Tucked away in an obscure, windowless office in southeastern Washington’s dry, rolling vineyards, there’s a coveted map that is the blueprint for the past, present, and future of the $3 billion Washington wine industry.
The map identifies what varieties are planted where in the state’s “foundation-block” vineyards, where all the certified clean plants for Washington State’s 125 wine varieties originate and are carefully protected with regular tending, testing, and monitoring.
The map is kept highly confidential—literally locked up—so that these state-certified varieties cannot be stolen or compromised.
Only two men have access. Markus Keller, a Swiss-born scientist who oversees the viticulture program at Washington State University’s Prosser research center, and Gary Ballard, a wine industry jack-of-all-trades who left the private sector for a job managing the state’s foundation-block vineyards.
“The map’s something not to be given to anybody,” says Ballard, walking slowly among the vineyards, inspecting a row of Grenache. “It only comes out here once a year when it’s time to cut wood.”
“Cutting wood” is Ballard’s vernacular for the annual ritual of trimming 18-inch branches from these grapevines for distribution to the state’s certified nurseries. The nurseries then propagate them, creating what’s known as the “motherblock” of clean plant varieties, from which plants are then sold to growers and wineries.
The map—or rather, the vines and wines it represents—is the Washington wine industry’s life insurance, health plan, retirement, and 401K all rolled into one.
It is where the industry will turn in case of a major disease outbreak. It is the historical record of the state’s existing varieties. It is an investment in the future—through new varieties that are being tested, cleaned, and approved for distribution to the state’s nurseries, growers, wineries, and eventually your dinner table.
It all starts here, in WSU Prosser’s tissue culture labs, greenhouses, and foundation-block vineyards. Unless, of course, you are an upstart winery owner smuggling Sangiovese varieties from Italy to eastern Washington in your cowboy boot. Or a friend of a friend who just returned from Burgundy with a few French “sticks” in your suitcase. Or a shady entrepreneur offering to weave the hottest new varieties of vines into decorative baskets and wreaths in order to pass customs in Seattle.
Sound far-fetched? We won’t name names, but it has happened here. And it is among the reasons why new diseases, pests, and viruses are posing an ever-greater threat to one of Washington’s most promising new industries.
“You get a winemaker who really, really wants a certain variety because it’s a hot market, and that puts pressure on the grower,” explains Sara Spayd, until recently a food scientist and enologist at Prosser. She is now a viticulturist at North Carolina State University. “For awhile, we lost control of plant materials because we didn’t have enough of the right thing during the time of the major industry expansion. When demand exploded, material came in, in suitcases, wreaths, or however else.”
Now, nearly a decade later, vineyard acreage has exploded from 11,000 to more than 30,000 acres, and the greed accompanying the boom is reaping what it sowed—illegal “dirty plants” spreading debilitating vineyard diseases like leaf roll and crown gall bacterium.
When a recent virus survey by the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) revealed the presence of some debilitating viruses not previously known to exist in the region, industry leaders realized doing nothing was no longer an option. They quickly mobilized and cast their financial and political support behind efforts to revitalize WSU’s foundation-block program, originally established in 1961 by Walter Clore, considered the grandfather of the Washington wine industry.
“That [virus survey] sent up the red flag across the industry, which realized, ‘hey we need to be a lot more careful,'” says Mike Means, vineyard manager at Canoe Ridge Winery in Walla Walla and board member of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers. “There’s a lot of people who jumped into the industry in recent years that didn’t have a history with wine grapes and their potential problems. We want to help educate the newcomers of the importance of using clean plant material in order to not put the whole industry in jeopardy.”
The state—and federal government—has quarantines that prohibit importing vines without proper certification, but that hasn’t always acted as a deterrent.
“We don’t check our borders, we don’t have the capability,” explains Tom Wessels, manager of the plant services program at the WSDA. We have a rule that says only certified grapevines can come into Washington, but there is nothing to stop a grower from taking a truck down to California, loading it up with grapevines, and driving back with them.”
Over the last year, however, most perpetrators weren’t growers, but rather major home and garden retail box stores that sell garden-variety vines for decorative planting in yards, say, to cover gazebos or arbors.
“It’s frightening,” says Ballard. “[The big box stores] will go to Timbuktu or wherever they can get the cheapest plants and truck this stuff in here . . . bypassing all regulatory bodies.”
When smugglers are caught, the WSDA requires such clandestine plant material be either sent back or destroyed. Technically, all grapevines that arrive in Washington State must have a “clean plant passport,” called phytosanitary paperwork. But clearly there are ways around the system.
Keller recalls driving up to one Washington wine tasting event and being surprised to see large signs pointing out the vineyard’s fancy Portuguese varieties, something he knew had not been cultivated legally. Inside, he asked the winery’s server about it.
