Josh Lawrence, Tom Merkle team up to buy Conner Lee Vineyard

By on April 21, 2019
Tom Merkle, honorary grower for the Auction of Washington Wines in 2017, announced Friday, April 19, 2019, that he and Josh Lawrence of Lawrence Vineyards and Gård Vintners have purchased historic Conner Lee Vineyard near Othello, Wash. (Photo courtesy of Auction of Washington Wines)

OTHELLO, Wash. – Conner Lee Vineyard, a historic planting in Washington state that the late Walter Clore helped coordinate in 1980, has been purchased by acclaimed viticulturists Josh Lawrence and Tom Merkle.

“This vineyard has been a partnership of families for quite some time,” Charlie Conner stated in a news release. “We are excited to be handing it over to two other families who plan to continue it as their own family partnership. We have every confidence in Josh and Tom and their commitment and ability to build upon the legacy of quality that our parents worked hard to establish for the vineyard these many years.”

Decorated wineries such Abeja, Bookwalter, Buty, Gorman and Long Shadows Vintners are listed as current customers of the Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Franc that come off the 150-acre vineyard near the Columbia Basin town of Othello.

Lawrence and his family own Gård Vintners and farm Lawrence Vineyards in the proposed Royal Slope American Viticultural Area about 30 miles northwest of Conner Lee. Their own plantings, which include Corfu Crossing, cover 328 acres. Lawrence also manage two other sites – Boneyard and Stoneridge – that span 98 acres.

“The opportunity to purchase a vineyard of this size, age and reputation does not come around often, and we felt it would be a great complement to our current vineyards on the Royal Slope,” Lawrence said.

Merkle, named as the Honorary Grower of the Year for the 2017 Auction of Washington Wines, owns Wautoma Springs Vineyard and co-owns Wautoma Wines with award-winning winemaker Jessica Munnell. Merkle is the director of vineyard operations for Four Feathers Wine Estates, a division of the multi-generation Zirkle Fruit Co.

“Conner Lee has an excellent reputation for quality and adds diversity in locations and options for our winery as well as other wineries we will be working with in the future,” Merkle said.

Terms of the sale were not announced by Metis CEO Erik McLaughlin, who served as the transaction advisor. Metis, a Walla Walla-based firm, has orchestrated a number of recent mergers and acquisitions in the Pacific Northwest wine industry, including those involving Abeja, Tamarack Cellars, Firesteed Corp., Walla Walla Vintners and Betz Family Winery.

“Conner Lee had always been a passion project for the founders, and they wanted to hand it over to someone who was interested and capable of honoring and building upon the legacy of the property and the winemaker relationships built over the years,” McLaughlin noted. “The challenge was further compounded by oversupply in the current Washington grape market, necessitating a buyer with a long-term, strategic vision for the property.”

Dick Owings brought on Conner, Lee as partners

Conner Lee Vineyard’s roots stretch back to 1980, when the Columbia Basin site was established by petroleum industry executive Dick Owings with help from Walter Clore, the legendary viticulturist from Washington State University. (Richard Duval Images)

Dick Owings, who grew up in the Snake River Valley town of Caldwell, Idaho, entered the young Washington wine industry in a big way after a 25-year career with Union Oil Co., capped by serving as its Pacific Northwest division manager. In time, he and his wife, Louise, took on three partners in the vineyard – Rhoady Lee, Jack Sullivan and Charlie Conner’s father, Bill.

From 1987 to 1992, Conner Lee Vineyard more than tripled in size beyond its original 45 acres of Chenin Blanc, Merlot and Sèmillon, with the expansion driven largely by Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Merlot. Vineyard manager Tom Thorsen has overseen those plantings for more than 30 years, with longtime viticulturist Jerry Bookwalter and international winemaking consultant Zelma Long contributing along the way.

“Josh and Tom plan to maintain relationships with the existing winery clients as well as make wine from Conner Lee at their own wineries,” according to McLaughlin. “Both have extensive farming operations in the area, so adding Conner Lee to their portfolios allowed them to leverage their existing teams and infrastructure while adding further diversity of terroir to the fruit available to themselves and their clients.”

Conner Lee Vineyard, near the abandoned Othello Air Force Station on Radar Hill, is planted in sandy loam soil and viewed as a relatively cooler site in the warm Columbia Basin. The combination has helped the vineyard develop a reputation as one of Washington’s top sources of Chardonnay, prompting wineries such as J. Bookwalter, Buty Winery and àMauirce Cellars in Walla Walla as well as Gorman’s Ashan Cellars and his eponymous brand in Woodinville to each build a following for vineyard-designated Chardonnay from Conner Lee.

Owings, who moved to Montana not long after being widowed in 2006, died at the age of 84 in 2017. In addition to serving three years in the Army, he spent more than a decade as a public official in Adams County, where he was planning director and then public works director after retiring from Union Oil.

About Eric Degerman

Eric Degerman is the president and CEO of Great Northwest Wine. He is a journalist with more than 30 years of daily newspaper experience and has been writing about wine since 1998. He co-founded Wine Press Northwest with Andy Perdue and served as its managing editor for 15 years. He is a frequent wine judge along the West Coast.

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