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The Legacy of Walter Clore

How a child of dust-bowl Oklahoma became the father of Washington state's wine industry

Thomas Skeen
Posted: December 30, 2002

 
Red Willow Vineyard was first planted in the 1960s with guidance from Walter Clore.
 
 
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Dry, sunny eastern Washington state has rapidly made it to the top tier of American wine regions. Local vintners and growers say the reasons are pretty basic.

First, they'll tell you about how, some 15,000 to 17,500 years ago, massive walls of water escaping from a huge ice-dammed lake in Montana scoured the Columbia River basin east of the Cascade Mountains.

When the chaos ended, the land was left with the capacity to nurture vineyards.

Then, they'll note simply, in 1934 Dr. Walter Clore came along.

Armed with a degree in horticulture and a passion for propagating grapes, Clore is the man most credited for figuring out where European vinifera would grow in the vast, rough-and-tumble semi-desert of eastern Washington. That's no small feat in a region where water is scarce, where summers bring temperatures well above 100° F, and where occasional Arctic blasts of sub-zero winter have been known to snap trees.

"His impact is huge," says Mike Sauer, who with Clore's guidance started growing wine grapes in the late 1960s at his now-acclaimed Red Willow Vineyard in the Yakima Valley. "As one of nature's gentlemen, he's always shown kindness to whoever is seeking information about growing grapes. That struck me, as a young man who just wanted to plant a few vines in the beginning. He took me seriously, perhaps more seriously than I took myself.

"Walter has inspired at least a couple of generations of grapegrowers," adds Sauer. His own son Jonathan is among the new crop of viticulturists. "Even at his current age, Walter's still tremendously enthusiastic."

Now 91, Clore is the official "Father of Washington's Wine Industry." A resolution adopted by the state's 2001 legislature saw to that.

"A lot of those kinds of titles are honorary," says Bob Betz, Stimson Lane Vineyards and Estates' corporate vice president of winemaking research. "But Walt Clore earned every stitch of that."

The honor is the latest of many bestowed on the Washington State University professor emeritus. Among the most gratifying for him, he says, is the American Society for Enology and Viticulture's Merit Award that he and WSU enologist Charles Nagel shared in 1995.

WSU, in Pullman, offers the Walter Clore Scholarship to students majoring in agriculture or home economics. Stimson Lane's Columbia Crest, Washington's largest producer, has the Walter Clore Vineyard, near the winery atop the Horse Heaven Hills overlooking the Columbia River into Oregon. And to complete the ground-to-goblet cycle, Columbia Crest winemaker Doug Gore this year released 2,000 cases of a 1999 Bordeaux-style blend he named Walter Clore Private Reserve.

Currently in the planning stage is the Walter Clore Wine and Culinary Center in Prosser, the geographic hub of the state's prime vineyard country, and the town in which Clore lives. The center is to have interactive exhibits focused on winemaking and the history of the state's $2.4 billion-and-growing industry, and a restaurant where guest chefs and wine experts will offer tips on food pairing to visitors and diners.

Project coordinator Gayle Wheeler, executive director of Prosser Economic Development Association, says the roughly 17,000-square-foot center is targeted to cost about $6 million, with the money to be raised mostly from private sources. Wheeler says she hopes to see ground broken on the center in the next two years.

Naming the center after someone or something other than Walter Clore was never considered. "He spearheaded the industry in Washington state and made it a viable one," Wheeler says.

Clore takes in such flattery with his unassuming, Oklahoma-bred modesty: "With all the things they put my name on, I feel I should be six feet under."

In fact, though a stroke has weakened his tall, lanky body and slurred his speech somewhat, he continues to "kick up some dirt" in several vineyards for which he serves as viticulture consultant.

But on a recent Saturday during harvest, Clore is relaxing on the second-floor balcony of his apartment, sitting with his playful black-and-white shih tzu, Ming. A light breeze carries a whiff of grape must from nearby Hogue Cellars, Snoqualmie Vineyards and Chinook Winery, where workers are crushing the 2002 vintage.

A few hundred yards to the north flows the Yakima River, lifeblood to a valley rich in apple, peach and cherry orchards. And, increasingly, vineyards. The deep-green farmland stretches across the valley, softening the landscape. Above it rise the dry, grass-and-sage slopes of the aptly named Rattlesnake Hills, over which is a cloudless sky.

At the door hangs a picture of the Eveready Bunny, on which someone has scribbled "Dr. Clore." Inside, technical agricultural journals, books and a church bulletin lie on desks and file cabinets. A Japanese painting, one of many that he and his late wife, Irene, collected during their trips to Asia, hangs on the wall.

With hardly a prompt, Clore begins his story, occasionally double-checking dates in The Wine Project: Washington State's Winemaking History, a painstakingly detailed book he and Seattle-area winemaker and friend Ron Irvine published in 1997.

The son of teetotalers, Clore was raised in Oklahoma during the Great Depression. In 1929, he entered Oklahoma A&M College, where he studied agriculture and played on the football team. Graduating in 1933 with a horticulture degree, and knowing that dustbowl Oklahoma was "not really known for grapes," he began a grounds-keeping job at a Texaco refinery.

