When Ron Irvine and partner, Jack Bagdade, opened Pike & Western Wine Shop at the Pike Place Market in 1975, there were only a handful of producers in Washington State and Oregon. Yet, the men made the bold move of showcasing wines of the Northwest. “It was kind of unbelievable at the time. People probably thought we were crazy,” said the owner/winemaker of Vashon Winery.
The pair’s original business model was mighty ambitious, proclaiming that they would open a shop everywhere their neighbor, Starbucks, went. “But they were making a 100 percent markup,” Irvine said. “We quickly found we just couldn’t keep up.”
Irvine spent 15 years in retail and has been making wine for decades, but he’s probably best known as the author of the seminal book on the state’s winemaking history, a tome he wrote with Dr. Walter Clore, a man who’s widely known as the father of the modern phase of grape growing in the state.
While Irvine had been writing about wine for various publications since the mid-1970s, it wasn’t until he sold the wine shop to current owner Michael Teer in 1991, that he began to consider penning The Wine Project.
“Shortly after I sold Pike & Western, I told my wife I wanted to go to Prosser to interview Dr. Clore,” Irvine said. “We met in his living room, his wife served tea and cookies. He was in his 70s at the time, but I remember he was dressed in workman’s khakis and straddled an ottoman like a kid of 18. He was so impressive.”
A tape of that interview is archived at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma, along with other artifacts the pair discovered during the years of research for the book.
When The Wine Project was published in 1997, it made some waves.
“It challenged some views of the state’s history. Many people talk only in terms of the state’s winemaking history from the 1970s forward,” Irvine said.
Irvine and Dr. Clore fleshed out stories of winemaking pioneers that go way back to the 1800s.
“We found an Italian baker, who was making wines commercially in 1876,” he said. There are also vineyards from that era that still exist. One, near Union Gap, is untended and not irrigated, yet still producing fruit.
Other important names from long ago include W.B. Bridgeman, an attorney specializing in irrigation law, who planted grapes in the early 1900s; initially table grapes but then wine grapes in the 1920s. And Irvine said more people should know about Paul Charvet, who made wine for E.F. Blaine, in Grandview, and for himself. That talented vintner’s aspirations to make quality, European-style wines were derailed by Prohibition.
Being steeped in history influenced Irvine’s winemaking style. He says he tends to be grounded in traditional wines with less alcohol, more acidity and more varietal character. Irvine also uses some ancient varieties such as Chasselas from vines planted near his home on Vashon in the 1950s, a liquid nod to the original locavore movement. He made the first Pinot Noir grown in King County under the Puget Sound AVA.
Still, history is not always about looking at the past. “I’m not haunted by history, I am a witness to it all the time,” he said.
His journey to becoming a winemaker began with hard cider. “I was making cider under the license at Vashon Winery, and soon found myself helping out in the cellar,” Irvine said. By 2002, he owned the place.
“Spending all those years at the Market, the sign there that says ‘Meet the Producer’ made a big impression. I always wanted to be a producer, but that’s getting harder to do,” he said. “And once you are a producer, you find out that it’s hard work.”
He’s encouraged, though, by the steady rise of the profile of Washington wine throughout the world: “It’s taken some time for Washington to be recognized beyond our borders, but markets are going to continue to open up for us, whether it’s in Asia, New York or even Europe. It’s exciting.”