Washington was known for producing premium grapes long before it became famous for its premium wines. The commercial grape industry dates to the early 1900s, when widespread irrigation in Eastern Washington unleashed agriculture on a grand scale. Farmers found that Concord grapes, a sturdy cold-weather variety developed in Massachusetts, were easy to grow, and they were in high demand after 1913, when Merlyn Church opened a grape-juice factory in Kennewick. By the 1940s, Washington was producing more juice grapes than any other state in the nation, a distinction it still holds. In the decade from 2008 to 2018, the average production was about 185,000 tons annually, and in a typical year, industry leader Welch's might process 100,000 to 120,000 tons of Washington juice grapes, resulting in 20 to 22 million gallons of juice, all stored in Grandview "at the largest juice tank farm in all of North America" ("Concord Costs …"). Indeed, "While Washington is not the ancestral home of the Concord grape, it has long held the title as the grape juice capital of the world" ("Old School Juice …").
Coming of the Grape
British fur traders introduced grapes to Washington in 1825 when they planted seeds at Fort Vancouver -- seeds that had come from England in a most unusual manner. The story was told by missionary Narcissa Whitman (1808-1847) in her journal entry of September 12, 1836, written during a respite at Fort Vancouver. "A gentleman, twelve years ago while at a party in London, put the seeds of the grapes and apples which he ate into his vest pocket. Soon afterwards he took a voyage to this country and left them here, and now they are greatly multiplied" (Pollard, 28).
The gentleman in the vest was George Simpson (1787?-1860), Governor of the Hudson's Bay Company's Northern Department, and the person responsible for planting the grape seeds was Dr. John McLoughlin (1784-1857), manager of the Hudson's Bay Company on the Pacific Coast and builder of the Northwest's first large-scale farm at Fort Vancouver. Wrote Whitman of the fort: "Here we find fruit of every description, apples, peaches, grapes, pears, plums and fig trees in abundance; also, cucumbers, melons, beans, peas, beets, cabbage, tomatoes and every kind of vegetable too numerous to mention" (Pollard, 38).
In his own travels through Oregon Country, McLoughlin had seen great potential for agriculture. From Fort Vancouver he sent seeds to the Hudson's Bay Company's outposts at Nisqually, Colville, and Cowlitz, and from there they were distributed free to settlers. Wrote Whitman on September 16, 1836: "Dr. McLoughlin promises to loan us enough [seeds and produce] to make a beginning and all the return he asks is that we supply other settlers in the same way" (Pollard, 39). Following their stop at Fort Vancouver, Narcissa and Marcus Whitman (1802-1847) traveled onward to establish their mission at Waiilatpu on the Walla Walla River. There, with the help of Hawaiian laborers recruited from Vancouver, they built the region's first major inland farm. By 1860 "wheat was the main crop grown in the Walla Walla area, along with apples, peas, and grapes" ("Agriculture In Washington ...").
The first known grapevines in the Yakima Valley were introduced in 1869 using plantings likely obtained from Fort Vancouver. These were planted by Charles Schanno near Union Gap. In 1868, German immigrant "Dutch John" Galler and his wife Mary, a Wenatchee Indian, established a Malaga grape vineyard in the Wenatchee Valley. In the 1870s, Italian immigrants near Walla Walla planted several varieties of grapes for wine making. In Western Washington, grape farming expanded north from Fort Vancouver to Fort Nisqually on Puget Sound, where William Tolmie (1812-1886) served as the Hudson's Bay Company's Chief Trader. In 1852, Tolmie shared grape cuttings from Fort Nisqually with settlers, and soon vineyards were thriving at Ebey's Landing on Whidbey Island. In 1872, Civil War veteran Lambert Evans (d. 1917) homesteaded 160 acres on Stretch Island in Mason County and planted grapevines with cuttings from nearby Arcadia. By 1880, grapes in Washington were becoming ubiquitous. But it wasn't until the early 1900s that commercial grape farming took flight. The nascent industry would be driven by two factors: widespread irrigation, and introduction of the prodigious Concord grape.