"I had no interest in oil but I had to have a job," he says. "I had two brothers and my folks were out of work."

He applied for graduate scholarships at universities in Michigan, New York and Washington. In January 1934, WSU, then known as Washington State College, offered him a part-time fellowship paying $500 a year. He saved for six months to make the trip north to the Pullman campus, and before he left Oklahoma married Irene, who would die of complications from Alzheimer's disease 62 years later. After a year, he received a full fellowship that doubled his income to $1,000.

"It was the best raise I've ever gotten," he says. "I could send $5 home to my family every month."

In 1937, he was appointed assistant horticulturist at the university's Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center, in Prosser. There, he began trial plantings of tree fruits and berries -- and grapes, which in Washington at the time consisted of mostly Concords and other hearty Vitis labrusca varieties.

His work led to a pivotal encounter with W.B. Bridgman, a lawyer from nearby Sunnyside who played a major role in drafting water rights law for the state.

"W.B. Bridgman had perhaps the greatest influence on me and was a mentor," Clore says.

Bridgman had started Upland Winery in 1934 and kept a vineyard planted to both labrusca and vinifera he imported from Europe. The latter piqued Clore's interest. Washington wines were then mostly dessert wines and generic concoctions with head-banging alcohol contents ranging up to 22 percent. But Clore thought the industry could compete with the rest of the world by producing fine European-style wines.

In 1940 Bridgman supplied the research center with vinifera for trial plantings. With them, Clore established the state's "mother block" at the research center, and he would add to it over the years with European vinifera stock from California, British Columbia and Europe.

While researching irrigation practices to increase yields in the region's fruit orchards and asparagus fields, Clore kept meticulous notes on his grapes, and the effects of weather, temperatures, fertilizers, watering, ground cover, and various trellising and pruning methods. He also traveled eastern Washington to explore various terrains and to study what was and wasn't working in other vineyards.

Because post-Prohibition liquor laws in Washington prevented the sale of out-of-state wines (like the premium varietals being made in California), the state's industry had little motivation to excel beyond the easy-to-grow generic wines they'd been making for decades. Nevertheless, Clore continued his vinifera research. In 1960, he began field trials to test the viability of the center's vinifera vines in other locations and to convince growers they could harvest quality wine grapes if they implemented his agricultural practices.

Meanwhile, California's wine industry had begun seeking access to Washington markets. After two failed runs at the U.S. Supreme Court to fight Washington's wine restrictions, then heavily lobbying state lawmakers, California finally succeeded in 1969.

"The legislature leveled the field, and when they did, the big generic wineries started folding up," Clore says. "The first thing that happened was all the Washington wines got wiped off the shelf and Gallo dominated."

Clore's star was about to ascend.

Earlier in the 1960s, Chateau Ste. Michelle near Seattle, and Associated Vintners, founded in 1962 by a group of University of Washington professors, had begun making premium varietal reds and whites that were well-received by other winemakers and aficionados. With growers seeing their traditional markets squeezed dry, those that wanted to stay in the game and perhaps take it to a new level began heeding Clore.

"Growers got the message and started planting sizable acreages of premium grapes and buying certified vines out of California," Clore says. "Then hippies and businessmen and CEOs were all getting into the wine business."

They would seek advice from Clore and his winemaking research counterparts at the center, Charles Nagel and George Carter. Clore, who retired from teaching and took up vineyard consulting in 1976, says his rule of thumb for growers was and remains this: "If you can't grow Riesling and get it to survive, then you shouldn't be planting anything."

If it did survive, Clore was available to help growers figure out what other varieties they could plant and where they could plant them. Equally, he advised them where they could get into trouble if their vines weren't mature enough or stressed vigorously enough via solid agricultural practices to survive the killing freezes that strike about every six years.

"What doesn't kill you, makes you stronger" is a mantra that's often repeated by experienced Washington growers.

They have had setbacks -- the last big freeze in 1996 was especially murderous to the state's Merlot vineyards. But they as well as Clore know that the state's premium wine industry, as successful as it has been, is still in its youth compared with California's and Europe's. And they know that there is a lot more to learn and a lot more untested terrain and terroir to explore.

"We're still trying to find the best places for individual varieties," Clore says.

Twenty years ago, the state had 4,440 total acres growing vinifera grapes, with Riesling the dominant white at 1,280 acres and Cabernet Sauvignon the dominant red at 720. This year, there were 24,800 acres bearing fruit. Chardonnay now dominates white varieties, with 6,640 acres, while Cabernet and Merlot each grow on more than 5,200 acres.

Where would the state's wine industry be today had it not been for Clore?

Sauer says the answer to that question is an easy one.

"I'm not sure the industry would have come very far at all," Sauer says. "I don't think it would have had the cooperation, camaraderie and willingness to share information. There's an unusual amount of cooperation in this state. I think a lot of that stared with the early meetings led by Walt. I think Walt gave the industry its personality."

Thomas Skeen is the regional wine writer for the Washington state Blethen Family Newspapers in Seattle, Yakima and Walla Walla.

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