By Stacey Robertson
“When that cork pops, an interdisciplinary world is unleashed that connects us with agriculture, science, history, philosophy and religion, literature, poetry, art, business and marketing, world languages, tourism and leisure, culinary studies and more. Let’s pop some corks and enjoy!” – Marji Morgan, Department of Communication interim chair, historian and wine enthusiast.
My predecessor, mentor, and good friend, Marji Morgan, brilliantly connected all eight departments of the CWU College of Arts and Humanities – Art, Communication, English, History, Music, Philosophy and Religious Studies, Theatre Arts, and World Languages – in an enchanting bottle of Washington wine.
Morgan is more than qualified to discuss this linkage, not only as the former dean of the CWU College of Arts and Humanities for nine years, but also as a renowned historian and a wine enthusiast, hosting her weekly radio show, “Lines on Wines.”
Class was in session earlier this month as Morgan served as the final 2015-2016 academic year presenter for the Celebrating the College of Arts and Humanities Series. Many would not be inclined to consider Washington as a prime wine region — Au Contraire!
In her “Sagebrush to Vineyards: Washington’s Route to the World Wine Map” Morgan introduced the audience of faculty, students, staff, alums and community members to the pioneers of the Evergreen State’s wine industry. These intrepid souls explored fields of high-desert sagebrush and rattlesnakes. More importantly, they found the vision to transform the arid land into row-after-row of Vitis Vinifera (grapes for making wine).
Washington’s terroir, the complete natural and biological environment for producing wine, eventually resulted in the designation of 13 American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) in the state, all but one east of the Cascades. The very first was established in 1983 in Yakima Valley about 30 miles away from Central Washington University’s main Ellensburg campus.
Morgan explained that Washington’s terroir is one of the most ideal natural environments for producing wine. She opined that France makes wine despite its growing conditions; Washington makes wine because of its ideal growing conditions.
Geography takes a bow as the Cascades to the west and the Rocky Mountains to the north and east, block the respective temperate rain and the Artic air masses. The result is the young Washington vines are repeatedly “stressed” by lack of rainfall, putting their energy into the sweet fruit and making their roots deeper. During a single 24-hour period of time during the summer, the temperature may shift up to 40 degrees, helping to preserve a nice balance between grape sugar and acid.
From an historical point of view, a series of massive-high floods 13,000-to-15,000 years ago (e.g., Missoula Floods) created soil ideal for drainage, low in nutrients, which forces wine vines to reach deeper to find vital minerals.
Morgan introduced us to a series of Washington wine-making visionaries, each with a unique story that has been featured in her every Wednesday “Lines on Wines” radio show on Ellensburg Community Radio. One of the most successful is Allen Shoup, the former chief executive officer of Chateau Ste. Michelle. During his tenure, he grew the winery’s business from $5 million to a $175 million venture.
Jack of All Trades; Master of None?
Shoup told Morgan that Washington can reach the pinnacle of the wine world, as the state is the only wine region not missing any of the geographical ingredients necessary to grow Vinifera vines and to bottle great wines.
Marji said Washington is adept at growing many red and white varietals, but is not known for any particular varietal. Other wine areas are known for a grape varietal or blend. For example, Oregon is renowned for its pinot noirs; California for its cabernets, Australia for its Shiraz, Germany for its Rieslings and Bordeaux for its blends.
Washington poses a marketing and communication challenge – who are we as a region? The Evergreen State’s wine business is also challenged by low production, compared to its giant competitor to the south, California.
“People don’t learn about wine and become wine drinkers on $30 and $40 bottles,” Morgan told our Speaker Series’ audience. She went on to say that Washington needs more affordable wines, and enough premium wine production to export more bottles out of the state and the country.
There is also the lack of tourist infrastructure (e.g., cozy B&Bs, nice restaurants, art galleries, boutiques), which accompany competing wine regions, such as Oregon’s Willamette Valley, California’s Sonoma and Napa Counties, let alone the legendary vineyards of France, Italy, Spain and Germany.
Morgan said that following Prohibition, Americans tended to produce and drink primarily sweet, highly fortified wines. This trend did not change until 1969 when the state Legislature eliminated the state tariffs protecting Washington’s fortified wine industry, and allowed competition to thrive and the state’s wines to improve.
Morgan radiates with confidence that Washington’s best wine making and marketing days are yet to come. And with them are opportunities for our art students to design bottle labels, our music students to compose songs about wine, our English students to romance about wine with stories and poems, our World Language students to spread the Washington wine word in many tongues – quite frankly every one of our departments can participate in telling the Evergreen State wine story, and telling it well.
Just like “Lines of Wines” at www.linesonwines.com