BREWSTER, Wash. — Farmers throughout Washington’s Columbia Valley continue to chop down orchards to make way for wine grapes, only that’s never been an option for sports-loving Cass Gebbers, whose mother was a Southern Baptist.
Instead, when the time was right, Gebbers followed through on his vision for 350 acres of sagebrush overlooking the Columbia River and the Bridgeport Bar near Brewster. He hired one of the golf world’s most renowned architects to create Gamble Sands, a remarkable public course scheduled to open Aug. 1.
“We didn’t want to grow grapes that turn into alcohol, just out of respect for my mother,” Gebbers told Great Northwest Wine. “A lot of the big boys came in and wanted to grow grapes on our ground. It was attractive, but we felt we could do just as well on our apples and cherries.”
Those trees continue to serve Gebbers and his family well. He is president and CEO of Gebbers Farms, one of the world’s largest growers of apples and cherries. The five-generation company controls more than 100,000 acres of land in Washington, runs cattle and employs 500 skilled workers. Some of them helped build Gamble Sands.
“I’m all about balance, and I think bringing some diversity to our valley is great,” Gebbers said. “We’re big in perishable agriculture — apples, cherries, pears and wine grapes — for other guys — but by adding the element of golf you are going to have people coming and going. The guy that comes in for the golf and dinner and the local person they interact with, hopefully they both can take away a positive experience from it. That’s healthy for our community.”
Lake Chelan less than an hour from Gamble Sands
The Columbia Basin town of Brewster, just a few miles downstream from Chief Joseph Dam, is a 4-hour drive from Seattle, but little more than 30 minutes from Lake Chelan. Two of the region’s top resorts — Campbell’s Resort in Chelan and Sun Mountain Lodge in Winthrop — recently announced stay-and-play packages for Gamble Sands. Tee times are available via the Gamble Sands website.
And while Gebbers is a teetotaler, he looks forward to deepening his relationship with Columbia Valley wineries. His knowledge of the industry runs deep enough to realize the importance of Lake Chelan establishing itself as an American Viticultural Area.
“Some of our best growers are those wine growers in Lake Chelan who also grow apples and cherries,” he said. “And some of them are very good friends — high school friends who have become very successful with their own wineries and their own AVA. They’re good people, and they’ve been a big boost to our local economy. We send our apple customers, and hopefully our future golf customers, out to those places to give them that experience. We’re all about supporting our local people.”
Two Wenatchee Valley families Gebbers has known for decades are the Pittsingers and Van Dorens, both heavily involved in the fruit industry. Bret Pittsinger co-owns Karma Vineyards in Chelan with his wife, Julie, who operates their winery, vineyard and on-premise restaurant.
“The Gebbers family definitely does things right,” she said. “Our families operate at a high standard and have always been creative. We want to zig when the others are zagging.”
Karma Vineyards, known for its sparkling wines and underground cave, sits at the base of Bear Mountain Ranch Golf Course. Golfers visiting Lake Chelan make up a significant portion of her business, Pittsinger said.
“We see golfers almost daily,” Pittsinger said. “We are the closest winery to Bear Mountain, and we have a restaurant here, too, so we see tons of that traffic. They will do the muni (Lake Chelan Municipal Golf Course) across the lake, drive around to Orondo (for Desert Canyon) and play Bear Mountain. They usually frequent all of them.”
Starting in August, it is Gebbers’ hope they will include Gamble Sands on their itinerary.
“Maybe the husband can go golfing and the wife can do a wine tour and tasting,” Gebbers said. “I think it’s a great opportunity to work within our Methow Valley and Lake Chelan areas. And I think it’s going to be a boon to all those economic drivers in our area.”
Nicole Pietromonaco Campbell of Lake Chelan Wine Valley said, “The new course is going to be a great addition to the area, and we hope that people who come from across the state to golf at Gamble Sands will also stop to enjoy some of the fantastic wines that are coming out of this area.”
Gebbers hires Scotsman who designed Bandon Dunes
Gamble Sands should be an immediate draw to the region for many reasons, starting with the work of designer David McLay Kidd, the Scotsman who laid out Bandon Dunes along the southern Oregon Coast for greeting card magnate Mike Keiser.
“The grasses that I used here are the same fescue that I used at Bandon all those years ago,” said Kidd, who continues to learn from his father, Jimmy, the course superintendent at Scotland’s famed Gleneagles for 25 years. “And there are over 110 acres of grass. Bandon Dunes is almost exactly the same with those huge, wide fairways.”
Bandon — thanks to Keiser’s vision — has grown into a world-famous golf resort with five courses and served as a template for others since opening in 1999. Another acclaimed public course in the Pacific Northwest that features fescue, Chambers Bay near Tacoma, will be the site of the 2015 U.S. Open.