'As American as Apple Pie'
The Concord was developed in 1849 by Ephraim Wales Bull (1806-1895) on his farm in Concord, Massachusetts. Bull famously experimented with 22,000 seedlings over six years before arriving at a single vine, the Concord, a variety capable of thriving in cold-weather climates and yielding firm, flavorful fruit. Bull never profited from his innovation, and his tombstone at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord reads: "He sowed, others reaped" ("Where History Rests"). But Bull's legacy is secure: "In the century following the introduction of Concord grapes, more of these purple slip-skin grapes were sold than all other species combined. Today, growers harvest more than 336,000 tons in the U.S. Washington state grows the largest number, followed by New York, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Missouri" ("The History …").
Bull's sturdy Concord would become a building block for juice, preserves, wine, candy, liqueur, vinegar, and more. Concords contain the chemical compound methyl anthranilate, which gives soft drinks and candy their distinctive flavor. "The intense grapey flavor also makes an excellent tangy sorbet that pairs well with rich, creamy desserts such as pies, cheesecake, or panna cotta" ("Concord Grapes"). In fact, according to one testimonial, "the Concord grape, with its distinctive flavor, is as American as apple pie. It is the preferred jelly in peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, which sweetened up soldier rations during World War II, and is the flavor in Nehi grape soda. Concord juice has been served in U.S. churches for sacramental communion for more than 150 years" ("Concord Grapes, Part Of …").
In 1869, 20 years after Bull perfected the Concord, Thomas Welch (1825-1903), a teetotalling dentist from Vineland, New Jersey, developed commercial grape juice. After reading up on Louis Pasteur and experimenting with figs, raisins, and blackberries, Welch "used forty pounds of Concord grapes from his front yard, cooked and squeezed the juice through cloth bags, sealed the full bottles, and then boiled them to prevent fermentation. His experiment was a success, and the first grape juices were sold to churches for use during communion" ("Concord Grapes"). When Welch's foray into unfermented "wine" ran out of steam in 1873, his son Charles Welch (1852-1926) took control and built the Welch's Grape Juice brand into a juggernaut. Welch transferred operations to Westfield, New York, in 1897, and that year Welch's pressed 300 tons of grapes. Spectacular growth ensued, thanks in part to dry sentiments in the U.S. government:
"In 1913 the company got an entirely gratuitous lift when Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan gave a dinner for a retiring British Ambassador. A delighted press carried accounts of the shocking affair at which international toasts were drunk in grape juice – Welch's. The government seemed determined to play a subsidiary role as Welch's free advertising agent, for the next year Josephus Daniels, Secretary of the Navy, banned hard liquor from the fleet, which was at once dubbed the 'grape juice navy'" ("Grape Juice Firm Owned …").
As demand and production soared, Welch's expanded westward. By the late 1940s the company had built processing plants near Concord grape vineyards in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Arkansas. It kept a covetous eye on Washington, where Concords were being grown in abundance.
Concords Go West
Concords were first planted in the Yakima Valley in 1904. Within a decade they could be seen from Walla Walla to the Cascade foothills as widespread irrigation unleased commercial agriculture. Kennewick, an early center of grape commerce, "was an arid, shrub filled grassland with rolling hills that was transformed into a rich agricultural area through irrigation. The first gravity fed canals were made possible by railroad sponsored irrigation companies, local cooperative developers, and eventually by federal irrigation programs, such as the Columbia River Basin Irrigation Project" (Pollard, 263). When Congress passed the Reclamation Act in 1902, funding irrigation projects in the Yakima, Wenatchee, and Okanogan valleys, Yakima County farmers "began growing fruit and rolling pastures became orchards and vineyards" (Rowe).
Eastern Washington, with its ample sunlight, low humidity, and a long growing season, was ideal for growing Concords and lesser juice grapes such as the Niagara, a green-skinned fruit used for white grape juice and other products. And farmers in Eastern Washington were pleased to learn that cultivating Concords was easier than growing tree fruit or wine grapes. In addition to being winter hardy, Concords were found to be immune to most diseases and pests. "I just water and fertilize," said Dick Boushey, a longtime Yakima Valley grape farmer ("Old School Juice …").
In rainy Western Washington, a favorable microclimate in the southern reaches of Puget Sound allowed Stretch Island to become a hotbed of grape activity. In 1899, Adam Eckert, a New York grape man, visited the island on his way to California. "Eckert saw how well grapes were growing on Evans' property and promptly bought land on the north side of the island. There he gradually and scientifically experimented with many varieties of grapes until he developed the distinctive Island Belle grape" ("Stretch Island ..."). For the next 30-plus years, the Eckert Fruit Company produced grape juice and sold fresh grapes packed in oval, 6-pound wooden baskets, in Tacoma, Seattle, Shelton, and Olympia.
