Samantha Hege (’12 Neurosci., ’16 Psych.) and Colton Smith (’16 Integ. Plant Sci.) are breathing new life into a historical vineyard on Washington’s southern border.
The couple learned about the Dallesport property from a family friend. Right away, Hege noticed the thickness of the trunks and the strength of the vines. “These are old vines, and not the kind of plants you usually see in an area dominated by pears, cherries, and apples,” she says. “To see vines that were five decades old was a fun surprise.”
So was discovering the vineyard’s ties to their alma mater.
Hege and Smith learned former owner Don Graves planted a test plot in the late 1950s with the help of “Father of Washington Wine” Walter Clore. Clore was a horticulturist at what’s now Washington State University’s Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser. He is credited with discovering Washington’s propensity for grape growing.
Once Graves’s test plot began producing, WSU research winemaker George Carter made wine from the grapes. In the 1960s, after seeing success, Graves planted a full 16-acre vineyard. Grenache, syrah, cabernet sauvignon, and riesling vines still stand on the property, which lies within a mile of the Columbia River.
“Our goal is to get the vineyard to the right place and start making wine,” says Hege, who first met Smith at The Coug while she was a WSU admissions counselor and he was an undergraduate student.
During lunch, the men at the next table—including Smith—invited her and a colleague for a drink. After that, she started seeing him everywhere on campus. Eventually he asked her out, bringing along a bottle of Napa Valley cabernet to their first date.
“I didn’t know wine could taste like that,” says Hege, noting it made her realize the wine world was much bigger than she had experienced.
Growing up in the agricultural community of The Dalles, she had worked cherry harvests. After his aunt and uncle bought a vineyard in Paso Robles, Smith, who grew up in Southern California, helped amid the vines, often following behind the harvest crew to pick what was left.
“After a few years, I realized, this is a pretty great lifestyle,” he says. “I’m outside in nature, the sun is shining, I’m listening to music, and the grapes we’re picking we’ll soon be drinking.”
Hege soon came to her own realization: working in the wine industry is the perfect collision of things she enjoys. “There’s the scientific technical aspect, the agrarian lifestyle, and the connection to the land,” says Hege, who transitioned to wine sales and marketing.
Soon, the couple followed grape harvests in Mendoza, Argentina, and Margaret River, Australia, returning to Napa Valley in between. Long days in the vineyard and at the winery meant they didn’t often see each other. He worked nights, and she worked days—at different establishments. But the overseas work “was really informative for us,” Hege says. “There are different challenges when it comes to weather, plant diseases, and pests.”
She later served as head of hospitality at Napa Valley’s Spottswoode Estate while Smith worked in production and winemaking at nearby Colgin Cellars.
Now, they are working with WSU’s Klickitat County Extension to learn local vineyard best practices and how to incorporate the latest viticulture and enology research into their farming regimen. They have partnered with an investor and put together a plan to revive Graves Vineyard and start winemaking on the estate.
“We are proud of Colton for accepting the wonderful challenge of rejuvenating a part of our history associated with Walter Clore and the Washington wine industry,” says food scientist Charles Gould Edwards, one of Smith’s favorite professors in WSU’s viticulture and enology program.
Jim Harbour (’99 Hotel & Rest. Admin.), scholarly associate professor in the School of Hospitality Business Management at Carson College, calls Smith and Hege “really hard workers” who both “thrive under pressure and intensity. I look forward to having an excuse to go taste wine in the Columbia Gorge.”
Smith and Hege plan to expand grape-producing acreage, build a winery, and eventually buy the property.
“It’s a five-year plan and, when we purchase the property, our sweat equity will be included,” says Smith, who—along with Hege—started making regular weekend visits to help with renovations beginning in November 2020. In June 2021, the couple moved to the property to work on the vineyard full time.
“We are both committed to organic, regenerative farming practices that will allow mother nature to speak clearly as the greatest force on this unique property,” Hege says, noting they plan to use most of the fruit from the 2021 harvest for small fermentations to help them better understand the terroir. They’ll use that information to adjust their farming practices and winemaking protocols to improve the quality of the fruit and the wine. They plan to release their first vintage later this year.
“I am very appreciative of my time at WSU, and all the great memories,” Smith says. “To be coming back to Washington state to renew a historic vineyard on the Columbia River is a blessing and extremely motivating.”