Gamble Sands, however, was designed to be more approachable. Last summer, the Gebbers family invited members of the Northwest Golf Media Association to play and critique Gamble Sands. The feedback confirmed the hopes of Kidd and OB Sports chairman Orrin Vincent, whose company will operate Gamble Sands.
“I wanted to build a golf course just as playable as Bandon,” Kidd said. “Average golfers won’t lose a golf ball. We did everything we could to make sure that losing a ball was hard to do. You may shoot a 100, but you are going to do it with the same worn-out ball you started with.
“At the same time, I want the good golfer to stand there and see opportunity — be hopeful and enthusiastic to know they can be aggressive without being completely penalized,” he added.
Those who followed Kidd’s career from Bandon to the Castle Course at St. Andrew’s to Tetherow Golf Club in Bend will rejoice as they begin playing Gamble Sands.
“At the end of that economic boom, everybody was talking about ‘defending par’ and ‘resistance to scoring’ and ‘levels of difficulty,’ and I got sucked into that romance as well,” Kidd said. “I built a couple of courses that were difficult. I get to play one of them in Bend quite a lot as my home course. I could see that took some of the fun and enjoyment out of the game. We put that back in here. We want the average golfer to have a great time and want to play it over and over and over again.”
Spokane golfers should notice a familiar face in the clubhouse as Vincent hired longtime professional David Christenson to serve as general manager of Gamble Sands.
“We want it to be easy, and we want it to be relaxed. The last thing we want it to be is stuffy,” Vincent said. “The key for us is to get people to this site. Once we get them here, we think they’ll want to come back and tell their friends about it.”
Golfers can walk or ride at Gamble Sands
The Columbia River can be seen from 12 holes on Gamble Sands, and unlike Bandon and Chambers Bay, golfers will be allowed to ride in carts.
“We sweated over the cart decision,” Kidd said. “It’s warm here in the summer, so we decided that carts were a necessity, but you could walk it. And it’s set up to walk if you are fit enough.”
And the clubhouse, a stone’s throw away from the first tee, will feature local wines and beers. Gebbers asserted during the catered media dinner that he and his family’s approach to alcohol is a personal choice. And while he described his mother as Southern Baptist, he defined his family as “non-denominational Christian.”
“I have really good friends in the wine industry, and there’s wine on every table here tonight,” Gebbers pointed out. “I’m not weird that way, that’s just not what we’re going to do as a family. That doesn’t mean that down the road one of my kids or nephews or nieces may choose to do that. Things in life are always changing.”
Greens fees start at $130 at Gamble Sands
Golf at Gamble Sands will not be inexpensive. There’s talk of greens fees in the $150 range for riders and $130 for walkers. Bandon’s greens fees traditionally are priced at 50 percent less than California’s famed Pebble Beach, which means the sport’s well-heeled pay $250 for the opportunity to play Oregon’s most famous golf resort.
While the town of Brewster doesn’t yet offer the type of lodging or dining that out-of-town golfers and wine collectors are accustomed to, there is Pateros. The gateway to the Methow Valley features the Lakeshore Inn with comfortable and spacious rooms that overlook the Columbia River. Across the parking lot is The Rivers Restaurant, which proudly pours Washington wines.
“There’s great fishing for salmon and steelhead, and in the summer there’s wonderful rafting,” Gebbers said. “Pateros is the crossroads for the Methow Valley. It feeds in from the North Cascades Highway, and Highway 97 coming through brings a lot of Canadian tourists. It’s busy all summer.”
Gebbers said he also plans to pursue his family’s dream for overnight lodging in their hometown.
“We’re going to build a replica hotel of my great granddad’s steamboat landing in Brewster — The Gamble Hotel,” he said. “Something like 12 rooms, two stories with a balcony all the way around and a water tower out front.”
Roots in Brewster for Gebbers clan date to 1894
There’s a remarkable sense of family and history behind Gebbers, whose full name is John William Cascade Gebbers.
“It’s short for Cascade Mountains,” said Gebbers, who goes by Cass. “My dad was a hunter who loved the Cascade Mountains and did some outdoor films on hunting doll sheep.”
Another phase of the family business is Gamble Land & Timber, which last year spent $7.6 million to buy historic McWhorter Ranch, a huge parcel spanning more than 20 square miles of shrub-steppe on Rattlesnake Mountain. Those 16,000 acres near the Hanford Reach National Monument drew interest from folks in the wine industry and state Fish and Wildlife officials.
Gebbers credits his forefathers for putting his family in the position to make such investments.
