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WRITTEN BY PAUL GREGUTT
PHOTOGRAPHED BY BARRY WONG
Building a reputation through a labor of love and a love of the unusual
HARVEST AND CRUSH are in full-tilt boogie throughout Washington wine country, and grape chasers zooming along Highway 82 can be forgiven if they accelerate a bit around Prosser, at the eastern edge of the Yakima Valley. Despite its tourist-centric location in the grape-growing heartland, Prosser is not anyone's idea of a bucolic wine-country getaway. Walla Walla beckons, just an hour or so down the road. And everyone knows that if you want cutting-edge Washington reds sappy, jammy syrahs and toasty, tempting sangioveses Walla Walla is the place. So floor it!
Because just off Wine Country Road heading out of Prosser is one of Washington's most interesting family-owned wineries, Thurston Wolfe, a 1,300-case enterprise celebrating its 15th anniversary this fall. The Wolfe is Wade Wolfe, a lean, square-jawed man in his mid-50s. Soft-spoken and unassuming, Wolfe holds a Ph.D in plant genetics from the University of California at Davis. He arrived in Washington in 1978, hired by Chateau Ste. Michelle to be its technical viticulturalist. Which meant, in practical terms, driving around Eastern Washington looking for places where the proper mix of water and prayer might produce viable grapevines.
Wolfe encouraged growers to follow basic viticultural practices, cut back on irrigation, and rein in crop loads, which were huge. He also made it his mission to investigate alternative red-grape varieties for eastern Washington. At the time, cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir (!) were the two most commonly planted red varieties. Syrah, cabernet franc and sangiovese were unheard of; even merlot was an oddity. His interest piqued, Wolfe began thinking seriously about starting his own winery.
The Thurston part of Thurston Wolfe is his mother's maiden name. It was chosen because, as his practical-minded wife and business partner Becky Yeaman explains, "Yeaman Wolfe or Wolfe Yeaman just didn't sound right." The two met in 1985, by which time Wolfe had left the Chateau to work as a freelance consultant. Yeaman was managing the tasting room at Quail Run (now Covey Run), and the winery's general manager, Stan Clark, who also knew Wade, played matchmaker.
"Stan says to me, 'Hey, there's a bachelor in the wine industry that you should meet,' " Yeaman recalls. "So I went to a luncheon at the Tri-Cities Wine Festival and Wade sat at our table. Not long after that there was a march from Staton Hills to Quail Run; a trek from one ridge to the next." Somewhere along the trail, a marriage and a winery were launched.
Initially, the focus was dessert wines a black muscat and a late-harvest sauvignon blanc (named Sweet Rebecca after Becky). A zinfandel port was added in 1988, and in 1990 a son, Joshua Thurston Wolfe, was born. JTW Port made its debut that same vintage. About then the winery moved to new quarters, in Yakima's historical district, and began making a few dry wines as well.
"I told Wade that just selling dessert wine was really hard work!" explains Yeaman. "So we added table wines," he chimes in. But not your run-of-the mill table wines. Wolfe found some grenache and lemberger vines he liked.
"At first, I thought we were nuts," Yeaman confides. "We had a little baby, Wade was consulting, we were working our tails off, no one knew who we were, we did every wine event we could. We were scattered everywhere, and making wine under primitive conditions. I look back and I think, 'No one would do this.' It was a labor of love." She caps the thought with a final zinger: "His love."
They have struggled, kept afloat more by Wolfe's return to full-time work (as general manager of Hogue Cellars) than by their passionate pursuit of esoteric (they like to say "unique") table and dessert wines. In '96 they moved the winery to Prosser, and made the last of the Sweet Rebecca in '98. Though quite popular, it was driving Yeaman crazy. "It was more trouble than it was worth," she rants, half joking.
What has never changed about Thurston Wolfe's portfolio of wines is how it reflects Wolfe's passion for exploring the little-known crannies of the vast Columbia Valley. At Hogue, his responsibilities include contracting, grape purchasing and fruit sourcing for the half-million-case winery. For 25 years, he has scavenged for great grapes. He knows who has the good, the rare and the ugly.
Wolfe was one of the few winemakers to put out a reserve lemberger that was worthy of the title, and the first in Washington to make zinfandel. These days the lemberger is called Blue Franc (from blaufrankisch, the Austrian name for the grape); and there are small amounts of exceptional syrah and even a sangiovese. There is also a delicious kitchen-sink blend dubbed Dr. Wolfe's Family Red. The wines are never flashy; they reflect the quiet confidence of the winemaker, his deep knowledge of grapes and vineyards, and his focus on the clean, intense expression of pure varietal fruit.
There is now a small vineyard, planted to pinot gris, syrah and viognier. Non-mainstream varietals are becoming more sought-after by increasingly sophisticated consumers. After all these years, Thurston Wolfe might find itself swimming with the current for a change.
"Quality wines that people could afford," says Yeaman. "That's our goal."
Taste what's current
2001 Pinot Gris-Viognier; $12. The pinot gris brings flavors of pear and apple fruit; the viognier adds light lemon and citrus-blossom accents. Big, white and bone dry; fine for quaffing.
2000 Blue Franc; $13.50. Lemberger blended with a bit of syrah for added peppery spice in the nose. Flavors of cherry, leaf and earth in the mouth. Tart and tangy style, great with grilled meats.
2000 Dr. Wolfe's Family Red; $15. This might be the only syrah-lemberger-sangiovese-merlot wine on the market. Plenty of pretty berry fruit flavors, with a somewhat rustic, smoky barnyard backbone. Fun stuff.
2000 Syrah; $18. Inky-dark, overflowing with scents and flavors of spice, smoke, cherries and big, port-like fruits. Concentrated and sweetly ripe, with pepper and tobacco grace notes. A bona fide steal.
2000 "Burgess Vineyard" Zinfandel; $20. Almost port-like; quite oaky, thick, dark and tannic. It includes a generous 25 percent of petite syrah. Who knew Washington zin could be this good?
2000 Sangiovese; $20. Walla Walla fruit stars in a wine that sums up all that is distinctive about Thurston Wolfe. Unusual grape, fruit-forward style, tart and tangy acids, accents of spice and email@example.com. Barry Wong is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.
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