PROSSER, Wash. — Tonight, Lori Stevens hopes to celebrate her election to the Port of Benton Commission, and it’s a safe bet that she’d toast her supporters with a glass of Washington wine from her family’s Airfield Estates Winery.
Stevens is the marketing director and co-owner of Airfield Estates in Prosser. She and her winemaking brother, Marcus Miller, are also the fourth-generation operators of historic Airport Ranch in the Yakima Valley, among the state’s largest vineyards at 830 acres and one of the oldest — first planted in 1968.
“A lot of our customers and club members have wished me luck!” Stevens told Great Northwest Wine via email. “Some have even offered to put my campaign signs in their yards.”
It would be a rare instance when an active principal of a Washington winery won an election for public office. In Oregon’s Willamette Valley, Remy Drabkin, owner/winemaker of Remy Wines, is in her second term as a member of McMinnville’s city council and is now council president.
(Editor’s note: On Tuesday night, Stevens led her race by a 61% to 38% margin. “There are still so many votes to count, but so far, so good!” Stevens said.)
If Stevens defeats the incumbent — commission president Jane Hagarty — the Sunnyside winery owner would serve a six-year term as the District 3 commissioner.
“My priorities are to support our local economy, small business owners, current port tenants, and maintain existing Port properties including the Richland and Prosser airports,” Stevens said.
While the race is nonpartisan, this portion of Washington wine country is a Republican stronghold, evidenced last fall when Donald Trump received 58% of the vote. A significant portion of the community are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
For teetotalers, it’s worth noting that Stevens’s family also is one of the Northwest’s largest growers of organic Concord grapes for Welch’s.
“Hopefully those that don’t drink alcohol will be able to overlook the wine aspect and realize that by owning and operating two multifaceted businesses, my family farm and winery, I will bring a strong business acumen to the Port leadership and also an understanding of pertinent issues relating to and affecting our local farming community and small business owners,” Stevens said.
Valedictorian of Sunnyside High School in 1999, Stevens received a business administration degree from Principia College in Illinois, a liberal arts school dedicated to Christian Science. In 2007, she earned a master’s degree in wine business from the University of Adelaide in Australia. She now oversees three tasting rooms across Washington — Prosser, Woodinville and Vancouver.
Along the way, the Port of Benton has been a strong supporter of the Washington wine industry. In September, the port announced a new partnership with Washington State University Tri-Cities to reopen the Walter Clore Wine and Culinary Center in Prosser.
In 2006, Stevens and her family decided to purchase — rather than lease — from the Port of Benton the property in Prosser’s Vintners Village where Airfield Estates built its first tasting room and wine production facility. As a result of that business decision 15 years ago, there is no conflict of interest for Stevens in her bid for the Port of Benton post.
“I do have to say, they were very helpful in promoting our business in the early days when we were first getting started,” Stevens said. “All of their staff at that time was extremely kind and supportive, and I am very grateful to the Port for that.”
The Port of Benton can point to a long list of success stories, starting decades ago with the Prosser Wine and Food Park. Stevens says changes in recent years sparked her desire to help both private and public sectors as a commissioner.
“The Port has done a good job with developing land for potential business owners,” Stevens said. “I admire the Port for their vision and foresight. But there recently seems to have been a shift away from supporting small businesses.
“The Port of Benton now seems more focused on trying to make a profit than helping businesses get started,” Stevens continued. “If elected, I will work hard for our community and use my education, experience and common sense to be a good steward of taxpayers’ dollars and get the Port’s resources working for our community.”
Closure of Prosser campground concerns Stevens
Twice a year, the Port of Benton commission meetings are staged in Prosser. The other meetings are run through the Port of Benton headquarters in Richland near the campus of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
Officially, Prosser remains the county seat, and one of that community’s signature events is its annual hot air balloon rally. Stevens made the Port of Benton’s decision to close the Prosser Airport’s campground a campaign issue.
“Setting aside whether the decision was appropriate, they did not solicit impact statements from any of the local leaders or airport operators,” she says. “Most of the ballooning participants use this campground space to prepare and launch balloons. I would ensure that all businesses and community members that may be impacted by port decisions have ample opportunity to review and address these impacts.”
Bridgman from mayor to vintner before Prohibition
More than a century ago, the city of Sunnyside twice elected Canadian-born attorney William B. Bridgman as mayor. Bridgman, an expert on water rights, went on to plant wine grapes along Snipes Mountain in 1917, and 17 years later he created a winery brand called Upland.
In The Wine Project, the definitive book on the Washington wine industry, author Ron Irvine wrote “it was William Bridgman who had the greatest impact on Washington’s wine industry.”
That Snipes Mountain site and famed Harrison Hill, which Bridgman first planted in 1914, are now both farmed by Todd Newhouse.
A cousin of Newhouse is perhaps the Washington wine industry’s highest profile supporter — Yakima Valley farmer/politician Dan Newhouse. The grape-growing Republican from Sunnyside co-chairs the Congressional Wine Caucus with Mike Thompson, a Democrat from California’s Napa Valley.
In the state Legislature, there’s Rep. Kelly Chambers (R-Puyallup). She and her husband, Jeff, own a vineyard above the north shore of Lake Chelan near Manson and operate young Lomcevak Cellars. It is Chambers and the Washington Wine Institute driving the petition to create a WA Wine license plate, which would follow along similar lines to the Oregon Wine Country license plate.
