Wade Wolfe took a roundabout route to Washington wine country, but once he arrived, he began to indelibly change the industry.
Wolfe earned bachelor’s and doctorate degrees in California before heading to Arizona to study the feasibility of growing wine grapes in the Southwest. In 1978, Chateau Ste. Michelle lured him to Washington, where he ultimately oversaw vineyard operations for the state’s biggest winery. In 1983, Wolfe was primarily responsible for writing the petition to form the Columbia Valley American Viticulture Area, Washington’s largest grape-growing region.
He left Ste. Michelle in 1985 to launch a vineyard consulting business, then two years later he and his wife, Becky Yeaman, started Thurston Wolfe Winery in the Yakima Valley town of Prosser.
The winery remained small for several years as Wolfe began working for – and eventually running – the giant Hogue Cellars from 1991 to 2004. Once he retired from Hogue, he was able to devote all of his energy to the family winery, which has since moved across town into a new facility at the Vintners Village.
Wolfe has been a maverick his entire career, and this is on display at Thurston Wolfe, with such out-of-the-mainstream varieties as Lemberger, Petite Sirah, Orange Muscat, Tempranillo, Primitivo and (for Washington) Zinfandel. He named his Cabernet Sauvignon after his best friend, Stan Clarke, a Washington winemaker and educator who passed away a few years ago, and last fall, “The Teacher” topped Wine Press Northwest’s best-of-the-best competition, further solidifying Wolfe’s place as one of the Northwest’s finest winemakers.
Here are some recent Thurston Wolfe wines we’ve tasted:
Thurston Wolfe 2008 Tempranillo, Washington, $25: This Spanish variety opens with warm barrel tones and aromas that hint at Double Cherry Sundae, backed by blackberry, mint, lilac and sweet tobacco. It’s blackberry and Bing cherry on the palate with nice sweetness, black olive, coffee and late-arriving tannins. Enjoy with paella.
Thurston Wolfe 2008 Zephyr Ridge Primitivo, Washington, $25: It’s believed that Wolfe blazed the trail in Washington for this Italian clone of Zinfandel, being the first to plant and bottle it. Inviting aromas of blueberry, mocha, coffee, cocoa and lime oil carry into ripe flavors of more blueberry, plums, strawberry and raspberry. Remarkable depth to the structure points out chalkiness and spice.
Thurston Wolfe 2008 Malbec, Washington, $28: Much of Thurston Wolfe’s fruit is grown in the Horse Heaven Hills, and McKinley Springs fruit shows well in this bottling. Black cherry, rose petal and cedar aromas are backed by cinnamon and leather. Blueberry flavors take the lead, followed by pie cherry acidity and underlying minerality with chalky tannin.
Thurston Wolfe 2008 The Spaniard, Washington, $20: Some may think this blend of Grenache, Tempranillo and Syrah is a Willamette Valley Pinot incognito because the Grenache comes across with high-toned red fruit of cassis, pie cherry and cranberry. Accents also include plums, boysenberry, sweet herbs and warm barrel tones. Tempranillo’s grip of tannin slips just a bit beyond the acidity.
Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman are the editors of Wine Press Northwest magazine. For more information, go to www.winepressnw.com.