Lemberger’s long slide into oblivion

By on December 19, 2013

Lemberger is grown in Washington state and is made into a delicious red wine.

Lemberger, a red variety grown in Washington since the 1940s, never has caught on as a major variety and is slowly slipping into obscurity. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

Lemberger, a red wine that once was a rising star in the early Washington wine industry, is slowly fading into obscurity.

Though it’s a wine that everyone seems to love, Lemberger’s fortunes always have been tied to its unfortunate name, a moniker that evokes thoughts of stinky cheese rather than a deliciously smooth and fruity red wine.

Today, fewer than a dozen Washington wineries make Lemberger, and acreage in Washington has dwindled to perhaps 85.

“I think it’s conceivable that it could go more or less extinct” in Washington, said Scott Williams, winemaker for Kiona Vineyards and Winery on Red Mountain.

Williams, whose father, John, planted Lemberger in 1976, has 17 acres – likely the largest block in Washington, perhaps even North America. He still farms those original 2 acres, as well as plantings he made in 1983 and 1998. From those, he makes 3,000 cases that he sells for $15 per bottle.

“Selling it is like rolling rocks uphill,” he told Great Northwest Wine. “There’s a market for us for about 3,000 cases.”

Lemberger’s European origins, arrival in Washington

Scott Williams is the head winemaker at Kiona Vineyards and Winery on Red Mountain in Washington state.

Scott Williams, second-generation winemaker at Kiona Vineyards and Winery on Red Mountain, makes 3,000 cases of Lemberger per year. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

Lemberger is grown in many Central European countries, including Austria, Germany and the Czech Republic. It got its name not from the German cheese, but rather from the Slovenian town of Lemberg. Wines from Lemberger grapes are often smooth, rich and approachable.

The first plantings of Lemberger in Washington were in 1941 by Dr. Walter Clore, a Washington State University researcher based in the Yakima Valley town of Prosser.

“He actually arranged to have it imported from British Columbia for his varietal trials,” said Wade Wolfe, owner and winemaker at Thurston Wolfe in Prosser. Wolfe makes 100 cases of Lemberger and 130 cases of Lemberger rosé, called Second Chance Rosé.

“It makes the best rosé in the world,” Wolfe said.

He also includes Lemberger in a blend called Dr. Wolfe’s Family Red.

Wolfe remembers Hogue Cellars making it up until 1996. Then the Prosser winery brought it back for a time under its Genesis label, using grapes from Red Willow Vineyard.

Washington wineries that now make Lemberger also include Olympic Cellars in Sequim, Whidbey Island Winery in Langley, Alexandria Nicole Cellars in Prosser, FairWinds Winery in Port Townsend and Kana Winery in Yakima. Owen Roe in Oregon uses Washington Lemberger in one of its blends, and Camas Prairie Winery in Moscow, Idaho, also makes Lemberger from Washington grapes.

Lemberger handles cold winters well

Wade Wolfe is owner and winemaker at Thurston Wolfe in Prosser, Washington.

Wade Wolfe, owner of Thurston Wolfe in Prosser, uses Lemberger in three of his wines. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

Wolfe, who was a colleague and close friend of Clore, said “the father of Washington wine” loved Lemberger for its winter-hardiness and good quality.

“Having originally come from Austria, it had good winter hardiness and did very well in all of his varietal trials,” Wolfe said. “He was a big fan of it.”

But it never caught on in a big way. Wolfe estimates the state never had more than 200 acres of Lemberger planted, and what was out there has been slowly pulled out and replanted to other varieties.

Kevin Corliss, who oversees vineyard operations for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, said the company no longer brings in any Lemberger.

“We used to get a fair amount for blending, but we don’t anymore,” he said.

Williams said one reason for Lemberger’s demise has been the rise of Syrah, which has a more appealing name and works equally well as a blending wine.

“It has been supplanted by Syrah,” Williams said. “When you look at wineries’ blends, it’s a lot of Syrah, so most of the acreage of Lemberger that was finding a home as a blend has been pushed out.”

