Washington Wine History Interviews: Wade Wolfe, Thurston Wolfe Winery

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 3/12/2023
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 22693
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Wade Wolfe (b. 1949) is one of Washington’s wine pioneers, with vast expertise in viticulture and winemaking. He arrived in the Yakima Valley in 1978 with a PhD in grape genetics from the University of California, Davis, and worked for Chateau Ste. Michelle as a viticulturalist for seven years. He later worked for Hyatt Vineyards Cellars and Hogue Cellars and was a consultant for many of the region’s top vineyards. He bonded his own winery, Thurston Wolfe, in 1990, and it soon became known for its experimentation with varieties rare in Washington. Wolfe sat down with HistoryLink's Jim Kershner on January 25, 2023, for an interview at Wolfe's winery and tasting room in Prosser. 

Pursuing a PhD

Wolfe was doing graduate research in genetics at UC Davis when he took a serious interest in wine.

Jim Kershner: Did you think at the time that there was a future for wine in the U.S.? I mean, it was still pretty early. 

Wade Wolfe: Yes, it was '72. I mean, that was before the really big boom in Napa Valley on the premium wines. There were five or six big wineries in Napa, and the newest one was Robert Mondavi. And there were none of the little smaller wineries that came in the mid-seventies. So I was pursuing a PhD degree in genetics with grapes as my research organism. And as I went through that program, I said I still wanted to be in academics doing research, but I also developed this idea that I'd do it for 20 or 25 years and then start my own personal winery.

It didn’t turn out quite the way he planned. His idea at the time was to eventually start a Zinfandel winery in the Amador region of California. Yet circumstances soon pulled him in different directions. First, he was hired to help with a wine grape research project for the University of Arizona, studying vineyards in the Four Corners region. Then, in 1977, he was visiting his parents in Washington at Christmas when he decided to make an appointment with Chateau Ste. Michelle’s head winemaker to share ideas about winter injury and other vineyard issues. That meeting took a momentous turn.

WW: We had a nice conversation about wine grape growing in Washington s tate. So as we were concluding the meeting, he said, "By the way, we have a viticulture position opened, and would you be interested in applying for it?" And I said, "Yeah," because the grant that we were on was going to pretty much come to an end in '78. And so they invited me to come up for an interview, and I think it was either January or February of '78, and I flew into Yakima and was met by their head general manager over here on the vineyards. And he toured me around and we did a lot of talking and things and concluded the interview. And I flew back to Arizona. And then within a couple of weeks they called me and said, "We're interested in having you come out here." And I said, "I'm ready to come."

Moving to Washington

One of Wolfe’s areas of expertise was in winter injury to grape vines. This was a serious problem in the nascent Washington wine industry. As it turned out, Wolfe found out how serious it was that first season, Here Wolfe describes his first winter in Washington and what he and Dr. Walter Clore, Washington’s preeminent grape researcher, found when they examined the winter kill in the winter of 1978-1979:

WW: So the vines went into the winter with the soil very dry. And then starting in just after Christmas, in December of '78, temperatures turned very, very cold. And it stayed below freezing until the middle of November. We never got above freezing that whole time. And during that time, we had two different times where the temperatures went down to minus 10, minus 12 below zero, including the 12th of February was the last real cold spell. Yeah.

And so one of the things that I was taught to do to evaluate winter injury is you go out and collect canes from the vineyard, you bring them in, let them warm up for a day, and then you take a razor blade and you start slicing through the buds. And you can tell if that bud has been ... grapes have three growing points inside each bud called primary, secondary, and tertiary. And the primary one is the biggest one. It's right in the center and it's the one that's responsible for producing fruit the following season. And the secondary and the tertiary are basically unfruitful. So what you learn to do is you learn to cut through under a little lens microscope, 10 power microscope, and if that center primary bud is black, it means it's dead. And you can actually, if you're careful, you can also look at the secondary tertiary buds. And so I went out into all the vineyards and I did all this bud cutting, and we did have quite a bit of fairly significant damage. Anywhere from 30 to 60 percent of the buds were killed. And I go, "Okay." But in theory, the vines would still grow. We would get some crop because some of the buds were still viable. But spring came and the vines just sat there and they never budded out. They just sat there and we'd go out and check on them and the canes and the wood just started gradually drying, drying, drying. And then the trunks dried out and the whole upper part of the vines were dead. Or just about all of them were. Not all, but our biggest vineyard we had, the Cold Creek Vineyard, was 500 acres of grapes up by the Vernita Bridge. And basically, about 75 percent of the vines died to the ground.

