By now you know I am in the WWCC Enology & Viticulture program here in Walla Walla – this is a widely acclaimed program available through the community college since 2001. It has to happen that outside of Walla Walla I would run into graduates of the program and this was a delightful surprise when we visited Airfield Estates tasting room in Prosser, Washington.
As my partner in wine has been a pilot for many years this winery had to be visited, just so he could explore and know why the link to flying. We were getting the general spiel from our server and observing all of the large format images framed around the large tasting room dating back to early & mid-1900’s on when I mentioned my course of study to her. Marcus, owner and winemaker, was just wrapping up for the day so we had a fantastic visit with him. This is a family that began their journey to growing grapes and making wine a very long time ago.
If you know anything about the Northwest or history, you should know that there are a couple of very large rivers that have been dammed to create hydropower. This also provided irrigation water under the umbrella of the federal Water Reclamation District for the Columbia Plateau farmers. Nature provides very little rain in this high-dessert region but the soils are rich and deep, excellent for so many crops. In the 1930’s Don Miller, Marcus’s grandfather, was actively involved in the establishment of the Roza irrigation project, thus bringing water to Grandview/Sunnyside area. He then proceeded to plant about 20 acres in the mid 60’s, five acres each of four vinifera varietals obtained from cuttings from the Freemark Abby in Nappa Valley, with the guidance of Walter Clore, best recognized as the father of Washington’s Wine industry. These grapes were sold to home wine makers.
But what about the airfield reference? Well, that is what the family farm became during World War II – an airfield for the Airforce. In fact, the current offices out at the farm are in one of the old buildings left from that era. Mike Miller, Marc’s father, grew the original 20 acres of vinifera grapes to 750 acres in the 1990’s, selling most of the grapes to St. Michelle. That size vineyard in the 1990’s was larger than the town of Walla Walla!
As with most farm families: son left the farm, went to college and was not interested in returning despite lots of coaxing from his father. Marcus did return to the farm but hated the work directly related to farming. It wasn’t until he was exposed to the wine making side of the grapes that he found an interest, early in the new millennium as the WWCC EV program was just getting started. Marc had the pleasure of working with Stan Clarke, another major force in the early Washington Wine industry, as he taught viticulture for the program. The college vineyard is named for this man; you have heard me mention Stan Clarke Vineyards over the last couple of years many times.
Marcus graduated and worked for various wineries in Washington and New Zealand before returning to the family business again as wine maker in 2005. Airfield Estates released their first vintage in April of 2007. From 14,000 cases to 45,000 cases this has been a rapidly grown winery with several lines (Airfield, Airfield Runway, Flygirl, and Lone Birch) using primarily estate fruit.
Yes, we spent quite a bit of time visiting with Marc and I am pleased to have had the opportunity to see the successes of a graduate of my program. We wish him and his family well as they continue to help develop Washington’s Wine industry and Airfield Estates.
The wines are distributed quite widely, you may have already seen them in a store/shop near you. In the tasting room there were eight wines in the flight, three whites, a rose’ and four reds of which two were red blends. They are all very approachable wines, well-balanced, flavorful and true to the varietals with excellent price points (whites primarily in the $15-$25 range and reds $18-%30 range at the tasting room). Our choice to bring home was the 2012 Airfield Grenache. A medium-bodied, fruit forward wine bound by approachable tannins and acids with a great melange of flavors in the slightly extended finish.