Lemberger’s potential as Washington’s flagship red variety

FairWinds Winery in Port Townsend, Washington, makes Lemberger.

FairWinds Winery in Port Townsend, Wash., makes Lemberger from grapes in the Horse Heaven Hills. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

Mike Sauer, owner of Red Willow Vineyard in the western Yakima Valley, planted Lemberger in 1979, taking his direction from Clore. He planted more in 1997, but he tore out his old block in 2011, replanting with Cabernet Sauvignon.

Sauer fondly tells about how Clore and George Carter — Clore’s winemaker at WSU — visited Red Willow each year.

“He and George would come out every summer to see how the grapes were doing,” Sauer said. “Every time, he talked about how Lemberger should have been a flagship red variety for the state. It’s just never happened. It’s underappreciated, underrated and underpriced.”

In the Horse Heaven Hills, grape grower Paul Champoux still has 4 acres of Lemberger at his famed Champoux Vineyards. When he purchased the vineyard in the mid-1990s, there were 12 acres that had been planted in 1981, much of which has been taken out through the years.

One viticultural issue with Lemberger is leaf roll virus, something that seems to be inherent to the variety. Leaf roll causes a vine’s leaves to turn prematurely red during the growing season, which essentially slows or stops photosynthesis. Though every single Lemberger vine in the state apparently is infected with leaf roll virus, it doesn’t stop the variety from producing a healthy crop each year.

Bill Powers, owner of Powers Winery and Badger Mountain Vineyards in Kennewick, made Lemberger for about a decade, both as a table wine and a fortified dessert wine.

“I loved the wine,” Powers said. “But it was a hard sell. In the tasting room, it sold well, but to get space in a major chain was impossible. You were just wasting your breath.”

California vintner loves Washington Lemberger

steele-blue-francOne winemaker who is bullish on Lemberger isn’t even in Washington. Jed Steele, owner of Steele Wines in Lake County north of Napa Valley, has been making a Lemberger under his Shooting Star label for years and is especially enamored with the grape.

In the 1960s, Steele attended Gonzaga University in Spokane on a basketball scholarship and became interested in wine. He bought 10 acres of land in Green Bluff, a community just north of Spokane, with the intention of planting grapes. He met Clore and Carter and tasted some of their experimental wines at WSU’s research station in Prosser and decided to plant Lemberger.

About the same time, he went to Austria — Lemberger’s ancestral home — and the grape became a bit of an obsession. After moving to California to attend U.C. Davis to study winemaking, the Green Bluff vineyard became a frustration, so Steele sold it and moved on in life, having never made wine from its grapes.

Then in the 1990s, he became a consulting winemaker for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, particularly its Northstar brand.

“I was tasting Lemberger with (Columbia Crest winemaker) Doug Gore and others,” he said. “The marketing people didn’t want to deal with it, so it went into a big red blend.”

In 1995, Steele began buying Lemberger grapes from Washington vineyards and making a wine from it. He called it Blue Franc, a nomenclature for its Austrian name, Blaufränkisch. The label art is an old 50 franc note with a blue hue.

“It’s been very successful for us,” he said.

Steele gets his Lemberger from Jarrod Boyle of Alexandria Nicole Cellars, who grows it at his estate Destiny Ridge Vineyards in the Horse Heaven Hills. Boyle grows 9 acres, which he planted in 1998 under the guidance of Wolfe. He makes a few hundred cases for his winery, which sells out to his wine club almost immediately after it is released each year.

“They love it,” Boyle said.

However, Boyle said if Steele loses interest in his Lemberger, he’ll probably pull it out and replant it with something a little easier to sell.

Lemberger revival unlikely in Washington

So what could turn around the fortunes of Lemberger in Washington? First would be a name change.

“The only real problem is the name,” Williams said. “If you’re not open-minded, you won’t get your head around the name.”

Wolfe said he believes the rising interest in esoteric varieties such as Grüner Veltliner and Albariño could fuel a mild rebirth in Lemberger. But he isn’t holding out hope.

