Accidental Vintner

The experts said wine grapes won't grow in the Wenatchee Valley. Warren Moyles was just stubborn enough to try proving them wrong. When he did, beleaguered apple farmers got an alternative crop

by Andy Dappen

Among the sun-drenched hills of the Wenatchee River Valley east of the Cascade Mountains, in that region of Washington state that local PR firms dub “The Apple Capital of the World,” old-time orchardists are discovering the hard way what globalization means. With the bottom falling out of apple prices, some are pulling their old trees and planting new varieties, some are selling their orchards to land developers, and some have seen their farms go into receivership.

Thomas Friedman, in his book The World is Flat, would say the pinch on these orchardists is a byproduct of the phone cables and fiber optic wires connecting far and near corners of the world in real time. Just as the preparation of tax returns, reading of medical data, and operation of customer service centers can now be shuffled to cheaper labor centers, the orchardists of North Central Washington are witnessing how instant communication, immediate access to world prices, and next-day air deliveries from distant apple centers in China and New Zealand have flattened the profits they once enjoyed.

From his one-acre vineyard and his garage-shed winery surrounded by these same Washington apple orchards, Warren Moyles B.A.’54, M.A.’63 seems oddly disconnected from the flattening influences of international business. Maybe it’s because, officially, he’s retired and therefore should be unconcerned. But here in a place where apples have evolved from a one-time specialty crop into a fiercely competitive commodity, Moyles’ independent-minded efforts were a catalyst that spawned a regional viticultural niche market.

Moyles, it seems, has quite a flair for navigating life along avenues that are not quite parallel to the movements of most. His first career was devoted to education—he taught in Western Washington for 15 years before spending 20 years working as a principal at Defense Department schools in Germany, Italy, and Korea. His own children were born, went to school, and graduated abroad, and when they came to the United States for their college years, he and his wife, Julie, also returned. For three years, Moyles took a principal’s position in Okanogan, Wash. Then, in 1992, he retired to his sliver of land between the orcharding towns of Cashmere and Leavenworth. And this is where his second career has flourished.

It’s a career that launched without the benefit of premeditation. Looking for a hobby to occupy his retirement, Moyles began dabbling in an interest that dated back to the mid-1970s, when he had lived and worked in Tuscany. To complement that interest—and to stimulate his background in biology—he researched whether he could actually grow the grapes he needed for his homemade wines.

“At the time, no one was growing wine grapes in North Central Washington,” says Moyles. “I contacted the Washington State Extension Services to find out what kind of grapes grew here and was told the region was too far north, had late spring freezes and early fall freezes, and really wasn’t any good for grapes. They told me those who had tried had lost their vines to frost.”

Friends claim Moyles has a streak of stubbornness and, true to form, he didn’t accept this answer. “There was plenty of sunshine for growing grapes; I just figured strategies were needed for dealing with the freezes.” He bought vines from Inland Desert Nurseries, and, with the help of a backhoe, planted the stalks 36 inches deep to make sure they would be well insulated from frost—in a bad year he might lose a crop but he wouldn’t lose the plant itself. Then, over subsequent years, he developed a technique of pruning his plants into a fan-shaped arrangement with five stalks. In the event of a spring frost, he could prune back stalks that had been damaged and salvage the stalks that were not severely frozen. He also covered his stalks in late fall with dirt or snow to insulate them from the colder winters. In summer the grapes absorbed lots of sun, and, when they needed water, he flooded the surrounding soil for eight hours without wetting the plants themselves. “This gave the roots a deep watering without the risk of mildew affecting the plant.”

Rather than being too far north, Moyles discovered everything grew when the right techniques were employed. On his acre of ground he grew grapes for the making of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, pinot noir, lemberger, white riesling, sauvignon blanc, semillon, and gewürztraminer. With these grapes and others purchased from the Columbia Basin, Moyles started making many different Italian-style wines during the latter part of the 1990s.

“After six years of this, friends were telling me they liked what I made better than what they were buying. Why didn’t I sell it?”

The notion of sharing the fruits of his labor intrigued him, and he endured the cumbersome process of getting licensed. Borrowing from the name of the bed and breakfast he and his wife had built on their property, La Toscana Winery became the first commercial winery in North Central Washington in October of 2000. The locals were watching Moyles’ efforts with keen interest.

Peshastin orchardist Charlie McKee, for example, had been making wine for decades, and when he heard Moyles was successfully growing wine grapes, he paid a visit. “In 1998 or 1999 Warren got me interested in growing grapes. I planted three acres of riesling and lemberger. He got me going on this, he started the trend, and six months after he became the first commercial winemaker in the area, I opened Wedge Mountain Winery and became the second.”

Ed Rutledge of Eagle Creek Winery was another local who entered the game because of Moyles. “When I planted my grapes, Warren was there with his shovel to help. We’re discovering this is an exceptional place to grow grapes—our cool nights; warm, dry days; and our ability to control water through irrigation lets us produce exceptional fruit.” Rutledge watched with intense interest as Moyles got licensed and sold out his inventory of wine. “I figured if he can sell his, I can sell mine.”