And so we started going out and digging. Well, first of all, we're trying to figure out the bud damage wasn't that bad that you would expect the vines to die, and Dr. Clore didn't quite understand that. And so we thought, "Well, let's see, if the vines are dehydrating, that means there might be something wrong with the root system." So we started digging, especially out at Cold Creek was first, and we started digging up the vines, and it turned out that the roots were dead. And what we surmised was, especially at Cold Creek, when they first planted that vineyard, it had grown agronomic crops beforehand. And all they did when it was first developed, they just leveled the soil because there's some draws and things. And so they just flattened the soil out so they could gravity irrigate for the crops they were growing.

After he and Clore studied the vineyards, they concluded that Central Washington’s geology and soil composition created a particular problem. Then, they were able to come up with a solution that has benefitted Washington vineyard managers ever since:

WW: Well, the type of soil that's out there is called a Warden Silt Loam. It's one of our heavier soils that we have. And it's very common for Warden Silt Loams to have what we call a caliche layer about 12 inches deep. And the caliche layer is a mixture of calcium carbonate and silica and it's created by the limited rainfall we have here in dissolving the calcium out of our soils, and then reacting with the CO2 and the rainwater, and eventually creating calcium carbonate. And during the rainfall, it would leach down, and that carbonate, the acid, would be finally neutralized and you would form the carbonate and it's usually around 12 inches deep. So when they had done this leveling, they had kind of scraped the top soil real thin so that it was only about six inches deep till you got to the caliche layer. And the caliche layer is about that thick, and it's pretty impervious to the root system. And when they planted the vineyard, they had gotten these little certified rootings out of California in little pots. And so they had planted them very shallow on top of this thin layer of soil and so when they started growing, the root system just hit this caliche layer and flattened out like it was growing on a tabletop. And so the entire root system was within six inches of the soil surface. And because of the dry winter and the cold winter, the ground level froze down to below two feet. And it killed the whole root system because they were up there on the surface.

Well, so the solution is that we also went around and found vineyards and vines that didn't die. And we dug down there and what it turns out is that they were either planted in soils that didn't have that caliche layer so their root system was able to grow down, or what was an interesting phenomena, for vineyards that did have these caliche soils, the vines right next to the end post survived. And the reason is that you auger a hole to put the post in, and the grapevine was able to put its roots down through that hole. So that told us a couple of things. One is that you have to make sure that if you're planting in a Warden Silt Loam, you need to rip it to break up that caliche layer. So that then when you plant the vines, the roots will be able to grow down below that. The second thing is that instead of planting these little tiny potted plants, you want to use cuttings. And typically they're about 16 inches long that you grow in a nursery for a year, and then you transplant them out into the vineyard and you plant them so the base of it where all the roots come out in it are at least 12 inches deep. So that's the practice we now have to avoid that kind of injury again.

Wolfe’s first love was Zinfandel, but when he arrived in Washington, that particular grape was barely grown at all. Wolfe soon learned why:   

WW: When I got here there were three vineyards that had Zinfandel in it. Ste. Michelle had one that was just north of Grandview on their vineyard six. It used to be used to make port. The Bacchus-Dionysus Vineyards had a block of Zinfandel north of Pasco, and then the Takahashi Vineyard down at Biggs Junction had Zinfandel. While I was at Ste. Michelle we were making wine out of those three vineyards and they were total failures. So here was the problem with the Zinfandel here. At that time all three of those vineyards were under sprinkler irrigation. The general practice there was to over-fertilize and over-irrigate the vineyards, and so typically the Zinfandel would get to about 19 brix and start rotting. And those were the days before white Zin, so we were trying to make a red table wine out of it, and we could never get it ripe enough. So eventually all three of those vineyards were pulled out. Ste. Michelle, they replanted it to Grenache, and Sagemoor replanted it to I think it was Merlot, and I'm not sure what the Takahashi family replanted it to, but it was pulled out. So that was kind of discouraging from the standpoint of well, we're probably not going to be making Zinfandel in Washington State. 