Like the Concord, the Island Belle was a cold-weather stalwart. At a 1921 meeting of the Island Belle Grape Growers' Union, Eckert told fellow growers that "reports of the United States weather observer at Seattle show that no other district on Puget Sound has a better all-around climate than the 'grape belt' on Stretch and Harstine islands and the mainland bordering Pickering Passage and North Bay" ("Puget Sound Grape ..."). The Island Belle, reported the Tacoma News-Tribune, "is the only grape known to thrive in the rigors of this climate. It is tough skinned and endures almost anything. It is larger than the Concord, though not as prolific, and yields a rich purple juice which is ideal for grape juice and wine" ("Grapes To Front …").
Kennewick Takes the Lead
In 1906, Wisconsin native Merlyn Church (1857-1929) moved to Kennewick from the grape belt of Michigan to start an ice and cold-storage business. Soon Church "began testing with household utensils the blending of juices from Concord and Worden grapes … With a small press about the size of a gallon tin pail, he experimented with this juice and discovered that he had a product of unusual quality which did not require the addition of sugar to give it a delightful flavor" ("On Stove At Home …"). Church planted a 35-acre vineyard of Concord grapes and encouraged other landowners to do likewise, promising to buy their grapes "at prices that will make vinyarding highly remunerative to the grower" ("Kennewick Starts Grape Industry").
In 1911 the Kennewick Commercial Club held its first annual Grape Carnival, and, in a scandal of sorts, Kennewick farmers took second prize at the Spokane Fair to supposedly inferior grapes from North Yakima. The Kennewick Courier reported that the verdict of the judge, an apple farmer from Idaho, "aroused widespread indignation and protests are pouring in, not only from the parties concerned in the injustice of it but from hundreds of others who are disinterested persons but who appreciate the fine points of grapes and are capable of making a just comparison of displays, qualities and varieties. The professor is acknowledged to be an expert judge of apples and all credit is due him for his excellence in this respect, but it is greatly to be deplored that the committee on the selection of judges should detail a man who does not know one grape from another" ("Kennewick Grapes Take Second …").
Merlyn Church pressed 150 tons of grapes in 1913 and began to market his juice. Reported the Courier on December 19, 1913: "This product of Kennewick's newest manufacturing plant is now being bottled for market in quarts, pints and half pints and shipped out for distribution through wholesalers in the various cities in this territory" ("Kennewick Grape Juice Now ...").
Happily for local growers, the product caught on quickly. Reported the Courier in February 1914: "The Northern Pacific put in a big order for individual bottles of grape juice, which will be served exclusively in their dining cars. The Palm candy store in Spokane serves Church's Grape Juice exclusively, as do several other big establishments. The Davenport has had a trial order and state that they will continue to handle the Kennewick product. In Seattle the Bon Marche has a demonstrator at work all this month with the juice and the wholesalers have taken kindly to this new product of the northwest" ("Grape Juice Sales Climb …").
"With a bouquet all its own," was an early advertising slogan as Church's ad men pitched the virtues, both real and imagined, of grape juice. A 1922 ad in The Seattle Times asserted that Church's Grape Juice was "famed for its body-building, nerve-strengthening goodness. … Youngsters gain on it. Invalids find its nourishment and its iron give them strength" ("Rich, Ripe Grapes"). During the lean years of the Great Depression, Church's was marketed as "healthful," "slenderizing," "refreshing," "delicious," luscious," and reasonably priced at 5 cents for a 4-ounce bottle, or 20 cents for a pint. Further, a 1932 advertisement claimed, "it is a mildly laxative drink" that is "just as good for babies as for grown-ups" and is "preferred at sanitariums and hospitals because of its superior and pure qualities" and thus "your children can spend their nickels in perfect safety without danger of upset stomachs or impaired appetites" and further "Church's is a perfect drink for 'flu' attacks and for those whose systems are subnormal." Finally, "Church's grape juice has dozens of varied culinary uses" ("Now A Glass …"). Sales soared throughout the 1920s and 1930s.
