Longtime Washington vineyard sold to apple grower

Great Northwest WineApril 10, 2014 

Ken Waliser is the general manager of Sagemoor Vineyards north of Pasco.

ANDY PERDUE — Great Northwest Wine

— Washington's original large-scale commercial vineyard has been purchased by one of the state's oldest and most respected apple growers and packers.

Allan Brothers of Naches announced the purchase of Sagemoor Vineyards on Thursday morning. Terms of the sale were not disclosed.

"We have been looking at the Washington wine grape business for some time now," said Miles Kohl, CEO of Allan Brothers. "When the opportunity came up to acquire the well-known Sagemoor properties, we recognized that this was the right way for Allan Brothers to enter Washington's dynamic wine business."

Sagemoor Vineyards, with 883 acres of wine grapes, has been one of the focal points of the Washington wine industry since the early 1970s. It consists of four vineyards: Sagemoor, Bacchus, Dionysus and Weinbau. Three are along the Columbia River north of Pasco, and Weinbau is on the Wahluke Slope across the Columbia River.

Sagemoor Vineyards began in 1968 by Alec Bayless, who put together a group of investors to purchase the land. By 1972, Sagemoor, Bacchus and Dionysus were planted. It was the first large-scale planting in the state at a time when the Washington wine industry consisted of fewer than a dozen wineries.

Weinbau was planted in 1981 as a partnership with Langguth, a German-owned winery that started in Washington in the early 1980s. By 1983, Langguth was in bankruptcy, and Sagemoor took over the vineyard by 1986. Bayless died in 1992.

Each of the four vineyards in the Sagemoor group is owned by a different partnership, though there is a lot of crossover. Kent Waliser, general manager of Sagemoor since 2002, said that between the four partnerships, Sagemoor has about 70 owners, some of whom are in their 90s.

"This is a succession plan," Waliser told Great Northwest Wine. "The partners needed to do something to preserve this vineyard's legacy and find a company with the same values. I believe we've done that."

Waliser has known George and Dave Allan for 30 years and has served in various organizations with them. This is the Allans' first venture into grapes, and the company plans to keep all employees in place.

"This is very positive," Waliser said. "It's a reset of ownership. We've been doing business with the Allans on the tree fruit side for some time. We have a close business relationship. We're pretty comfortable, and they have a high level of respect for the grape growing model we have."

Sagemoor Vineyards sells grapes to about 70 wineries, ranging from producers who make just a few hundred cases all the way up to Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, which has been purchasing grapes from Sagemoor since the beginning.

Sagemoor's history is a rich part of Washington wine lore. Bayless, a Seattle attorney, partnered with Sydney Abrams, Albert Ravenholt and others to purchase the original property in 1968. It had been owned by a farmer who had a mental illness and killed his family then himself. Bayless worked with Walter Clore from Washington State University to determine if the land was suitable for wine grapes.

"Walter Clore found Bacchus and Dionysus for these guys," Waliser said. "He did a good job. We have vines that are 40 years old that haven't frozen to the ground. That's a tribute to his diligent work when you didn't know what the weather would be for the next 40 years. There's some good luck - and science - behind it."

Ravenholt's connection to the wine industry went back to the 1940s, when he was recovering from malaria in Sunnyside and met William Bridgman, who planted European wine grapes in the Yakima Valley in 1917. Bridgman talked to Ravenholt about wine grapes, which sparked an interest that came to fruition 20 years later.

When the partners planted grapes in 1972, it was a bold move.

"There were two wineries to sell to: Ste. Michelle and Columbia," Waliser said. "There wasn't much else around. They went from zero to 450 acres in two years. It got really serious really quickly."

Ron Irvine, owner of Vashon Winery and author of The Wine Project, the authoritative history of the Washington wine industry, said Bayless and his group were true visionaries.

"Alec Bayless saw the future of the wine industry," he said. "He had a world vision. He was a remarkable man. Sagemoor was the backbone of the Northwest wine industry."

Kevin Corliss, vineyard operations director for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, said he has been working with Sagemoor since he began with the company in 1983.

"We have a long history," he said.

Sagemoor still has Cabernet Sauvignon from the original 1972 planting. Sauvignon Blanc vines from 1972 also are still in production at Bacchus, as is Riesling at Dionysus that dates back to 1973.

Through the years, the Sagemoor Vineyards partnerships never got around to starting a winery, though it was discussed, Waliser said.

"They pursued starting a winery, but the timing was always wrong," he said. "They convinced themselves three different times to not do it."

Sagemoor also grows cherries and apples. Overall, the farm is about 1,300 acres, with 230 acres of cherries and 190 acres of apples.

That is a good fit for Allan Brothers, which is based in Naches, on the eastern slopes of the Cascades west of Yakima. The fourth-generation company has been farming and packing in and around the Yakima Valley for more than a century. Samuel, Thomas and William Allan moved from North Dakota to Washington to grow row crops. Two decades later, their children transitioned to tree fruit, which remains the company's focus today. They built their first apple-packing and cold-storage facility near Naches in the early 1950s.

Marty Clubb, owner of L'Ecole No. 41 in the Walla Walla Valley town of Lowden, has been using Sagemoor grapes since the winery's beginnings in 1983. He was not completely surprised by the sale, and he is excited to by the new owners.

"I'm glad to see that it's another respected farm operation that bought it," he said. "My impression is nothing will change. The management team will stay in place."

Clubb said Sagemoor has been one of the stalwart growers since the modern Washington wine industry's early days.

"They were the first big commercial vineyard in the state," he said. "They were there for a lot of wineries, including Ste. Michelle. We were fortunate to be in there early with them. Their grapes have always been a strong component of our Columbia Valley red wine lineup."

Clubb said that about 15 years ago, Sagemoor invested in more high-tech viticulture designed to help wineries produce higher-quality wines.

"They got serious about working with winemakers on specific rows and farming them specifically to what wineries wanted," he said. "That was an innovative move. In order to survive, the growers had to work harder with their winery customers, and Sagemoor did that."

Today, Clubb enjoys his visits to Sagemoor.

"What I love about these guys is that when I come around after bud break or bloom, they always meet me in the field and walk me through the blocks and talk about what pressures they're facing. It's just really fun to work with people who are on top of their vineyard practices every day."

In the fast-changing Washington wine industry, Clubb sees Sagemoor's sale in a broader perspective.

"I think this is a good evolution," he said. "We're seeing some rather substantial dynamics going on in the industry."

In the past couple of years, Gallo has arrived by purchasing Columbia and Covey Run wineries. Such high-end California producers as Duckhorn and Cakebread are launching Washington-based brands. Last fall, Aquilini - the owner of the National Hockey League's Vancouver Canucks - bought 670 acres of land on and near Red Mountain. It followed that up last week by purchasing vineyards in the Horse Heaven Hills.

"All of these point to an industry on fire in terms of growth," Clubb said.

-- Andy Perdue is the editor and publisher of Great Northwest Wine; Great Northwest Wine

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