Columbia Valley growers, winemaker look back on Mount St. Helens

by | May 18, 2020 | News, Washington wine | 0 comments

For more than nine hours a vigorous plume of ash erupted from Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980, eventually reaching 15 miles above sea level. By early May 19, the devastating eruption was over. (Photo by Donald A. Swanson/Courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey)

Anyone from the Class of 1980 in Spokane, Wash., will remember where they were and what they were doing when ash from Mount St. Helens began to fall 40 years ago on May 18.

It marked a week or so of sheltering in place, a term that the Pacific Northwest and the rest of the world is painfully familiar with today as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many corners of Northwest heard the eruption at 8:32 a.m. that Sunday, which was preceded by the largest landslide ever recorded. Within seconds, arguably the Cascade Range’s most picturesque and inviting peak cratered 1,314 feet — dropping from an almost serene elevation of 9,677 feet to a moonscape gouged down to 8,363 feet.

Those northeast of Mount St. Helens would feel the fallout of the eruption, a plume of ash that rose 80,000 feet and dropped a trail of silica particles across 11 states and two provinces. Mudslides wreaked havoc on the Columbia River 50 miles to the southwest.

In Spokane, 285 miles northeast of Mount St. Helens, streetlights came on in the afternoon. Golfers, covered in ash, walked into clubhouses asking for “rain checks” on their green fees.

Interstate 90 was closed for a week, and more than 1,000 commercial flights were scrubbed because some eastern Washington airports needed two weeks to reopen. It took Yakima 10 weeks to clear ash from its roads and parking lots. 

The federal government would arrange for $951 million in disaster relief. Adjusted over time, the equivalent figure has been estimated to be closer to $3 billion, which seems small considering the relief packages Congress is approving amid the pandemic.

“Downwind of the volcano, in areas of thick ash accumulation, many agricultural crops, such as wheat, apples, potatoes, and alfalfa, were destroyed,” according to the U.S. Geological Survey. “Many crops survived, however, in areas blanketed by only a thin covering of ash. In fact, the apple and wheat production in 1980 was higher than normal due to greater-than-average summer precipitation. 

“The crusting of ash also helped to retain soil moisture through the summer,” it continues. “Moreover, in the long term, the ash may provide beneficial chemical nutrients to the soils of eastern Washington, which themselves were formed of older glacial deposits that contain a significant ash component.”

Had the eruption taken place on Monday, May 19, the loss of life would have been greater because reportedly more than 300 loggers would have been in the area. 

It’s now known as the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, and the Johnston Ridge Observatory is named in the memory of USGS volcanologist David Johnston who at 8:32 a.m. radioed his colleagues, “Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!” He was one of 57 people who perished near the mountain that day.

By 9:45 a.m., just 73 minutes after the eruption, Yakima was beginning to receive as much as five inches of ash.

Below are the recollections of that day and the 1980 vintage by three men who would become leaders of the modern-day Washington wine industry — growers Mike Sauer and Dick Boushey and winemaker Rob Griffin.

Mike Sauer, Red Willow Vineyard, Wapato, Wash.

Mike Sauer established Red Willow Vineyard in the Cascade foothills at the western end of the Yakima Valley in 1971. Associated Vintners in Woodinville used fruit from the 1980 vintage to produce its first vineyard-designated wines. The label included a “St. Helens 1980 Vintage” logo, which featured a drawing of the volcanic peak with a plume of ash. The bottle was autographed by its winemaker – the late David Lake. (Photo courtesy of Mike Sauer)

It’s no surprise that a man who built a stone chapel on a hilltop in his vineyard — a structure that’s become an icon of the Washington wine industry — was observing the Sabbath on the morning of Sunday, May 18.

“I was coming back from church at the time and wondering what the dust was that was coming up from behind our car,” Sauer said. “It looked like a black, black cloud. It seemed odd, and you always hope there’s never a natural disaster on a Sunday because the government doesn’t function on a holiday or a Sunday, so it took a while for word to get out.”

Sauer and his family established Red Willow Vineyard at their Latum Creek Ranch in 1971. Two years later, he planted Cabernet Sauvignon and began his association with Walter Clore, the famed Washington State University viticulturist. A weather station helped to chart the progress of more than 20 grape varieties Sauer planted on what he called “the college plot.”

Sauer and his family were not the only winegrowing pioneers in the west end of the Yakima Valley, but they were the most successful and they possessed the vision to use drip irrigation for all of their vineyards. In those days, vines were farmed using overhead pivoting sprinklers, which came in handy to deal with the ash on grape leaves.

“We are so close to the Cascades that we got some ash from almost all of the eruptions,” Sauer said. “It looked like the surface of the moon. Everything was just covered in this gray ash. I’d say about ¾ of an inch thick. The plume went straight up and over us.”

