Pioneers on the Royal Slope
in Washington

Edited by Erin Parker

On a late August afternoon, from a perch at about 1,500 feet above sea level, amongst the viognier vineyard rows, I was awestruck by the surrounding greenery that stretched as far as I could see. The landscape, seemingly, without the benefits of consistent irrigation would be something entirely less awe-inspiring.

Successful agriculture is very young in this part of Washington and its existence at all is a result of the Columbia Basin irrigation Project (CBP). The original capacity of the irrigation project was for more than a million acres. Today, less than 70% has been realized. Estimates are that two percent of the Columbia River’s average annual flow at the Grand Coulee dam is diverted to provide water for the CBP.

My tour guides, vineyard owners, Josh and Lisa Lawrence, credit the success of the CBP as the reason farmers returned to the Columbia Basin. The Basin is defined by the US Army Corps of Engineers as an area of roughly 671,000 acres in the center of Washington. The area encompasses the Columbia Plateau, which was recognized by pioneer farmers as having agricultural potential because of its rich and fertile soil. However, with average annual rainfall less than 20 inches, mostly in snowfall, dryland farming proved to be extremely hard and broke most of those who tried.

The Federal Reclamation Service investigated the irrigation potential of the Columbia Basin area as early as 1904, but prioritized other projects along the Columbia River for hydroelectric power projects. Enter the Grand Coulee Dam. Politicians, including President FDR, pushed for the dam and it was completed in 1941. Its companion irrigation project, the Columbia Basin Project, was authorized by Congress in 1935 and again in 1943. In 1952, after the retrofitting of the dam’s third turbine, irrigation water began to flow into the CBP canals.

With the new irrigation water came enterprising pioneer farmers. John Lawrence heeded his brother Sandy’s call and left Hoquiam, WA, to bust the ground within the CBP.

They staked their family’s interests to an area known as Frenchman Hills on the Royal Slope, near Royal City. For 40 years, the brothers grew apples and cherries while experimenting with key agricultural products such as grain, alfalfa, silage, dry beans, beets, potatoes, seed and cattle. Over time the Lawrences were able to grow their farm into a sizable 3000 acres.

Remember my tour guides? Josh is John’s son. He grew up on the

family farm helping with chores and field work until the day he left for college. He earned a degree in finance and met Lisa at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma. He didn’t return to the farm right away. Josh embarked on a career in Seattle importing and marketing wine while Lisa put her public relations degree and skills to work in the heady dot com days of the late 90s. But, once a farm boy, always a farm boy. In 2001, the couple moved to Royal City to partner with John and Sandy and energize the family enterprise.

Josh insisted on planting wine grapes. The farm’s location on the south side of Frenchman Hills was ideal for their vineyard. In 2003 they planted wine grapes and had their first harvest three years later. Gård Vintners was born. Today they produce varietals including Riesling, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Roussanne, Viognier, Pinot Gris, Grenache and Pinot Noir.

Josh and Lisa certainly aren’t the first to have a successful vineyard in Eastern Washington. Folks in the Columbia Valley – Yakima, Red Mountain and Walla Walla – have a 40-year head start on them. But the drive is alive with Josh and Lisa to push on into uncharted territory. The couple have adeptly attracted talented and experienced professionals in winemaking, viticulture and farm management. Together they are consistently experimenting with lower-impact, sustainable and organic farming principles while organically certifying many of their farm products.

“Diversity helps keep the cash flowing throughout the entire year,” said finance-minded Josh. About a third of their cultivated land is in apples and cherries started by his dad and uncle. Another third of the farm is in row crops and the final third is in wine grapes.
Josh’s financial education is by no means wasted on driving tractors and picking fruit.

