Jerry Bookwalter (b. 1940) is a pioneer wine grower and winery owner who helped bring the Washington wine industry to prominence. He arrived from California in 1976 to manage Sagemoor Farms, which had the largest wine vineyard holdings in the state, including the Bacchus and Dionysus plots. In 1982, he left to open his own winery, Bookwalter Winery in Pasco, while continuing to be a vineyard manager, consultant, and grape broker. The winery moved to a new site in Richland in 1993. In 1997, his son John Bookwalter took over marketing duties and changed the winery’s name to J. Bookwalter. Jerry retired in 2008 and turned over the ownership to John Bookwalter. The winery site now includes a full-service restaurant named Fiction.
Coming of Age in California
Jerrold (Jerry) Bookwalter was born in Modesto, California on May 12, 1940, and his parents, Robert M. Bookwalter and Lural Bookwalter, owned a 40-acre peach ranch nearby. Jerry grew up on the ranch learning skills that would later serve him well as a vineyardist: driving tractors, pruning branches, and spraying crops. Modesto was known as the home of Ernest and Julio Gallo, the biggest winemakers in the U.S. A wine vineyard was right across the road from the peach orchard. But wine didn’t play much of a role in the Bookwalter family’s life in those early days – except on those occasions when Jerry tried his hand at some rudimentary fermenting. "Whenever they would harvest, I would go across the street and catch the juice that leaked out of their trucks and ferment it in my garage into something I would call 'Bust Head' -- or white vinegar, usually,” said Bookwalter (Kershner interview).
He graduated from Thomas Downey High School in Modesto, and then went on to college. He started at Modesto Junior College and then went on to the University of California-Davis. His college career had a number of twists and turns. "I couldn't decide what I wanted to do," he said. "I had five majors in four and a half years of college. I started out in agricultural economics. And then I went to biochemistry, then I went to chemistry, and I went to engineering for a while, back to biochemistry. Finally, I wound up in agriculture economics and pomology, which is the science of fruits and nuts" (Kershner interview). He called that "the path of least resistance" because of his farm background, yet he had no interest in taking over the family peach farm. For his first job after graduation, he ended up not far afield, taking a job on a prune and pear farm in the Los Gatos area. After a few years there, he took a job in the San Joaquin Valley working on a Dole Pineapple company farm growing peaches and almonds. In a precursor of what was to come, the farm also had a plot of wine grapes. But wine was still far from his mind as a career path.
Dole sold that farm, and Bookwalter took a job as general manager of the Cortez Growers Association, one of the oldest cooperatives in California, formed by a group of Japanese growers. "I was their manager for four or five years until I upset the president one day and they abruptly let me go," he said. "I think I used some colorful words in front of two or three other Japanese, and you just don't do that ... I really embarrassed him in front of his peers. And I had no cause to do that, no real cause. I was upset about something and so it cost me my job" (Kershner interview).
Opportunity in Washington
By that time, he had acquired a small almond and peach farm of his own in Atwater, California. He also had some grapes – but not wine grapes. They were Thompson seedless, which he made into raisins. Yet he was making little headway financially, and in 1976, when an agricultural industry headhunter in Fresno approached him about a job in Washington, he was intrigued. Sagemoor Farms was a 1,000-acre operation just north of Pasco. It had alfalfa, barley, wheat, cherries – and it also boasted the largest independently owned wine vineyard in the state. The vineyard included three named areas: Sagemoor, Bacchus, and Dionysus, all three of which would become famous in the years to come.
He flew up to Seattle to meet the owners – attorney Alec Bayless and several partners – and they drove him across the Cascades to the farm. "I pretty much fell in love with it at first sight," he said. "And I accepted the job offer on the spot" (Kershner interview). It was a diversified farm operation, "but the vineyard was the part I always liked the best for some reason" (Kershner interview).
He and his wife Jean were not wine connoisseurs, far from it. In 1976, they, along with most Americans, were "drinking the likes of Annie Green Springs and other sweet wines" (Kershner interview). But Bookwalter realized that growing grapes in Washington was a great opportunity to be on the ground floor of a new industry. There was only one catch. The industry was barely out of the womb. There was hardly anyone making wine. "There were very few buyers," he said. "A lot of the fruit was being sold out of state or even out of country into Canada, because there weren't enough buyers and users of Washington state grapes in the state of Washington ... I think our main concern was, 'Where are we going to find more markets?' And so we spent a lot of our efforts marketing and trying to be creative in ways that we could package the grapes to get them to markets that were some distance from Washington" (Kershner interview).
Years later, Bookwalter would look back ruefully on one "creative" initiative that backfired. Sagemoor developed a waxed cardboard box for transporting ripe grapes anywhere in the North America. "We, in our infinite wisdom, started out with a little plastic liner in those waxed boxes," he said. Unfortunately, those liners kept the grapes too warm and turned the boxes into "little individual fermenters" (Kershner interview). Some of Bookwalter’s Italian-Canadian customers demanded deep discounts – or turned down entire truckloads.
