Wade Wolfe’s career path took a dramatic detour in the 1970s. Instead of going into research-focused academia, the California native found himself bumping down the far-flung vineyards in Washington state alongside the man known as the father of the then-fledgling industry, Dr. Walter Clore.
“He had such a great disposition, he was easy-going and quiet, very personable, and he also had this wealth of knowledge about all the vineyards in the state,” said Wolfe, who went to work for Chateau Ste. Michelle in 1978 after spending a couple of years doing a grape feasibility study in the Four Corners region in the Southwest while on staff at the University of Arizona. “He would point out what varieties were planted where and who was involved in growing them. His studies led to a lot of insight about what should be planted where. It was all a grand experiment.”
In those early days, the state was primarily planted with white wine varietals, Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Chenin blanc, though not a lot of Chardonnay.
“The reds Dr. Clore thought would do best here were Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot noir and, his favorite, Lemberger,” Wolfe said. “That’s the only red wine he ever drank.”
One of Wolfe’s first projects was working as an advisor on the expansion project near Paterson, the site that would become Columbia Crest. “It was very ambitious,” he said, pointing out that in the late 1970s, there were fewer than 3,000 acres of grapes planted in the state. (There are now more than 40,000 acres.)
One of his fondest memories of that time was the sense of camaraderie in the small industry. Everybody knew everybody.
“We had a tasting group that met about once a month. Gary Figgins and Rick Small were part of that group and we got to try their first commercial efforts before they were released,” Wolfe recalled. “I remember when we tried Gary’s first Cab, and we said something like ‘this is really good’. Of course, that Cab went on to win a big award at the Atlanta wine show, which really put him – and Washington state – on the map.”
In 1984, he left Chateau Ste. Michelle to launch Thurston-Wolfe, with his wife, Becky Yeaman, but it took a while to get it off the ground and while putting together their business plan, he did a lot of consulting.
“These were the days when there was a lot of excess fruit, so some of the growers were getting into the winemaking business, people like Powers and Hyatt,” he said.
Among his duties in overseeing various vineyards were offering advice on pruning, irrigation, fertilization and monitoring for pests. He also routinely performed maturity analysis, measuring for levels of acidity and PH, but in the lab, not in the field.
“You see photos of guys holding up refractometers in the vineyards. That’s a nice romantic picture, but that’s not really how it works,” he mused.
He finally got his first official crush under his belt in 1987 and has steadily grown his Mom-and-Pop operation since then to 6,000 cases a year. Thurston-Wolfe is sold in nine states and shows up on respected wine lists across the country.
While he said he now considers himself more of a winemaker than a grower, Wolfe still has roots firmly planted in the vineyards. He’s been on the Washington Wine Advisory Committee since 1985, helping steward state funds funneled into research projects at Washington State University. Funds, which he and others successfully lobbied for with a 1/4 cent tax on each liter of wine sold in the state.
Those funds have supported research on deficit irrigation, powdery mildew prevention, fermentation microbiology, rootstock trials and more, leading to significant improvement in the quality of grapes.
In his estate vineyard, Wolfe has had great success planting under-the-radar varietals. His small-lot Petite Sirah and Zinfandel garner rave reviews and win awards. He makes an Orange Muscat and blends Pinot gris with Viognier to create a popular blend he calls PGV. And, he remains a steadfast supporter of Lemberger.
“It was the first wine I ever made,” he said. “I fell in love with it shortly after coming to Washington, all thanks to Walt Clore.”