Bill Jenkin, owner of the boutique Prosser Vineyard & Winery and Bills Tasting Room in downtown Prosser, received a four-year term representing the 14th District in the state House as a Republican. In 2020, he ran for the open state Senate in his district but lost in the primary to Mark Klicker of Walla Walla, a Republican who went onto win the seat left open when Maureen Walsh of Walla Walla retired.
Janéa (Holmquist) Newbry served in Olympia as a state Senator prior to launching Talent Cellars in the Southern Oregon town of Talent with her husband, winemaker Matt Newbry. It was Newhouse who defeated her in the 2014 primary for Congress.
Earlier this year, Riley Clubb, whose parents own L’Ecole N° 41 Winery, chose not to seek re-election for the Walla Walla City Council. Instead, he said he plans to focus on Harvust — an online platform that helps streamline human resources for the farming community. Today, the successor for Clubb’s Position 1 seat will be determined at the ballot box.
And in the uncontested election for Benton County Fire District #6 Commissioner Position 1, Jarrod Boyle of Alexandria Nicole Cellars and Destiny Ridge Vineyard received more than 94% of the early vote in his bid for the six-year term.
Miller family grew with Washington wine industry
Real estate developer H. Lloyd Miller, great grandfather of Lori Stevens, moved to Sunnyside in 1907, just five years after Bridgman arrived. Miller purchased in 1920 the property that would grow wine grapes, but it would be years before irrigation came to the Roza portion of the Yakima Valley.
During World War II, the land turned into an airbase with the Manhattan Project just beyond the Rattlesnake Hills and north of modern-day Richland. In 1971, Stevens’s grandfather — Donald Miller — planted the first commercial vines at Airfield Ranch and began growing for Chateau Ste. Michelle. Stevens’s late father, Michael Miller, launched Airfield Estates Winery in 2005 after Marcus attended Walla Walla Community College’s winemaking program and spent two harvests at Tsillan Cellars in Chelan.
“We had an event to kick off my campaign at the hangars at the Richland Airport,” Stevens said. “It was great to feel the support from so many of our local community members and aviation enthusiasts.”
Opening a new satellite tasting room in the midst of a pandemic wasn’t part of her business plan for Airfield Estates, but Stevens and her team pulled it off along the new Vancouver USA Waterfront. There is plenty of room in the marketplace for more wineries, she said, especially in Benton County.
“One of the greatest economic opportunities in our region is to further develop our Washington wine industry,” Stevens said. “The Port of Benton has current properties and resources available to help build this industry, which is unique to our local area. The Port decisions directly affect my local winery and business stability, so I will encourage Washington wine industry opportunities as it provides tourism and economic stability to our county.”
Campaign an ‘uplifting’ experience for Stevens
If Stevens wins, she won’t be the only newcomer to the Port of Benton commission. On Oct. 28 — less than a week prior to the election — commissioner/vice-president Robert Larson announced his retirement after spending 27 years with the commission. His successor will be determined by an application process rather than an election. According to GovSalaries.com, Larson’s reported pay for 2020 was $25,552.
In December 2019, with the pandemic just around the corner, the Port of Benton hired Diahann Howard as executive director to replace Scott Keller, who spent more than 30 years with the port.
“I believe that the Port of Benton should be doing more to assist business tenants that have been impacted by government shutdowns and mandates,” Stevens said. “I would task the Port Director to get impact statements from all business tenants on impacts from shutdowns and mandates. Based on these findings, the Port could develop and implement relief options for these businesses.
“Additionally, the Port could produce a report on the actual and forecasted impacts to be forwarded to the Governor’s office,” Stevens continued. “An example as to why we need a leadership change, some Port business tenants indicated that during the summer of 2020 they received notice on lease increases. After some pushback, the Port either postponed or changed their position on the increases. One business stated that had the increase gone through, they would have to lay off even more of the remaining staff or close all together.”
Howard’s hiring as executive director came amid turmoil surrounding the Port of Benton staff and commissioner Roy Keck, who narrowly won re-election to a six-year term in 2019.
A subsequent probe conducted by a Yakima attorney indicated a number of complaints raised were valid, including that the search for Keller’s replacement “was tainted by perceptions of political allegiances.”
If elected, Stevens said one of her goals is to help the community learn more about how the Port of Benton operates.
“Through the campaign process, I have had the opportunity to talk with many community members and from those conversations, I have realized that most citizens have limited knowledge about the Port of Benton,” Stevens says. “Additionally, it has been an eye opener for me to see that there are a lot of people that try to make a career out of their Port positions. I have also learned a lot more about the Port of Benton and all of its properties that should be used to encourage small business growth and business development.”
This past summer, Stevens knocked on doors in Richland neighborhoods. She met with voters and asked for their support when it came time to mark their ballot for the Nov. 2 election, but what if she comes up short in her bid?
“I would consider running again for a public office,” Stevens said. “The experience and support from the community has been uplifting and encouraging.”
By late Tuesday evening, it appeared that Stevens will cruise to a victory in her first election. The wines of choice were the Airfield Estates 2020 Sangiovese Rosé and the Airfield Estates 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon. She wouldn’t even allow herself a reward of a reserve Cab or one of the wines named for forefathers — H. Lloyd (a Left Bank Bordeaux-inspired red), Donald (reserve Chardonnay) or Michael (a red Rhône blend).
“Yes, we’re saving one of the Founders wines or the Blanc de Blancs potentially for a later celebration,” she said.