Another challenge: What varieties to plant? What would thrive in Washington’s climate? The research of Dr. Walter Clore of Washington State University and others helped Sagemoor answer these questions. The researchers had evaluated terrain, temperatures, and sunlight at the Sagemoor plots. When Bookwalter arrived, Sagemoor had 11 different varieties planted, mostly in whites, including Johannisberg Riesling, Gray Riesling, Chenin Blanc, and Chardonnay. Bookwalter also had to figure out the optimal time to pick the grapes. During that 1976 harvest, he conducted nearly daily sugar-acid analyses, using grapes picked randomly by a worker on a motorcycle, who weaved in and out of rows, plucking a single grape from various clusters. "He’s supposed to pick whatever his hand hits first," Bookwalter told The Seattle Times. "It’s completely randomized to get a fair sample" (King). The goal, he said, was to "pick the grapes at what television calls that 'fleeting moment of perfection'" (King).
"There’s so much that’s new and undone," Bookwalter said in that 1976 interview. "It’s always a challenge" (King). Most Washington vineyards were growing white wine grapes, and Sagemoor, which grew 60 percent of the state’s wine grape crop, was no exception. Dr. Clore had pushed the growers toward Riesling, for good reason. "He favored the Riesling because he knew it was very, very cold-hardy, and we weren't really sure yet how to get through the cold winters that we experienced," said Bookwalter. "Sometimes negative temperatures, frequently negative temperatures, in the state of Washington during the winter months" (Kershner interview). The winter of 1978-1979 was especially brutal. The 1979 Sagemoor crop dropped from 3,100 tons the year before to 1,100 tons. Yet Bookwalter and other growers learned some valuable lessons, with help from Dr. Clore. "You had to plant deeper at the beginning," said Bookwalter. "And a lot of us were only planting maybe 8 to 10 inches. And so we started planting 12 to 14 to 15 inches deep so that we could get survivability during the cold weather" (Kershner interview).
Sagemoor, under Bookwalter, was also testing the prevailing wisdom that Washington was suited mainly for white wines. "We had what we called a mother block, which was 50 rows of wine grapes, and each row was a different variety," said Bookwalter. "...They were all definitely experimental – probably the only commercial experimental block outside of nurseries that I knew of in the whole state ... At the very beginning we were having a lot of success, of course with the Riesling. And the Cabernets and the Merlots were doing very well. We found out that Merlot was a really easy keeper and really an easy variety for most growers to work with. And they were reasonably cold hardy" (Kershner interview).
Bookwalter recalled that he and other growers "had a pretty steep learning curve for five or maybe 10 years in the late 1970s and early 1980s" (Kershner interview). By then, however, he was seeing a number of encouraging signs. Bookwalter was still selling grapes out of state, and even to some of the big wineries in California, such as Fetzer and J. Lohr. But the in-state market for wine grapes was growing every year. In 1981, he told The Seattle Times that "it is only a matter of time before large wine producers are here in Washington state" (Mahoney, "Strong Future").
Chateau Ste. Michelle, the best-known winery in the state, had already become Bookwalter’s largest Washington customer. And in the early 1980s, many small, high-quality wineries in the Yakima and Walla Walla valleys were opening up and buying grapes from Bookwalter. The Preston Winery in Pasco was an early customer, and so was Kiona in Benton City. Other names, soon to become well-known, followed. "We were some of the early providers of wine grapes to Leonetti Cellar," said Bookwalter. "Gary Figgins, very good personal friend of mine. Rick Small at Woodward Canyon. And we were providing grapes to them, and they were showcasing us. And I always had a soft spot in my heart for both of them and knowing that they were very dedicated to their profession. And so I had special blocks of fruit that I would save out for both of them every year" (Kershner interview). The reputations of these wineries grew hand-in-hand with the reputation of the Sagemoor vineyards. "Oftentimes, when they would be doing their dog-and-pony tastings in various locations throughout the states, they would of course reveal the source of their fruit -- which was Sagemoor, Bacchus, and Dionysus vineyards. So that was pretty instrumental in helping our red market" (Kershner interview).
In 1982, Bookwalter told a Seattle Times reporter about the fledgling Washington wine industry’s achievements – and also its daunting challenges. "All those awards for Washington wines – this is where the grapes came from," he told the paper. "We are a new, new industry and in a short time span, we’ve established ourselves – we are here to stay. We are dealing with world-class wines. But we have to look for a consistent market. We don’t have it yet" (Mahoney, "It’s Not Easy").
Bookwalter recalled that in those days, California winemakers "really thought it was a fluke that we could even grow wine grapes in Washington" (Kershner interview). The wine-buying public outside of the state largely shared that opinion. In 1985, Washington still didn’t have enough wineries to use all of the grapes grown in-state. That year, Bookwalter, in his capacity as the vice-president of the recently formed Washington Wine Grape Growers Association, announced that the organization was pledging $10,000 to attract at least one more major winery to the state. He said, "there is room for a lot more wineries to locate in the state and sell their products statewide, nationwide and worldwide" ("Grape Growers Seek").
