Food & Drink

One wine grape's long slide into oblivion

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 near Benton City.

Williams, whose father, John, planted Lemberger in 1976, has 17 acres, likely the largest bloc 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 a bottle.

"Selling it is like rolling rocks uphill," he said. "There's a market for us for about 3,000 cases."

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 Walter Clore, a Washington State University researcher based in 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 rose, called Second Chance Rose.

"It makes the best rose 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 Alexandria Nicole Cellars in Prosser, Olympic Cellars in Sequim, Whidbey Island Winery in Langley, 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.

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 with 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.

"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," he said.

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, which 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 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," he 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."

One 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 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, Blaufrnkisch. 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.

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 Grner Veltliner and Albario 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.

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."

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

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.

-- Andy Perdue is editor and publisher of Great Northwest Wine, a news and information company;

Eric Degerman and Andy Perdue run Great Northwest Wine, a news and information company.