Meanwhile, on Stretch Island
In 1918, Seattle real estate broker Charles Somers Jr. purchased 40 acres on Stretch Island from Lambert Evans's widow. The property was covered with Island Belle vines, and with encouragement from neighbor Adam Eckert, Somers quickly built Somers Brothers into a thriving grape business. In November 1921, Somers shipped a ton and a half of fresh Island Belle grapes to San Francisco, a watershed moment for Washington grape growers. "I don't know how far this will develop," Somers told The Seattle Times, "but we do know that California can't produce a grape of the quality of the Island Belle. The Island Belle has qualities not found in any other grape" ("California Knows ...").
Business was good throughout the 1920s, and by 1930 there were two juice plants on Stretch Island -- the Eckert Fruit Company and the Belle Island Grape Juice Company, part-owned by Somers -- each pressing about 20,000 gallons of grape juice a year. Then came the Great Depression and its crippling effect on Mason County's grape business. Growers who'd commanded $30 a ton for grapes before the 1929 crash received just $8 a ton in 1932. When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, Somers immediately converted his juice factory into St. Charles Winery. By the 1960s commercial grape growing in Western Washington was essentially dead. The industry had moved lock, stock, and barrel to Eastern Washington.
Welch Moves In; National Grape Takes Over
A series of events in 1949 shook up the Washington's grape industry. In February, Welch Grape Juice Co. president Jake Kaplan announced that Welch intended to build a $1 million processing plant in the Yakima Valley. In September, about 200 workers at a Church-owned vineyard in Kennewick went on strike for higher wages. With the harvest underway, Church relented after a five-day work stoppage, granting the workers a raise from 12 cents per lug (about 35 pounds) to 15 cents per lug. In October, a federal grand jury in Yakima indicted executives from four grape-juice manufacturers for price fixing. Two of the companies were based in Chicago, another in San Francisco. The fourth was Church, which by 1949 was headquartered in Walla Walla. Church vice-president Donald Sherwood was among those charged with violations of the Sherman Antitrust Act. "The indictment charges that, since 1946, the defendants fixed and maintained uniform, noncompetitive prices to be paid to independent growers of Concord grapes in the Yakima Valley. The indictment adds that the individual growers were in this way deprived of their right to sell in a free, competitive market" ("Juice Companies Using Yakima Grapes Indicted").
On June 2, 1952, in New York, Kaplan drew up an agreement to sell Welch to a cooperative of its member grape growers in the U.S. and Canada. Over the next four-plus years, 10 percent of the company's net sales were set aside to help facilitate the purchase, and on September 1, 1956, the National Grape Cooperative Association -- including 275 growers in Benton, Franklin, and Yakima counties – officially purchased the Welch Grape Juice Co. and its nine plants. "To seal the deal, the co-op paid $100,000 in cash and transferred 15 million dollars in accumulated credits to the company. … The sale was believed to be the first time a group of farmers has been able to buy out the multimillion-dollar leader of its industry" ("Grape Juice Firm Owned …").
In advance of the sale, Welch strengthened its position in Washington when it bought Church Manufacturing in 1952 from John G. Kelly, a Walla Walla newspaper publisher who had owned Church since 1927. In 1954, Welch expanded both the Kennewick bottling plant and Church's former processing plant in Grandview. Welch was now the dominant grape grower and processor in Washington, though there would be ample competition. In Prosser, Milne Fruit began operations in 1956, followed in the 1960s by the Seneca Grape Juice Company and the A. F. Murch Company, a division of the J. M. Smucker Company. Tree Top started processing grapes in Prosser in 1999. FruitSmart opened the following year in Grandview.
Labor and Mechanization
Labor unrest accompanied the grape industry after World War II, particularly in California, but the work environment in Washington vineyards generally was free from conflict. When The Seattle Times observed the 1961 grape harvest in the Yakima Valley, it noted, "The pickers, from around the valley, are mostly housewives. But the rest are a cross section of the inhabitants of the area. There are farmers with spare time, older couples who like to get outdoors and earn a little money at the same time and students on weekend leave from studies. A top picker can earn up to $30 a day. The average is around $13" ("Grape Country And Grape-Pickers"). Migrant laborers were central figures as the industry grew, though by the 1980s mechanical harvesters had largely replaced hand-pickers in the fields.
In 1968, Lynn Burns, a Toppenish farmer and inveterate tinkerer, fabricated the first mechanical harvesting machine for Concord grapes. "His creation is a loud, red, bouncy box of metal and belts on three wheels," reported the Yakima Herald-Republic. "Most grape harvesters have four, but Burns' three-wheeled Dr. Seuss-style design allows him to turn sharper – and it was simpler to build too. … While his employees guide grapes through the shoot and drive tractors towing the bins through the adjacent rows, Burns sits in a seat on top of the harvester, shifting with a two-foot metal rod that includes an arm brace and a foam elbow pad that allows him to push with his entire forearm. The gears sound like a whirring power saw. The parts are 'mostly from the junkyard,' he says" ("He Built A Better …").
