Top Northwest wine stories of 2011

It was a busy and exciting year for Northwest wineries as they battled Mother Nature as well as political and economic winds. The industry lost some giants to death, and the heads of Washington’s and Oregon’s industries left their positions.

Here are the top wine stories of 2011.

1. Washington voters pass Initiative 1183. In November, voters did away with Washington’s state liquor stores by passing the Costco-backed Initiative 1183. Many wineries, wine shops and groceries are still trying to sort out the full effect of the new law, but the bottom line is that Washington’s largest wine retailer — liquor stores — are going away.

2. Dean of Northwest wine writers dies. Bob Woehler began covering the industry in 1976, and he never stopped. He was the Tri-City Herald’s wine columnist from 1978 to 2010 and was Wine Press Northwest’s tasting editor from 1998 until his death in August, just a few days after he turned 78. While he focused his efforts on Washington, where he lived, he also covered the Oregon wine industry in its early days and greatly enjoyed writing about British Columbia and Idaho.

3. Vintage 2011. Following 2009 and 2010, which provided plenty of challenges, 2011 was even more difficult for most of the Northwest. A bad winter in Washington shortened the grape crop by 20 percent, and a late start to spring left growers and winemakers scrambling all summer and well into November. Western Oregon growers had an even more harrowing time getting their grapes ripe. Tonnage was up a bit in British Columbia, where weather conditions weren’t quite as dire as elsewhere. In Idaho, tonnage was down, but wineries weren’t quite as stressed out as their Washington and Oregon counterparts.

4. Winery deaths. In 2011, the wine industry lost a few of own. On Sept. 11, longtime Northwest wine executive Glenn Coogan died of heart failure. He oversaw Northwest operations for Ascentia Wine Estates, which put him in charge at Columbia and Covey Run wineries in Washington and Ste. Chapelle in Idaho. On Sept. 26, maverick winemaker Mike Moore, owner of Blackwood Canyon Vintners on Washington’s Red Mountain, died after a brief illness. Cathy Stoller, co-owner of Stoller Vineyards in Oregon’s Dundee Hills, died Nov. 30 after a fall She also was a co-owner of Chehalem Wines. And Forrest Klaffke, longtime winemaker for Willamette Valley Vineyards in Turner, Ore., died Dec. 26 after a battle with cancer.

5. Changes at top for Washington, Oregon. In June, Jeanette Morgan stepped down as executive director of the Oregon Wine Board after just a few months on the job. She was replaced in December by Tom Danowski, a former executive for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and Seattle’s Best Coffee. In October, Robin Pollard, executive director of the Washington Wine Commission, announced she would leave at the end of the year. She had been in the job for six years.

6. WSU Wine Science Center gets industry funding. In June, the Washington wine industry pledged $7.4 million to help build the Wine Science Center at Washington State University’s Richland campus. This was the biggest contribution yet to the $23.25 million center, which would provide education to prospective winemakers and research for the industry. Land for the project is being donated by the Port of Benton. The university hopes to begin construction in spring 2013.

7. AVA news. In December, the federal government approved Naches Heights near Yakima as Washington’s 12th American Viticultural Area, or AVA. In terms of vineyards planted, it is the smallest in the state at fewer than 40 acres. Also in 2011, the Idaho wine industry applied for its second AVA, the Clearwater Valley, which would be in the Lewiston area.

8. Winery closures. In the midst of a difficult economy, a small handful of wineries closed in 2011. Olsen Estates in the Yakima Valley closed its doors early in the year, and the Olsen family returned to growing wine grapes only. Also in January, the assets for Whitman Cellars in Walla Walla were seized by Community Bank, and the winery shut its doors.

9. Winery sales. A few Northwest wineries changed hands in 2011. In January, Banfi Vintners of New York purchased Pacific Rim Winemakers in West Richland, Wash. In February, longtime Idaho winery Camas Prairie was sold to Jeremy and Heidi Ritter. Also in February, Precept Wines in Seattle purchased two longtime wineries, Canoe Ridge in Walla Walla and Sagelands in the Yakima Valley. And in April, Betz Family Winery in Woodinville was sold to a South African couple.

10. L’Ecole No. 41 changes iconic label. Rarely does a label change make headlines, but it did in March when L’Ecole No. 41 in Lowden, Wash., went through a makeover, changing its iconic label. The children’s drawing of the schoolhouse/winery had served the winery well since the mid-1980s, but owner/winemaker Marty Clubb said a more serious label was needed as L’Ecole expands into new markets.