PASCO, Wash. – When Alec Bayless purchased a farm along the Columbia River in 1968 and began planting wine grapes in 1972, it was a bold move.
Bayless, a Seattle attorney, partnered with Sydney Abrams, Albert Ravenholt and others to buy the property, which had been owned by a farmer who went crazy and killed his family then himself. Bayless worked with Walter Clore, then a researcher at Washington State University’s Prosser irrigation research station, who had been pushing farmers to grow wine grapes in Washington for many years. Once Clore said Sagemoor Vineyards would be a good site for growing grapes, Bayless and his group purchased the land.
Ravenholt’s connection to wine grapes went back even further. He was married to the daughter of the Sunnyside postmaster in the Yakima Valley. In the late 1940s, Ravenholt was afflicted with malaria and moved to Sunnyside to recuperate. There he met William B. Bridgman, who had been planting wine grapes on nearby Snipes Mountain since 1917. Bridgman began to talk to Ravenholt about grapes and wine, and that sparked an interest that bloomed some 20 years later.
Sagemoor Vineyards planting begins in 1972
In 1972, Bayless’ group was ready to begin planting grapes at Sagemoor Vineyards. By that time, the investors had acquired more property eight miles up the Columbia River, which they divided into two side-by-side parcels and named Bacchus and Dionysus, after the Greco-Roman god of wine and grapes.
The first Cabernet Sauvignon at Sagemoor Vineyards was planted in 1972. Today, Sagemoor is a 550-acre farm, of which 100 acres are grapes and the rest are apples and cherries.
Bacchus’ first vines were Sauvignon Blanc planted in 1972, of which 20 acres remain and go to such wineries as Barnard Griffin, Arbor Crest, Hedges Family Estate and DeLille Cellars. Today, Bacchus is 180 acres, all of which are wine grapes.
Dionysus has plantings going back to 1973, including some of the oldest Riesling vines in Washington. It is 150 acres in size, with 12 acres in apples and the rest in wine grapes.
“Walter Clore found Bacchus and Dionysus for those 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.”
Jerry Bookwalter managed Bacchus and Dionysus for several years before leaving in 1983 to launch Bookwalter Winery, now in Richland.
Weinbau part of Sagemoor Vineyards group
Also part of Sagemoor Vineyards is Weinbau Vineyard, a 460-acre vineyard about an hour’s drive upriver from Sagemoor, Bacchus and Dionysus on the Wahluke Slope. It was planted in 1981 as part of Langguth Winery, a German producer that came to Washington and lasted a few years before going out of business. Some of the Sagemoor Vineyards partners also were part of Langguth, so when the winery went into bankruptcy, Sagemoor was able to acquire the vineyard. The Langguth winemaking facility was purchased by Chateau Ste. Michelle and was used for many years until it sold the property to Coventry Vale, a custom-crush winery.
For most of the Sagemoor’s first three decades, most of the grapes went to Ste. Michelle. By the time Waliser arrived in 2002, about 20 wineries bought grapes from the Sagemoor group.
“Then we really diversified our customer base,” Waliser said. “Now we have about 75 customers.”
Waliser, who retired this summer from the Washington State Wine Commission after nine years as a commissioner, grew up in Milton-Freewater, a town on the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Valley. He was brought up in the tree fruit industry and worked closely with his cousin, Tom Waliser, who manages Pepper Bridge Vineyard. He later went to Wenatchee to work for Dole Fruit Co. That job ended in 2001 when Dole decided to get out of the apple business.
About the same time, the general manager for Sagemoor Vineyards left, and Waliser was hired. He came on at a time when Sagemoor’s reputation with winemakers was waning a bit, and Waliser was put in a position of needing to rehabilitate relationships as well as bring farming practices up to date. The hard work paid off quickly, said Marty Clubb, owner/winemaker of L’Ecole No. 41 in the Walla Walla Valley town of Lowden.
“In the last dozen years or so, they have been magnificent performers,” said Clubb, whose winery has been using grapes from Bacchus and Dionysus for all 30 vintages. “They’re a core component of our Columbia Valley reds. It’s fabulous stuff.”
Clubb’s next-door neighbor, Woodward Canyon Winery, also has purchased grapes from Sagemoor Vineyards since its earliest vintages. In fact, starting in 1981, Sagemoor grapes have been a part of owner Rick Small’s Dedication Series Cabernet Sauvignon no fewer than 17 times. It also has played an important role in his Artist Series Cabernet Sauvignon since 1996.
Bacchus, Dionysus, Sagemoor vineyards in warm region
Bacchus, Dionysus and Sagemoor all are in warm areas, similar to Red Mountain. Weinbau is a week to 10 days behind them in the spring but manages to catch up during the growing season.
Today, Ste. Michelle remains Sagemoor’s largest customer, followed by Hedges. But Waliser also has a number of winemakers who pick up just a few tons of fruit. In fact, he and vineyard manager Derek Way work hard to match grapes to winemakers.
Waliser noted that the Ice Age floods that ravaged the Columbia Basin some 12,000 years ago had a huge effect on Sagemoor, Bacchus and Dionysus. Because of the floods, the soil types in the three vineyards vary wildly from block to block with everything from clay deposits to caliche layers.
“That allows for different flavor profiles,” he said.
So Waliser and Way take a proactive approach because they are able to predict whether certain blocks of grapes will be big and bold or suave and stylish, then they try to pair them with certain winemakers whose wines reflect those styles.
As a result of working so closely with wineries, Sagemoor has become more like a partner than just another vineyard supplying fruit. The result has been more and more wineries bottling wines with the names Sagemoor, Bacchus, Dionysus and Weinbau designated on the label.
And that has helped raise Sagemoor’s profile as one of Washington’s top vineyards — a deserved spot thanks to its quality as well as its rich and important history in the industry.