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Otis Vineyard, 57-year-old Cab vines, have new owners
GRANDVIEW, Wash. – For the first time since 1952, Otis Harlan will be out of the wine business.
The owner of Otis Vineyard in the Yakima Valley north of Grandview has sold his land to another longtime winemaking and grape-growing family that plans to re-launch a family business that started in 1946 in Southern California.
Harlan, who lives in Yakima and is now in his mid-80s, purchased what became Otis Vineyard in 1954. Two years later, he planted a block of Cabernet Sauvignon that is still producing wine grapes today.
“It was a good ride, a fun ride,” Harlan told Great Northwest Wine. “I’ve been very fortunate to work with some very good people.”
Those people included William B. Bridgman, who helped launch the Washington wine industry in 1917, and David Lake, the talented winemaker for Associated Vintners/Columbia Winery.
The father-son team of Tom and Sean Tudor and Sean’s uncle Mark Tudor purchased the historic vineyard along County Line Road, just up the hill from their family’s longtime vineyards. Tom’s father, Andy, founded Tudor Hills Vineyard in 1947 in Fontana, Calif., in the Cucamonga Valley east of Los Angeles near San Bernardino.
By the early 1960s, the Tudor family had started a winery with a capacity of 3 million gallons.
Rising land prices forced the family to sell the land in the late 1960s, and the Tudors relocated to the Yakima Valley, where Andy Tudor planted 160 acres of Concord grapes and worked for Seneca Foods. He was the winemaker for Seneca’s Boordy Vineyards until his death in 1976.
Tom Tudor began planting wine grapes in the 1980s in the Yakima Valley, and he and Sean added vines to property they owned adjacent to Otis Vineyard. At the beginning of this year, Harlan approached the Tudors about purchasing his vineyard. The deal was finalized last month, and the Tudors will take over the property in December.
Otis Vineyard tied to state’s first post-Prohibition winery
Harlan got into the wine business after purchasing St. Charles Winery, which was Washington state’s first bonded winery after Prohibition. St. Charles launched in 1933 in the Puget Sound town of Grapeview, which is not far from the Hood Canal community of Belfair. The St. Charles building – which Harlan did not purchase – remains today on Stretch Island.
Harlan called his newly acquired winery Alhambra and moved to Yakima in 1952, locating the winery in nearby Selah. Needing a steady source of grapes, he bought a vineyard north of Grandview from a man named Ralph Adams. It was planted mostly to North American and hybrid varieties such as Concord, Campbell’s Early and White Diamond, though it also had a few vinifera vines, including Zinfandel.
“They were a lot of trouble,” Harlan said of the Zinfandel, adding they were susceptible to bunch rot, so he tore them out after a few years.
He slowly replanted the entire vineyard, with the 1956 Cabernet Sauvignon vines now the oldest on the property – and believed to be the oldest commercial Cab vines in Washington. Today, Otis has old plantings of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris. However, he doesn’t have any Riesling, a peculiarity in the Riesling-heavy Yakima Valley.
“I did have Riesling at one time,” he said. “It didn’t do well there, so I took it out.”
Early in his grape-growing career, Harlan met Bridgman, who began planting wine grapes in 1917 and launched his Upland Winery in nearby Sunnyside in 1934 — the year after St. Charles was founded.
“I was fortunate enough to meet Bill Bridgman,” he said. “He was so generous with his knowledge of the vines and the wines and what he was trying to do and what his dream was. He helped me immensely with what to plant and how to care for them. In my mind, he was the person who was the energy behind getting the wine business going. He was ahead of us all.”
In 1979, Harlan met a young winemaker named David Lake, who had just landed in Washington as winemaker for Associated Vintners – later to be renamed Columbia Winery. Lake was enamored with Otis Vineyard and made celebrated vineyard-designated Cabs and Chardonnays from Otis beginning with the 1981 vintage.
“David was a wonderful fellow, a wonderful winemaster,” Harlan said. “And he became a good friend.”
Lake died in 2009, and Columbia Winery is now owned by Gallo, which still purchases a lot of the grapes from Otis Vineyard. Harlan said he’s finally ready to retire completely from the grape business and focus his energy elsewhere.
“Sean Tudor brings lots and lots of enthusiasm to the table,” Harlan said, hinting that the younger Tudor reminds him a bit of himself in his youth. “I am delighted to turn this over to Sean.”
Otis Vineyard centerpiece of new Tudor Hills Winery
The younger Tudor is teaming up with Robert Smasne, one of the most prolific winemakers in the Yakima Valley, whose winemaking facility is just a few miles from Otis Vineyard. Together, they will be producing 200 cases of wine under the Tudor Hills Winery label from the 2013 vintage. A Sangiovese rosé and Chardonnay will be released next spring, and a Syrah, Malbec, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon will follow.
The Cabernet Sauvignon will come from the 1956 vines at Otis. Tudor plans to release it in 2016 to mark the 60th anniversary of their plantings.
“It’s a unique family story,” Tudor said. “I’m anxious to share it.”
Smasne is especially excited to work with these old vines. He grew up next door, where his parents grew Concord grapes. As a child, Smasne and his brothers would sneak into Otis Vineyard and taste the grapes. Even as a 10-year-old, Smasne noticed something different about the grapes Harlan grew, and a winemaking spark flickered in his young mind.
Yet even though he grew up in the shadow of Otis Vineyard, and the fruit here inspired his remarkable winemaking career, he’s never made wine from Otis Vineyard grapes. Until now.
Before launching Smasne Cellars, Smasne worked at Covey Run, a winery then owned by the same company that controlled Columbia Winery. As a result, Smasne worked with Lake and recalls the Otis Vineyard connection.
“He loved making wines from this vineyard,” Smasne said as he stood amid the 57-year-old Cab vines. “I’m really excited.”