Unlike wine grapes, which are exposed to the sun and generally picked by hand, juice grapes hang in clusters beneath a canopy, hiding the fruit. Mechanical harvesters shake clusters from the vine, letting them drop into a waiting bin or onto a conveyor belt. The grapes are then trucked to a processing plant and pressed into juice. At the Welch's facility in Grandview, grape juice is stored in massive tanks at "the largest juice tank farm in all of North America" ("Concord Costs …"). Most juice is then concentrated and shipped elsewhere for bottling or further processing. "Once grapes are crushed and stems removed, juice is processed to be sold in a 68 degrees Brix concentrate, which amounts to the grams of sugar for every 100 grams of liquid. The price per gallon for 68 Brix concentrate was $10 in 2017, but has been as high as $15 between 2004 and 2012" ("Concord Costs …"). Much of the concentrate from the Yakima Valley is shipped to Asia, where it is used for juice, jelly, and other products sold in Japan and Korea.
The Modern Grape Industry
As the 1970s dawned there were 9,700 acres of Concord vineyards in Washington -- and only about 200 acres of vinifera wine grapes. But the wine industry was beginning to stir. In 1971, Mike Sauer (b. 1947) planted 30 acres of Concords, along with what he said were a few token rows of wine grapes, on his family's farm near Wapato. Sauer continued to grow juice grapes for the next 50 years while also earning widespread acclaim in the wine world. Dick Boushey, another prominent name in Washington wine, planted Concords in the early 1980s at the same time as wine grapes, allowing him to "watch both industries develop in different directions" ("Concord Costs …"). Decades later, in 2012, Sauer continued to maintain 90 acres of Concords; Boushey, sitting on National Grape's board of directors, had 87 acres of Concords and Niagaras.
While the wine and juice sectors flourished in Washington, the state's table-grape industry never took off, and today California accounts for 99 percent of all U.S. commercially grown table grapes. In Washington, table grapes are seldom grown for retail sale beyond farmers' markets and U-Pick operations. In 2016, the state's largest grower had 3.5 acres of table grapes, and its primary goal was to supply clean plant material to nurseries and other growers. "Traditional table grape varieties are too tender for harsh winters of inland regions of the Northwest, which is why California has a lock on table grape production and grows nearly all of the nation's table grape supply" ("Table Grapes Could Be …").
In recent years, Washington's juice-grape growers have been buffeted by forces largely beyond their control. In 2002, prices paid to farmers plummeted from $220 per ton of grapes the previous year to $150 a ton, a 32 percent dip. "The nosedive is blamed on an oversupply of less-expensive red and white grapes in California and a larger-than-expected Concord harvest in some eastern states" ("Concord Discord …"). In 2004, a winter freeze reduced yields for some growers from 8-10 tons per acres to just three tons per acre. Yields rebounded strongly in 2005, when Washington farmers harvested a record 305,000 tons of juice grapes, but prices stayed low. Another freeze in November 2010 severely damaged the 2011 crop, leading to a surge in demand in 2012, when the cash price for juice grapes soared to $280 a ton. Three years later, the price had crashed again, to $110 a ton. Reported the Yakima Herald-Republic: "Full warehouses across the country, three straight years of large yields nationwide and America's declining taste for fruit juice have pushed juice-grape cash prices to their lowest point in 10 years" ("State Of The Grapes …").
Meanwhile, the production of wine grapes in Washington surpassed juice grapes in 2015 and the gap continued to widen. In 2019, the state's winemakers crushed 201,000 tons of grapes, while juice-grape growers pressed 176,237 tons of Concords and Niagaras. Facing diminishing returns, some farmers tore out Concord vines and planted other crops, and juice grape acreage in Washington declined from about 25,000 in the mid-2000s to about 21,000 acres in 2018. Yet the business of growing juice grapes had rebounded again by 2020 as the remaining growers enjoyed another uptick in demand. "It's been a pretty bleak crop for several years," said Mike Sauer. "Now it's starting to get on the good side of supply and demand" ("Concords Rebound …").