‘St. Helens 1980 Vintage’ for Associated Vintners

The Associated Vintners, historic predecessor to Columbia Winery in Woodinville, Wash., created a logo for special bottlings that denoted the “St. Helens 1980 Vintage” and featured an ash plume. (Photo by Mike Sauer/Red Willow Vineyard)

Two years before Mount St. Helens first erupted, Sauer signed a contract with Associated Vintners, which would become Columbia Winery. In 1979, Lloyd Woodburne, a University of Washington professor and one of the founding winemakers, recruited David Lake, a Master of Wine, to make the AV wines.

“I remember that 1980 was the first vintage that they had vineyard-designated wines,” Sauer said. “Associated Vintners put a miniature volcano on the label, and I thought the ash had a real positive impact on the following (1981) vintage.”

Primary components of the ash were silicon dioxide and aluminum oxide, but it also included sulfur.

“I remember that for a number of years after we never did do any spraying for mildew because there was so much sulfur in the ash,” Sauer said. “The whole thing was fairly rich in nutrients, but in general our farm was kind of a disaster. There was the alfalfa, and the ash clogged the pores of the leaf cutter bees we used to pollinate. A lot of them died. And the ash was so abrasive on the equipment.”

And while Associated Vintners paid tribute to Mount St. Helens on bottles from the 1980 vintage, “I don’t remember any big negatives, but the 1981 wines would have seen the most influence of the nutrients, and that was just a magnificent vintage,” Sauer recalls.

In fact, Lake produced a 1981 Red Willow Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon — the first vineyard-designate for Sauer. As the westernmost vineyard in the Yakima Valley, the terroir of Red Willow offers unique features.

“Where our Nebbiolo is planted there’s a big cut that exposes about 10 million years of history,” Sauer said. “There’s an extremely hard and large area of compressed ash, about 9 to 12 inches thick. We’ve been told that had to have fallen when it was hot — to be that compressed.

“I think it shows how a lot of eastern Washington is influenced by geology,” Sauer continued. “Some people always talk about the Great Floods, but at Red Willow our site is completely influenced by volcanic activity. And that 1981 vintage for Red Willow was such an outstanding vintage and so significant for 15 to 20 years.”

Sauer would love to have a chance to go back in time to that day. Now a talented photographer, “I didn’t even think to take any pictures, not even with a Brownie or Polaroid,” he said wistfully.

Dick Boushey, Boushey Vineyard, Grandview, Wash.

Dick Boushey began planting wine grapes in the Yakima Valley near Grandview, Wash., in 1977. (Richard Duval Images)

This banker-turned-farmer grew up near Mount Rainier in the Tacoma bedroom community of Sumner. He moved across the Cascades to the Yakima Valley to help run the orchard that his father recently purchased in the hills above Grandview.

Boushey Vineyard now serves as the centerpiece of the 300-acre farm and ranks among the most prized in the Northwest.

“I had built the house in 1979 and while it’s surrounded by orchards now, there was nothing at the time,” Boushey said. “I remember looking up the valley, and I’m up high — 1,300 feet with views of the Horse Heavens and Grandview — and I saw this thing rolling in that just got darker and darker.

“First, I thought it was Mount Adams,” Boushey continued. “I look right at Mount Adams and Mount Rainier, and I thought it was just a storm. You didn’t think anything else until you started listening to the news.”

While his day began with uncertainty and a sense of doom, his younger brother, Doug, a recent graduate of the University of Washington, was on the Yakima River with a friend. The trip would be marred first by tragedy and then panic. 

“It was actually a nice day, and he was floating down the river — drinking beer and relaxing — when a crop duster hit a power line,” Doug said. “They went over to help him, but the pilot was dead.”

After helping answer questions at the scene, they returned to the river to finish their trip.

“Then they heard this big boom,” Boushey said. “They thought it was from the Yakima Firing Range, but soon when they couldn’t see where they were going, they thought it was the end of the world. They got to the shore and pulled themselves out. They were in their shorts, but they couldn’t breathe so they had their shirts over their mouths. We didn’t hear from them for hours and everyone in our family was really worried, but someone picked them up along the side of the road and once he got to Ellensburg he called us.”

Farmers worried about ash-covered crops

Ash from the May 18, 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens covers the ground and road on June 2, 1980 at a farm in Connell, Wash., approximately 180 miles from the volcano. (Photo by Lyn Topinka/Courtesy of USGS)

In the meantime, Boushey was freaking out about the family farm.

“Enough ash came down our way, but we were on the fringes,” Boushey said. “And if you were in the Horse Heavens, it was not so bad, but some places got an inch or more of that ash.

“I was pretty young and self-financed, and I thought this was going to kill all these plants,” Boushey added. “I had alfalfa, wine grapes and apples, and I thought this was the end of the world. From a farming standpoint, I thought, ‘This is it! How am I going to make this work?’

“I was in debt up to my eyeballs and then this disaster hits,” he continued. “Nobody had a crystal ball and could reference this. It was all about perseverance and being positive. You’ve just got to go do it.”

There was concern about damage to crops, equipment and the farmers themselves.