“She smiled politely and said, ‘Oh, our owner just went to Europe and brought these back,'” Keller recalls, shaking his head incredulously. Then she poured him a glass of port.
The European import stories are the scariest scenarios, says Wessels, since Europe has “things that would really be serious if they got loose here.”
Another concern is the small boutique wineries overeager to get their foot in the door of a lucrative industry. A five-acre winery newly licensed in the Chelan area produced its first crop of Syrah this year, but when an October freeze injured some plants, crown gall set in, and the winery’s crop was devastated. “Why?” asks Ballard rhetorically. “Because they planted dirty vines.”
Crown gall is only one of several problematic diseases. Leaf roll was detected in the late 90s at the beginning of the industry’s big boom and began rapidly spreading. Now, the bright red leaves of vines infected with the virus wave from the vineyards like red danger flags in a sea of green.
“There are infected vineyards,” says Spayd, “vineyards that need to come out,” not only because of the risks they pose to neighboring crops, but because grapes from these infected vineyards are poor quality. Leaf roll, for example, changes sugar accumulations, which can affect the color and phenolic properties of wine. Recognizing that poor-quality grapes will lead to poor-quality wines, many of the state’s larger wineries have been among the most aggressive supporters of WSU researchers’ efforts to tighten control over plant materials and the spread of disease.
The industry is aware they purchased a problem when they expanded so rapidly,” Keller says, “but they are also driving the demand to clean up their act.”
Some, like Hogue Cellars, started rejecting grapes from infected plants. That got growers’ attention. Now, Hogue requires all its grape suppliers to test material before it goes into the wine supply.
Recognizing that a well-funded program for certifying clean vines was a matter of self-preservation for everyone, the wine indus
try has begun lobbying state and federal legislators to help secure funding for the Prosser research center, whose program to certify, monitor, and protect the Northwest region’s grape supply is called the Northwest Grape Foundation Service, one of just two such regional services in the United States. The other is the Plant Foundation Service at UC Davis in California. The grape service programs at WSU Prosser and UC Davis are now poised to be two major anchors for a new national certification and regulatory program being set up for the American wine industry. The National Clean Plant Network will create at least four nationally recognized grape repositories (WSU, UC Davis, Missouri State University, and Cornell University). The state legislature has also recently stepped up its support, appropriating $1.5 million for a new laboratory facility that features separate “dirty rooms” and “clean rooms” for handling disease-infested varieties. Last year, five new viticulture and enology positions were created at WSU.
While Washington’s industry continues to expand—an average of one or two wineries open in Washington State each week—most of the Northwest Grape Foundation Service’s expansion this year has been a result of becoming a regional, rather than solely statewide, organization that also serves Oregon and Idaho. This year, all the new grape selections—29 total—were to satisfy other geographical areas outside of eastern Washington (mostly Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir destined for Oregon, Idaho, and western Washington).
One of the biggest challenges now is predicting and responding quickly to the market’s whims.
“We saw Pinot Noir sales start soaring as soon as the movie Sideways came out,” Keller says. Vineyard after vineyard of Riesling was pulled out of Washington State in the 70s and 80s and replaced with Merlot and Chardonnay, he adds. Now Riesling’s hot again.
“Growers call me and say, ‘I need Riesling, how many cuttings can you give me right now?’ I say, ‘Five,’ and they say, ‘Well I need 50,000!’ The temptation [to go elsewhere] is always there.”
Alongside Pinot Noir and Riesling, Italian Sangiovese and the Tempranillo from Spain are on the hot list. But to meet demand, growers here must either bring in the plant material legally from out-of-state sources, which can be expensive, or wait the two years it takes to introduce a new variety. The process goes like this. First, Ballard procures clean plants, usually from Foundation Plant Service at UC Davis. Then, using a dissecting microscope, he snips a tiny tip of the plant, about the size of a grain of sand. In a tissue culture lab free of bacteria, yeast, and fungi (cleaner than a hospital operating room, he boasts) Ballard uses an autoclave to clean and sterilize the vials and nutrient mix into which the tips are inserted. By two weeks they are the size of a pinhead. By two months, the size of a pea. Once the plants are big enough to be moved to the greenhouse, they are again “cleaned” or indexed for viruses. After one year in the field, the plants are indexed again, and if they are clean, released to the nurseries. The nurseries then propagate the clean plants in order to fulfill demand.
Meanwhile, back at Prosser, the original is planted in the new “foundation-block” vineyard, its exact location detailed on the secret map, pulled out only when it’s time to finally cut wood—and deliver the long-awaited new variety to the state’s certified nurseries.
“This is really the only way we are going to survive,” stresses Wessels. “It’s a long-term strategy for an industry that is doing really well. We want to do everything we can to protect it.”