Rutledge says Moyles is the grandfather of North Central Washington’s wine industry. “Before him there was nothing, now there are 34 or 35 wineries in the region, and every year another five or six new ones crop up.” Rutledge also credits Moyles with promoting the concept of an association of local winemakers. “He was one of the first to emphasize that by marketing North Central Washington as a wine region and by marketing together, we would do better than each going our own way.”

The Columbia Cascade Wine Association was the offshoot of these sentiments, and this marketing body has been very successful in branding North Central Washington as a wine destination. “ Warren ‘got it’ early on,” says Rutledge. “The more wineries we have, the more of a wine destination this becomes. … We all do better by working with each other.”

George Valison, the mayor of Cashmere and executive director of the Columbia Cascade Winery Association, sees the industry Moyles catalyzed as one of the economic salvations of the region. The local apple industry may be in decline, but the explosive growth and interest in regional wines is giving many a glimpse of future possibilities. “Visitors love coming because there is so much to do in the region, because we’re now producing good wines, and because we’re a collection of boutique wineries. The people pouring the wine for visitors are often the owners or winemakers of the operation.”

And the dollars visitors are infusing into North Central Washington are making a big difference in the local economy. Says Valison, “For every dollar these visitors spend on wine, they spend another seven on food, hotels, and other services. This has become a very important economic boon to the region.”

The numbers affiliated with the industry are rough, but the Port of Chelan County’s economic development department estimates the industry has created 138 direct jobs, an annual payroll of $3 million, annual sales tax revenues of $12 million, and capital investments in wineries (which does not include investments in vineyards) of $30 million.

While the expenditures and profits affiliated with the industry have exploded, Moyles’ slice of it has always been small. “Most of us have gotten caught up in the snowball—we’ve gotten bigger, busier, and invested more,” says Ed Rutledge. “But Warren opens his tasting room by appointment only and hasn’t worried about increasing his production. He’s stayed true to the original goals that got him into this … to enjoy himself, rather than to worry about the money.”

Moyles doesn’t entirely agree with that assessment. His original goals were to produce wines bearing his personal touch at every step of the process, savor all parts of the journey in producing his handmade wines, engage his network of senior friends in the fellowship of winemaking, and enjoy the selling of his wines with those doing the purchasing. However, last year the snowball of success had him producing estate wines with the grapes he had grown, non-estate wines with purchased grapes, and blended wines totaling some 400 cases. The 73-year old retiree, who is slowing down a little and doesn’t want to be overtaken by his own avalanche, says, “300 cases would have been better.”

Moyles doesn’t publicize how much money he’s making at the game but, for a retiree, he admits he’s doing surprisingly well. The rough economics of making a merlot, for example, pencil out as follows: 1,000 pounds of grapes, with transport costs, runs roughly $1,000. This produces a barrel of wine, which in turn will produce 25 cases of merlot that will retail for $160 to $200 per case. The cost of bottles, labels, and corks runs about $1 per bottle. Most wineries would need to factor in labor, but Moyles says his senior-friend network may be even cheaper than the offshore labor pools we hear so much about. “I pay them with a little wine, but we all do this because we’re having fun.”

All of which strikes at the heart of new paradigms about the flattening world. In the age of globalization, specialization, stringent cost-saving measures, technological solutions, and utilization of cheap work forces, almost everything about Moyles’ operation and the wine industry he spawned in North Central Washington cuts across the grain. It’s not particularly specialized. Moyles, for example, is a generalist who executes every task connected to his wines—he grows or purchases the grapes, designs the artwork for his labels, hand glues those labels onto the bottles, runs the small bottling machine that fills six bottles of wine at a time. Neither is his operation high-tech—for many years he processed his grapes by crushing them with his feet, and he hand dug the 12-foot by 12-foot wine cellar where he keeps his barrels of wine at a stable temperature. And then there are the geriatric pals he recruits when he needs manpower—it is, to say the least, an atypical labor pool.

But it appears that, within the context of the sterile environment where most businesses operate, niches like this can flourish because they offer what commodities cannot—a connection to people, a connection to the producer of a product, a touch of humanity. And, well, this particular niche also offers the feel-good buzz of alcohol.

People throughout Washington’s wine industry, whether they operate in the Columbia Basin, in the Walla Walla River Valley, or now in North Central Washington, indicate the human touch is, indeed, critical. Chuck Reininger ’82 of Reininger Winery in Walla Walla, says, “In this high-tech world of ours, we still need human connection. Little family wineries have personality … you can interact with vineyard owners and winemakers sharing a love for wine … it’s a way for people to form a connection.”

While Walla Walla and the Columbia Basin are arguably Washington’s best-known wine regions, North Central Washington is now on the map and coming of age. With 1.5 million tourists already visiting Leavenworth annually for its outdoor activities and Bavarian-like theme town, the wine industry adds fuel to the reasons to pay a visit.

Louie Wagoner was a struggling Peshastin pear orchardist who picked Moyles’ brain and converted 10 acres of pear orchards to vineyards. His Icicle Creek Winery became one of the early players in the region’s viticulture game. “He’s my mentor and the grandfather of this whole thing.” Wagoner gets choked up talking about it, “He’s the reason I’m here … maybe this whole regional industry would be missing without him. That’s pretty darn good for an old geezer.”

Wenatchee-based writer Andy Dappen has written for Sports Illustrated, Outside, Men’s Health, and other magazines.