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Washington’s great vineyards: Evergreen Vineyard
GEORGE, Wash. – In a year’s time, Evergreen Vineyard will be one of the biggest plantings in the state. It might already be the state’s best for white wines.
Jerry Milbrandt, who grew up in nearby Quincy with his brother, Butch, began planting this site in 1998 not far from the famous Gorge Amphitheater. The vineyard began with 452 acres. Next year, the Evergreen Ranch project will cover about 1,200 acres.
“In 2008, we started expanding down toward the river, and it’s all been Riesling and Chardonnay,” said vineyard manager Ryan Flanagan. “It’s going gang-busters. It’s almost more than I can keep up with, but we have good people.”
“I think Evergreen’s success really started with the Eroica program and Brennon Leighton’s involvement,” said Flanagan, who arrived in 2006 after spending several years with Ste. Michelle. “He was making white wine for Ste. Michelle at the time. And when he moved to Efeste, he brought out even more of the vineyard’s potential with the Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc he’s made.”
Last summer, Leighton left Efeste to work with Charles Smith Wines in Walla Walla, but he remains closely connected with Evergreen Vineyard and the Milbrandts. Now, Leighton is associated two more of the state’s most popular white wines – Smith’s Kung Fu Girl Riesling and Eve Chardonnay – which have achieved success in large part to Evergreen, making the transition from Woodinville to Walla Walla a bit easier for Leighton.
The 2009 Lola Chardonnay he made for Efeste came off Evergreen and received 96 points from one publication, a high score for a white wine.
“I give a lot of credit to Brennon,” Flanagan said. “He learned to grow the grapes in our climate and our soils, which have some different topography and varieties of soils.”
Evergreen Vineyard factors heavily into Eroica
Ste. Michelle’s ties to Evergreen cannot be overstated, and it’s not ironic that Jerry Milbrandt created the vineyard during the same time Ste. Michelle launched its Eroica partnership with famed German producer Ernst Loosen.
In recent years, Evergreen Vineyard juice has made up 50 to 80 percent of the bottled Eroica, helping to provide the crystalline acidity and minerality craved by Loosen, Ste. Michelle head winemaker Bob Bertheau and white wine specialist Wendy Stuckey.
“Wendy and Bob are out there weekly in the vineyard tasting the fruit and deciding when it’s time to go,” Flanagan said. “They are very involved. It’s amazing during harvest. They are everywhere all the time.”
“People are really pursuing the fruit off that farm,” Flanagan said. “The vast majority is farmed for production fruit, and I get quite a few calls asking for 1 ton here or there. But I’m dealing with 8,000 to 9,000 tons of fruit. It’s hard for me to peel off even 100 tons, much less 1 ton.”
“The Pinot Gris doesn’t get the spotlight it deserves,” Flanagan said.
A handful of wineries produced some delicious Pinot Noir from Evergreen, but that’s history now. Red varieties no longer are grown there.
“We took out Pinot Noir year before last,” Flanagan said. “It was nice fruit and all, but it was hard to find a market for it, and I could never find one person that wanted it all. The original planting also included Lemberger, which also was hard to find a market for.”
Those red variety experiments might have failed economically, but the missteps have been few since the initial plantings.
“This has been Jerry’s vision, and it’s wholly owned by him,” Flanagan said. “His family has been farming around here since the ’50s, so he has an amazing knowledge of the Quincy and George area. There was maybe a little bit of luck getting this going, but the site has proven him out.”
Soil type factors into success of Evergreen Vineyard
Flanagan said there’s no doubt the Evergreen expansion, referred to as Ranch No. 1, 2, 3 and 4, will be as successful. Soil types variety slightly with silty loam over basalt and caliche – a hard-pan layer of calcium carbonate. Yet, the elevation range is slight, between 1,100 and 1,300 feet above sea level and near the cliffs overlooking the Columbia River.
“It’s still all Evergreen,” he said. “That entire ridge is basically basalt and caliche, and the quality coming off these other farms is at least as good if not better.”
The 2013 harvest at Evergreen Vineyard is tentatively scheduled to start Sept. 9 with Pinot Gris.
“It will be pretty slow until the first of October when we start with Chardonnay,” Flanagan said. “We’ll be a few days early, but I don’t anticipate an early finish. We’ll probably be picking well into the end of October.”
Evergreen Vineyard job a homecoming of sorts for Flanagan
Evergreen would appear to be in good hands for many vintages to come. Flanagan grew up in Issaquah near Tiger Mountain, but the family spent summers and holidays visiting relatives in Quincy. His father’s sister married Jack Jones, who took over their family farm. Jones has gone on to create one of the state’s largest wine production facilities and growing operations.
“Living in Wenatchee and working in the vineyards around Quincy was always the draw for me,” Flanagan said, an avid mountain biker, father of three and partner in Ryan Patrick Vineyards with his wife, Wendy, and the Milbrandts. They also are teaming up to develop Spanish Castle Vineyard, a new 180-acre site a few miles upstream from Evergreen along Highway 28.
“This is a great area, and it’s exciting what’s going on,” Flanagan said.