The seed for the Washington State Wine Commission first sprouted as part of a thesis written by Maury Balcom when he was in the Ag-Forestry Leadership Foundation program in the mid-1980s.
Give the man an “A” because, after encouragement from fellow grape grower Jeff Gordon and members of the Wine Institute, Balcom took that project to Olympia and worked diligently turn the project into legislation.
In writing to enthusiastically support Balcom’s induction into the Mid-Columbia Ag Hall of Fame in 2012, the head of that foundation recounted his visionary mission: “While participating in the Leadership Program, Maury was the leader of a policy group of class members to develop a project called “Enhancing Marketing of Washington Wines and Creation of a State Wine Commission”. Throughout their two years in the leadership program, this group researched, studied and developed legislation for establishment of the Washington State Wine Commission. Following his graduation from the program, Maury worked with other agricultural leaders to introduce and successfully pass a bill to create the Wine Commission.”
It wasn’t a cakewalk.
“Oh, there were more than a few roadblocks. Back then, it was tough to convince legislators that people would travel to Eastern Washington to see where the grapes grew, but eventually, the governor signed the legislation,” Balcom said.
His interest in wine began when he was just 10 and made his first trip to Napa Valley with his father. “It was cool, but it really made a lasting impression on my dad,” said Balcom, whose family was friendly with Northwest food legend Angelo Pellegrini.
“My dad and Pelle would talk about the possibility of growing grapes. They had a dream of starting a vineyard and one thing led to another and we decided I would do that, so I took a short course at Davis in the late ‘60s and bumped into Walt Clore and one thing led to another and I was in the vineyard business,” said Balcom of his first 25-acre vineyard that was planted with Riesling, Cabernet, Chardonnay and Pinot noir.
Before diving in, though, he interned at Wente Brothers and earned a degree in enology at Fresno State, when there were just seven students in the program. “Back then, everything we did was an experiment,” he said.
“It was slow going in the beginning, the wine deal was almost a hobby for us. We have been potato growers for four generations,” he said. “There weren’t many wineries back then. I had to give grapes away to help get some wineries going.”
After 15 years of growing and selling grapes, Balcom started making wine in the mid-1980s, his Balcom & Moe label was No. 18 in the post-Prohibition era. “It was a fun, interesting time,” he said of the 20 years he operated the winery. “But as more people got into the business, it required more time on the road and I just didn’t have the time because the grapes were just one small part of our operation.”
During those salad days, though, Balcom created some fond memories, sharing dreams with fellow industry enthusiasts. “I remember sitting around with Bill Preston and Jerry Bookwalter, Gary Figgins and Rick Small talking about how there might be 100 wineries in the state someday. We laughed at the time because it seemed so unlikely,” he said.
That sense of camaraderie in those early days helped fuel friendly competition. “In the late ‘70s, (wine educator) Coke Roth came up with this idea of having an after harvest party at a new restaurant in Dayton, Patit Creek. We invited everybody in the industry and told winemakers to bring a couple bottles of wine. Of course, everybody showed up with a case,” Balcom said.
These days, Balcom serves on the board of the South Columbia Basin Irrigation District, a stint that’s lasted 20 years. While he continues to grow grapes for Barnard Griffin, Millbrandt and Coventry Vale, he has visions of eventually cutting back on his workload, especially now that his son is running the company, “I’d like to spend some of the winter some place warm, but I get bored easily and I do love being on the farm and watching things grow. That will probably be what I end up doing when I retire.”