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Washington grape growers honor their own
KENNEWICK, Wash. – When wine lovers pull the cork on their favorite bottle of Washington wine, they might think about the aromas, the flavors or food pairings. Or they might consider the winery or winemaker behind the label or perhaps the region where the grapes grow.
Only occasionally do they think about the people who toil under endless summer heat in the vineyards, who make crucial decisions that lead to perfect ripeness, who deliver the sweet globes to crush pads across the state.
Grape growers. They love the solitude that comes by walking through a distant vineyard. They start their days with beautiful sunrises to the east and end them when the sun drops below the horizon to the west. Their company uniform consists of jeans and plaid shirts. Their office is a pickup with a dog in the back.
Without grape growers, wine doesn’t happen.
On Friday, the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers (WAWGG) concluded its annual convention with its industry awards luncheon, during which it honored three of its own.
WAWGG industry awards
Those awarded were:
- Grower of the year: Robert Rivera
- Lifetime achievement: Rich Wheeler
- Industry service: Kevin Corliss
Rivera is the vineyard manager for Goose Ridge, a 1,600-acre vineyard just south of Red Mountain.
Vicky Scharlau, WAWGG executive director, said Rivera is deeply respected within the industry and, while he is quiet, he understands his vines and how to make them better.
“Robert told me that the first time he came to WAWGG, he promised himself that he would one day win this award,” Scharlau told Great Northwest Wine. “For him, it’s all about the vines, how much he can find out and apply to his vines.”
Corliss is vice president of vineyards for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. The industry service award goes to someone who has an effect on the industry beyond their job description.
“From behind the scenes, Kevin methodically pushes all these issues forward that push Washington forward,” Scharlau said. “He understands tiny structural issues that need to built and forward to the benefit not just for Ste. Michelle but also the entire industry.”
Corliss said he was humbled by the award and said he loves giving back to the industry in which he has spent his entire career.
“It’s important to get involved,” he said. “I’ve tried to get involved in what I’m good at: research and plant improvement.”
Wheeler, who retired after the 2010 harvest, was a longtime viticulturist for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, first as vineyard manager for Cold Creek Vineyard and later director of vineyard operations. Upon his retirement, Wheeler moved to Hawaii and Corliss took his place.
“Rich has been my mentor,” Corliss said. “He had his finger on the pulse. He loved to expand the industry, loved to give contracts and plant vineyards. That was what he enjoyed the most.”
Wheeler was unable to make it to the luncheon and asked Corliss to accept the award on his behalf.
Washington grape growers have best job in industry
Corliss has spent nearly 30 years with Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. While he probably spends more time in his office at 14 Hands Winery in Prosser than in vineyards, Corliss still takes time to hit the road and head to the wide-open spaces throughout the vast Columbia Valley – as the 110,000 miles on his 2011 pickup attest.
“We get to do the fun stuff,” he said. “We get to go out in the field, grow grapes, smell fresh air make beautiful marks on the Earth. And after the winemaking, we get to put it in our glass and say, ‘Those are our grapes.’ It’s a whole lot better than a real job.”
From his location in the Yakima Valley, Corliss said he can just about anywhere in wine country in about 90 minutes.
“I don’t really mind driving to Mattawa at all,” he said. “But I also like to drive the Horse Heavens. I like them all. I have the freedom to go wherever I want to go and see and talk to people.”
But his favorite stretch of road is the runway at the Prosser airport. From there, he can fly his home-built Highlander anywhere for about four hours at a time.
“It’s really a fun way to look at vineyards,” he said. “In spring, I get to go out and see what people are doing. I can see it all.”