“My great grandparents and grandparents scratched the gravel pretty hard to hold on during The Depression,” he said. “We’re still a resource-based family company. We try not to waste anything. When we’re tree-thinning for cattle grazing, we’ll sell the firewood to stores like Fred Meyer along the West Coast. When we replant our orchards, we’ll sell the apple wood to pizza companies for their oven-baked pizzas. We even compost all the manure.”
And at this point, Gebbers Farms is led by five family members from Cass’ generation.
“All five of us live within two miles of where we were born,” he said with a smile. “My parents have 20 grandkids, and a dozen of them are home from college working for the family. They’ve had to earn their keep. It’s not a birthright. They’ve got to bring value to the company.”
Basketball, golf play important roles for Gebbers
Athletics have played an important role for Gebbers and his sons. He was a storied three-sport star at Wenatchee High School, where he played quarterback on the gridiron, point guard in basketball and shortstop on the diamond. The 1983 graduate was voted all-state as a defensive back and later inducted into the Wenatchee Panthers Athletic Hall of Fame. He played basketball at Gonzaga University.
Gebbers’ sons, Clay and Wade, had their basketball careers overlap at Whitworth University. Wade played point guard for four consecutive title teams and was a senior captain for the 2012-13 season Wade’s wife, Kristina, also played varsity basketball at Whitworth.
The game of golf, Cass said, helps keep those competitive juices flowing.
“We’ve always enjoyed the game,” he said. “When you get out of college and your knees hurt from playing basketball, you’ve got to do something to soothe that itch.”
For years, they’ve played at Alta Lake near Pateros or Lake Woods in Bridgeport. A decade ago, however, the Gebbers began building their own course, designed by Perry Dye, overlooking Brewster. Three holes costing a total of $1.5 million got finished before The Great Recession stalled construction in 2008.
If Gamble Sands takes off — which cost only $2 million to build the entire 18 holes — look for work on Gamble Cliffs to resume. Gebbers Farms’ work force and earth-moving equipment helped its keep expenses below typical golf course construction costs.
Gamble Sands booking 10-minute tee times
Enjoyment and leisure are two major reasons why the Gebbers don’t plan to fill Gamble Sands with tee times. While Chambers Bay booked nearly 39,000 rounds in 2013, the goal for Gamble Sands about 22,000 rounds per year. OB Sports is scheduling tee times 10 minutes apart. The industry standard is to schedule groups to tee off every eight minutes.
This summer, Gamble Sands will open with five sets of tees, starting with Forward, which cover 4,920 yards. The golf media tour played from the Regular tees, and the 6,370 yards afford the single-handicapper a good shot to break 80 by attacking a trio of par-4s and getting in position to reach three of the par-5s in two.
The Back tees stretch the course to 6,840 yards, while the Medal are set at the tips — 7,305 yards, which has the Gebbers and OB Sports considering bids to play host to college tournaments and top Northwest events. And akin to traditional Scottish courses, the first nine holes take you outward from the clubhouse before the back nine leads you back in toward the clubhouse. The Gebbers plan to build a small halfway house at the turn, where players can enjoy food, drink and a few minutes of break before resuming their round. Expect to see plenty of the sun, but you won’t find condos or private homes along the fairways.
“We could bring real estate in and line that course, but that’s not what it’s about, man,” Gebbers said. “It’s about the right setting. The feeling that we want to generate on that site is probably not conducive to a whole bunch of buildings. It wouldn’t be pure. Maybe I’m an idealist person.”
Fescue on top of ‘pure sand’ makes for ideal turf
Ask any course designer or farmer and soil is a critical factor. In Kidd’s eyes, Gamble Sands gave him a dream opportunity to work with “pure sand” similar to that of world-ranked Sand Hills, a private club in Mullen, Neb. The type of drainage that vineyard managers love also makes for top-caliber fescue turf.
“In the five years that I’ve been out here, I’ve never seen a puddle or anything like a puddle,” Kidd exclaimed.
Last fall, there were eye-popping examples of the ability to grow turf. The practice tee and the 18th fairway were remarkably playable just six weeks after seeding. And nowhere on the course was there the need to play winter rules. This languid stretch of Columbia River can be seen from all but six of the holes, and there will be a lively debate at the clubhouse grill as to which is the signature hole at Gamble Sands — Nos. 2, 4, 17 or 18.
“If it can be a draw, and folks are here and recognizing the valley for the beauty of it and the people, then what more can we ask for?” Gebbers said. “We can share with people what we get to live in every day. Not everybody can go to Sand Hills or Bandon. This will be an experience they can take and share.”
Generations of the Gebbers family have weathered economic hardships, used diversification and made wise plays in order to build their successful business, so there’s reason for optimism regarding Gamble Sands.
“But if this doesn’t work, we know something else will do well up there,” Gebbers said with a smile. “We’d probably make more money at it too, but that’s not the point of this.”