“I’m not aware of anybody who has planted it recently, and it’s gradually being pulled out,” Wolfe said.

Indeed, he continues to make it each year only after a healthy debate.

“I do it to honor Walt,” he said. “I bottled my 2012 on Monday, so I’ll have it at least for another year.”

Ironically, the grape is finding increased interest across the country in the Finger Lakes region of New York. Jim Trezise, president of the New York Wine & Grape Foundation, said Lemberger competes with Cabernet Franc as the region’s top red variety.

“People are very high on it here,” he told Great Northwest Wine. “Lemberger is regarded very highly by people in the Finger Lakes. It’s definitely on the rise.”

He said Lemberger and Cab Franc are winter-hardy varieties that can handle the region’s cold conditions and still ripen nicely.

“Year in and year out, it makes a quality wine,” he said.

About Andy Perdue

Andy Perdue is the editor and publisher of Great Northwest Wine. He is a third-generation journalist who has worked at newspapers since the mid-1980s and has been writing about wine since 1998. He co-founded Wine Press Northwest magazine with Eric Degerman and served as its editor-in-chief for 15 years. He is a frequent judge at international wine competitions. He is the author of "The Northwest Wine Guide: A Buyer's Handbook" (Sasquatch, 2003) and has contributed to four other books. He writes about wine for The Seattle Times. You can find him on Twitter and .

11 Comments

  1. JJ Williams

    December 19, 2013 at 9:24 am

    What’s surprising to me is that when I show this wine to people who have never heard of it, they oftentimes expect it to be sweet. Something in the name must conjure “dessert wine.” Or perhaps it’s the fact that it originates in a part of Europe best-known for sweeter whites. Who knows.

  2. Eric Degerman

    December 19, 2013 at 12:28 pm

    JJ,
    Several years ago, a Lemberger found its way onto my panel at the Grand Harvest Awards in Sonoma. My colleagues never heard of Lemberger before, so I attempted to describe a bit of its background and share with them the qualities of a well-made Lem. That example served as a textbook example of the variety, and the judges were fascinated by it — especially when they learned of its price. That Lemberger received a gold medal, and I later learned that it was from Kiona, which came as no surprise to me.

  3. Yashar Shayan

    December 19, 2013 at 1:33 pm

    A group of us had the a Thurston Wolfe Lemberger in a blind earlier this year and we are really impressed, and surprised at how much we liked it!

    • JJ Williams

      December 20, 2013 at 9:20 am

      Dr. Wolfe’s is an excellent example. We send a lot of our fans to check out his version, it’s always fun to compare and contrast.

  4. Sarah Ness

    December 19, 2013 at 1:50 pm

    Why not to back to it’s roots and call it Blau Frankish?
    Once a upon a time, I heard that “Blue Franc” was being considered.
    At any rate, there will always be small patch of it in N. Central WA!

  5. Andrew M

    December 19, 2013 at 10:37 pm

    One other WA winery produces Lemberger from the Kiona grapes. Perennial Vintners makes it un-oaked in a Beaujolais Nouveau style.

  6. Ray Grinberg

    December 20, 2013 at 11:26 am

    Two Mountain winery makes a killer Lemberger.

  7. Tim Crowther

    December 23, 2013 at 10:45 pm

    I am surprised that your article failed to mention the fantastic Lemberger produced by Two Mountain Winery in Yakima Valley.

    • Andy Perdue

      December 23, 2013 at 11:33 pm

      Hi, Tim. Tracking down all the wineries that make Lemberger was not an easy task. We searched our archives for wines we’d tasted, as well as our memory banks. We also queried the few Lemberger growers left about who they sell their grapes to. Sorry we missed that particular bottle, but thank you for pointing it out.

  8. Fred Heywood

    December 24, 2013 at 4:14 pm

    I buy Lemberger grapes from Patricia O’Brien north of Prosser. The quality of the grapes is outstanding. Her husband, George Schneider, makes a delicious Lemberger. VineHeart is their winery.

  9. Pingback: Challenges, rewards at Whidbey Island Winery - Great Northwest Wine

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