The farm operates like a small city complete with over 32 miles of maintained gravel roads; a network of underground water piping, pumps, canals, ditches and drains; and, housing for the more than 150 employees who work the land alongside the Lawrence family. Lisa’s communications education is not wasted either. The mother of three directs Gård marketing operations and manages the company’s three tasting rooms (located in Ellensburg, Walla Walla and Woodinville). Her efforts have resulted in garnering a national following and recognition for their current wines.

Many Americans have an agrarian past – maybe stretched a bit thinner these days, but not farther than about 3 or 4 generations. The Royal Slope’s agrarian past extends only from the early 1960s. That’s just one lifetime. The Lawrences and those like them are true pioneers in every sense of the word.

Wine Co. & Distillery

Though sunglasses, we gazed east over the bed of three-foot tall wormwood plants, on a July mid-afternoon, looking out towards the hilly, tilled fields where a cover crop had been planted. I agreed that the rolling hills reminded me somewhat of the topography of New York’s Finger Lakes region from which my host, Tad Seestedt, owner and founder of Ransom Wine Company & Distillery, spent his formative years. The farm itself is just outside the one-horse town of Willamina, a stone’s throw from Sheridan along highway 18 in the Willamette Valley of Northwest Oregon. The Finger Lakes region of central New York, I recalled, was much more lush this time of year with green crops of everything (cont. next column)

Wine Co. & Distillery
cont . .

that reminded me of summer’s bounty – sweet and field corn, timothy hay, alfalfa, melons, apples and grapes. ßTad’s farm was neither green nor lush. He explained that the growing season is reversed here in the foothills of the Coastal Range of Oregon where he has been growing as much barley organically as he can on the 40 acre plot he acquired in 2008. The normally rainless summer is muchtoo arid a climate for the barley that he adds to his mash bill in the alembic pot stills that are housed in the barn behind us. Fall and winter rains bring the moisture the barley needs to thrive. So, the barley is planted in the fall and harvested in mid-summer. A cover crop of nitrogen-fixing grass that later gets plowed back into the soil is planted in rotational years.

Tad grew up on the family farm in New York where short growing seasons and harsh snowbound winters eventually drove him away to college and work in New York City. The corporate paralegal work he was doing there, however, did not engage him nearly as much as the city’s wine culture. Rejecting his cubicle life-work, he made the leap to the west coast calling Seattle his home for a short time fully desiring a life in the wine industry. Not long after, he was attracted to the Willamette Valley for its agricultural foundation and landscape reminiscent of where he grew up – but with a milder climate. Cold-calling on the Oregon wineries at the time as he looked to gain real working knowledge in growing vines and making wine, he was able to piece together work with wineries such as Amity and Argyle in the early 1990s.

By 1997, Tad was able to launch his own spirits and wine operations. Because craft spirits distilling was brand new to Oregon in the early 1990s, the mystery intrigued Tad. So his first products were brandies, grappa, and eau de vie, in addition to the wines he was producing from purchased fruit. He continued to work in other wineries as he simultaneously started up Ransom. A collaboration with long-time friend and author, David Wondrich, produced a spirit that was able to pay off – Ransom’s Old Tom Gin – an aged gin that was in a sense an old world tradition with a modern new world twist. With Wondrich’s research Tad was able to collaborate on other spirits too. For example, the Emerald 1865 Whiskey, takes a traditional mash bill dug up from Ireland’s 1800s. Oats in the mash bills of the day was more prevalent compared to mostly barley used in todays.

In 2008, Tad was able to purchase the forty acres that we were standing on that July day, where he has returned to his farming roots. There, he has been able to combine all of his operations. He has wine vines and barley growing as well as botanicals making many of his products truly farm to bottle. Much of what he purchases comes from the Willamette Valley terroir as well. His barns onsite further warehouse his aged products.

Unfortunately, today the “farm to table” moniker has lost some credibility as it is misused or abused by marketing claims that just do not reflect that all aspects of production are overseen or otherwise grown by the brand behind it. Tad’s spirits, many of which we proudly serve, are truly top notch examples of what farm to bottle can and should be about.

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