left by Lloyd Woodburne and his Associated Vintners, and by David Lake. The enterprise was among the first in the Northwest to plant and experiment with key Italian varietals including Barbera, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese; the Spanish classic, Tempranillo; and French treasures including Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Mourvedre, and Viognier. In sum, what had happened was "a loose association of amateur vintners banded together, formed a winery, and became instrumental in the birth of Washington's premium wine industry" (Meredith, 143).


Sources: Lloyd S. Woodburne, "Associated Vintners: The First Twenty Years," unpublished manuscript, Accession No. 3461-002, Associated Vintners Records, Special Collections, University of Washington Libraries, Seattle, Washington; Stan Reed, "Gourmet Spoken Here," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 11, 1969, p. 7; Stan Reed, "Gourmet Spoken Here," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 14, 1969, p. 9; Stan Reed, "Gourmet Spoken Here," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 16, 1969, p. 9; Stan Reed, "Gourmet Spoken Here," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 17, 1970, p. 11; Historylink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Wine in Washington" (by Peter Blecha), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed January 20, 2016); Angelo Pellegrini, The Unprejudiced Palate (New York: MacMillan, 1948); Howard S. Goldberg, "Leon Adams, Wine Expert and Writer, 90," The New York Times, September 16, 1995 (http://www.nytimes.com); J. Elizabeth Purser and Lawrence J. Allen, The Winemakers of the Pacific Northwest (Vashon Island: Harbor House Publishing, 1977), 67, 69-71, 79, 86, 102-104, 158, 173-174; Tom Stockley, "A Toast to Venerable AV," The Seattle Times, August 24, 1982, p. 37; Andy Perdue, "Making History," Ibid., January 8, 2016, PacificNW, p. 5; Ted Jordan Meredith, The Wines and Wineries of America's Northwest (Kirkland: Nexus Press, 1986), 140-143; Ronald Holden and Glenda Holden, Northwest Wine Country (Seattle: Holden Pacific Inc., 1986), 49-52; Ronald Irvine with Walter J. Clore, The Wine Project: Washington State's Winemaking History (Vashon: Sketch Publications, 1997), 158, 172, 181, 184, 191, 199-212, 242, 275-293, 390, 392; Paul Gregutt, Washington Wines & Wineries: The Essential Guide (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 16-17, 18-19, 104, 153, 283; "Associated Vintners Acquires Zillah's Covey Run Winery," The Seattle Times, March 8, 1996 (www.seattletimes.com); Eric Degerman and Andy Perdue, "Yakima Valley Vineyard's 100-year History," Everett Herald, November 19, 2014 (http://www.heraldnet.com); Marji Morgan, "Lines on Wines #12 -- Ted Leber from Associated Vintners," Ellensburg Community Radio website accessed April 1, 2016 (https://soundcloud.com/eburgradio-org/lines-on-wines-12-ted-leber-from-associated-vintners?in=eburgradio-org/sets/lines-on-wines).

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