However, Wolfe did not give up on Zinfandel. During his forays into various vineyards, he found a few blocks and a few rows that were actually producing decent Zinfandel grapes. Here, he describes where he found them:

WW: I was doing a lot of vineyard consulting here, Oregon, Idaho, and California, and one of my clients here in Washington had this little block of Zinfandel that he had planted for home winemakers, and so I was consulting to him on, he also had Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay and Merlot, and I said, "Hey, can I try making wine out of your Zinfandel?" And this is while I was at Hyatt, because I also got Sauvignon Blanc from him for our dessert wine, which I'll talk about a little bit later. And so we made some fairly decent Zinfandel out of it. It wasn't great. I also did some consulting work to a grower down in The Dalles, and that grower used to work for me at the Columbia Crest Vineyard and he had left Ste. Michelle, and found this old Zinfandel vineyard that was planted back in the late 1800s, and revitalized it. And in '94 I got some Zinfandel from it and made a very, very nice Zinfandel. So it inspired me, these two experiences with these two blocks of Zinfandel, that there were some opportunities, places where we could grow it.

Successes at Thurston Wolfe

Before long, Thurston Wolfe became known for making outstanding Zinfandels and Zinfandel blends. Here, Wolfe describes the theory behind his blends, one of which bears his name, Dr. Wolfe’s Family Red:

WW: Why the blend of Zinfandel and Petite Sirah? Well, if you go back to the old vineyards in Sonoma, which were mostly planted by Italian immigrants, almost all the old vine Zinfandel wasn't straight Zinfandel. It usually had a couple different varieties in it. One of them was Petite Sirah, one of them was Carignan, and then one of them was a Muscat variety. A lot of those early wines were effectively Zinfandel Petite Sirah blends. That was kind of the inspiration for making this wine. The one alteration I did to that is that it's always had a small percentage of Lemberger in it because of my interest in Lemberger. It's always a Zinfandel Petite Sirah Lemberger blend, in descending percentages. Typically, pretty close to 50 percent Zinfandel, 40 percent Petite Sirah, about 10 percent Lemberger ... That's our biggest volume red wine.

Thurston Wolfe’s biggest seller, by far, is an unusual white blend, which he calls PGV, short for Pinot Gris-Viognier. Here he tells the story of how he developed PGV and how it became such a big seller throughout the Northwest:

WW: In '98, the Pinot Gris and Viognier at our vineyard came into production. I had this epiphany that I thought Viognier might be very helpful in giving more flavor and aroma to the Pinot Gris, because Viognier as you're familiar with, very aromatic, very fruity, and it is very full bodied as a white wine. In the '98 crush, we added the Viognier to it, and as Viognier will do, it ended up with a stuck fermentation. Are you familiar with that term? That means it doesn't ... The yeast doesn't ferment it dry so there's some residual sugar in it. We said, "Okay, fine." It tasted pretty nice. It was very fruity. We bottled it up with, it was approximately 50 percent Pinot Gris and 50 percent Viognier. We did, I think, 100 cases of it, and it was wildly successful out of the tasting room.

The next year we did 300 cases. I started buying extra. My vineyard, it is only 30 acres ... so we started buying it. The Pinot Gris came from the Crawford family north of Prosser, here, who I have bought fruit from while I was at Ste. Michelle and Hogue Cellars and Thurston Wolfe. We started using the Viognier out of the Zephyr Ridge Vineyard there. In '99, we did 300 cases. In 2000, we did 600 cases. In 2000 ... Then we started, we were now just ... In 2001, we did 1,200 cases. In 2002, we did 1,800 cases. Well, at that point, we couldn't make that much white wine in our winery so I started contracting with Hogue to make it for us. When we got to that volume, there's no way, where we were, we could bottle, make and bottle that much. The other thing that happened was, while I was at Hogue in the mid-nineties, I met a woman by the name of Lane Hoss, who was then and still is now, the wine buyer for the Anthony's restaurant chain, seafood chain. We had an opportunity to taste this wine, I think it was in '90 ... It was in, I don't know, late nineties after we started making it. She said, "Would you be interested in selling it in our restaurants?" And said, "You bet." 

Further reading: HistoryLink's biography of Wade Wolfe by Jim Kershner.

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