Bookwalter Winery Ramps Up
By this time, Bookwalter was doing his part to help solve this problem. He had left Sagemoor Farms in 1982 and launched his own winery, Bookwalter Winery. Getting it on its feet involved a number of difficult twists and turns, including a collaboration with Ste. Chapelle Winery in Idaho that didn’t pan out. In September 1984, Bookwalter Winery had its grand opening in a rented facility on Commercial Avenue in Pasco. Jean presided over the tasting room, which advertised on local billboards and buses.
A wine columnist in 1985 described Bookwalter as a "prominent consultant and grape broker" (Holden). Launching his own winery required new skills and involved a great deal of what he called "OTJ" -- on-the-job training. Fortunately, he had plenty of help. "I had friends in the industry in about three states, so I could pick up the phone any time of day or night, practically, and find out what to do about a fermentation issue or some issue that might be bugging me," he said. "And I had a couple of pretty good consultants in the industry that I was working with at that time, too. Brian Carter from Brian Carter Cellars, and Kay Simon from her winery in Prosser, Chinook Wines" (Kershner interview). Bookwalter was also "gifted with a pretty good palate and a good nose myself, which you have to have for making wine" (Kershner interview).
The winery was making mostly sweet white wines at the beginning – Riesling and Muscat. It seemed to be what people wanted at the time, but Bookwalter later admitted that "we probably didn’t have a real good picture of where the market was headed," which was toward red wines (Kershner interview). Meanwhile, Bookwalter’s attention was pulled in different directions. "I had a crazy idea that I could also manage vineyards and make wine at the same time," he said (Kershner). He had begun another company that managed several other Washington vineyards, including the prestigious Conner Lee Vineyard. Consequently, the winery had its ups and downs, culminating in a bankruptcy proceeding. Yet the winery survived that process, and in 1993, Jerry and Jean Bookwalter sold their home in Pasco and used the equity to purchase a three-acre winery site in Richland, where the much-expanded winery and restaurant sit today.
Bookwalter Winery had its share of fans, but it was still a mom-and-pop operation, producing only about 2,000 or 3,000 cases of wine a year, most of it sold locally to case buyers. That all began to change in 1997, when their son John Bookwalter returned home.
John had grown up in his father’s vineyards, but had left to go to college at Arizona State University because he "wanted to get as far away from Eastern Washington as I could" (Perdue, "Mom-Pop"). He then pursued a career in marketing, and worked for some powerhouses in the beverage industry, including E&J Gallo, Coors, and Pepsi. By 1997, he was ready to come home, full of ideas about where to take Bookwalter Winery. They had talked to family friend Gary Figgins, who said, "You need to reinvent yourself," advice that John was more than willing to run with. Jerry and Jean turned over their marketing to John, "lock, stock, and barrel" (Kershner interview).
"I would say I got the defibrillator out," John would later say. "The winery was pretty small" (Perdue, "Mom-Pop"). John transformed Bookwalter Winery in several fundamental ways. He took over the winemaking job in consultation with Zelma Long, a well-known Napa winemaker, and later Claude Gros. While at first John thought he wanted to "make Cabernet in volume," he soon did a pivot (Perdue, "Mom-Pop"). Jerry had once said, "No wine is worth more than $20," but John began to make high-end red wines, some costing five times that much -- while still making affordable production wines (Perdue, "Mom-Pop"). The name evolved into J. Bookwalter, which is a nod to Jerry, Jean, and John.
John also fundamentally changed the tasting-room experience. He wanted the tasting room to be a destination, so he worked to slow down the tasting experience. He added cheese and charcuterie plates and leather chairs. Wine writer Andy Perdue wrote that "ultimately the little tasting room in Richland became a destination, not only for those visiting wine country, but also the locals who found it a great place to hang out after work" (Perdue, "Mom-Pop"). In 2010, Sunset Magazine named it the best tasting room in its Western Wine Awards.
John’s marketing savvy was perhaps best shown in the names of his wines – all of which have literary names. There are wines called Anecdote, Antagonist, Protagonist, SubPlot, Conflict, and Notebook. The restaurant is called Fiction, the bar is called Fable, and the food truck is called Non-fiction. "John's brought a lot of thinking, a lot of creativity to the ballgame," said his father (Kershner interview).
In 2008, Jerry and Jean Bookwalter retired and turned ownership of the winery over to John. "I had just run the course and was up in years and I guess I was ready to do other things at that point," said Jerry, who continued to manage some vineyards. "And he was chomping at the bit to really put his mark on the winery ... We were happy to have that happen" (Kershner interview). John would go on to build a modern tasting room/production facility on the same grounds and turn the former winery building into Fiction. Jerry Bookwalter called it "synergistic" (Kershner interview). The winery attracted customers to the restaurant, and the restaurant featured the wines.
In 2011, Jerry Bookwalter received one of the Washington wine industry’s highest honors when he was named the Honorary Grower of the Year at the 2011 Auction of Washington Wines. Rick Small, Bookwalter’s old friend and colleague, called him a "talented viticulturist" who helped put "Washington’s wine industry on the map" (Washington Tasting Room). As of 2022, many of J. Bookwalter’s wines are made from grapes grown in those original vineyards -- Sagemoor, Bacchus, and Dionysus.