“People were scared by it,” Boushey said. “I remember it was hard on anything with metal and belts because it was so abrasive. The silica would grind up your nose and throat, and everyone had this horrible cough.”

And there was plenty of doubt for the rest of the spring and into summer.

“I was growing apples, and the ash would block photosynthesis in all the leaves, and it was going to delay the ripening of my little grapes,” Boushey remembers. “We thought all these apocalyptic things for a long time. The city of Yakima was dumped on, and they needed snow removal equipment to deal with all the ash in the streets. Everything came to a halt up there.”

Ironically, what’s now an antiquated irrigation practice for the wine industry helped Boushey’s orchards, young vines for wine and hardy Concord and Niagara grapes bound for Welch’s. In 1977, he planted an experimental block of 1 acre that represented 10 wine grape varieties.  The first commercial block for Boushey Vineyard was established in 1980, using Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot.

“Ultimately what saved it for us was that things cleared up and there was this rain that came,” Boushey said. “And we used overhead sprinklers — wine grape growers had that back then — and you could wash the ash off the leaves. That’s what saved all my juice grapes and the apples, but when you picked the apples there was ash near the stem that had turned into clay. And for years afterward, there were little remnants, like apple bins full of ash.”

At nascent Boushey Vineyard, the St. Helens vintage of 1980 came through about average.

“It turned out to be a halfway normal apple harvest,” Boushey said. “And I made wine. I had planted 10 varieties by then, and I made wine out of all of them. I might not have made 20 Brix, but that happened a few times on the Roza because of the junior water rights.”

In some ways, his life experiences today remind him of dealing with the aftermath of May 18, 1980.

“We worried about the permanent damage to the crops,” Boushey said. “It was almost the same feeling as with this virus, the same sort of thoughts sinking in about all of these horrible things that could happen. It was kind of humbling because Mother Nature always rules.

“I remember stocking up on masks and all these filters, but I don’t remember there being a shortage like there is with what we’re going through right now” Boushey added. “We were a novelty, and we were in the news. It’s part of our area’s history, and we experienced it. I see the layers of ash when I visit with geologists.”

The images seem to stick longest with those who worked the land. 

“It was very traumatic,” Boushey said. “I just remember the gray — a week or more — and it was so depressing to look out at. Finally, there were little green shoots that popped out thanks to Mother Nature. Everything ended up better than we thought it would, and there were so many stories to come out of it.”

Rob Griffin, Barnard Griffin Winery, Richland, Wash.

Rob Griffin began making wine in Washington state in 1977 at Preston Wine Cellars in Pasco. (Richard Duval Images)

A proud graduate of the winemaking program at University of California-Davis, Griffin was entering his fourth vintage as a Washington winemaker and working at Preston Wine Cellars north of the Tri-Cities near Pasco.

“In the Tri-Cities, we were right on the thin edge of it,” Griffin recalls. “The ashfall was faint, just enough to write your name on the windshield. It was very heavy in Yakima and in Ritzville and Spokane.”

His bride-to-be, Deborah Barnard, was in the master’s program for healthcare administration at the University of Washington and had driven her sports car across the Cascades to the Tri-Cities for the weekend.

“I remember there were times a couple of weeks before that there were some fairly dramatic storms — enough that we were confident that they were the volcano,” Griffin said. “But on (May 18), we learned about the explosion at about 2 in the afternoon. The sky was black and menacing, and we were out in the garden planting tomatoes.”

Their courtship would survive a test. Three years later, they launched Barnard Griffin Winery.

“She got trapped here and couldn’t get back to her finals because there was no driving and no flying,” Griffin said. “She ended up getting out of town on the first flight back to Seattle, and I got to play with her little MG for a few weeks.”

Bill Preston established his vineyard in 1972 and built the winery in 1976. By the time of the eruption, Preston’s plantings stretched 171 acres. Because the Preston wine program was built almost entirely on estate fruit, Griffin didn’t work with grapes that experienced much of the ash.

“It was believed that the volcanic ash was keeping the insect population down that year,” Griffin said. “But in the vineyards that I had relationships with in Benton and Franklin counties, I don’t recollect them not needing to spray for mildew protection. However, I wasn’t as tuned in with the farmers back then. The grapes came to me, and I did what I did with them.”

And back in those days, it was rare to see a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon reaching a ripeness level that would lead to a finished wine of more than 13.25% alcohol by volume.

“There was nothing unique about that year for me, but I do remember the whites from that vintage were crisp and clean and quite nice,” Griffin said. “The reds were a little on the thin side and a little herbal, which could be used to describe red wines from a lot of the vintages in that era.”

For example, there’s this Preston Wine Cellars Cab with an ABV of 12.5%.

“There were some nice wines and some ordinary wines being made — depending on who was doing what with the grapes in those days,” Griffin continued. “I do recall that the harvest went later than it should have. We harvested some reds at Halloween that year.”

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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 magazine with Andy Perdue and served as its managing editor for a decade. He is a frequent wine judge at international wine competitions throughout North America and orchestrates 10 Northwest competitions each year.

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