Dust rose up and enveloped the orange hood of my Datsun B-210 as I parked the car in front of a large outbuilding. In one hand I clutched a copy of Esquire magazine. Just then, another car pulled up. The driver stepped out into the afternoon sun and stared at me. He was also holding a copy of Esquire.
This stroke of serendipity in 1978 had less to do with divine intervention than it did with an abiding affection for Esquire. I had driven over from Mount Vernon while the other guy was from Seattle. We had both come across an article by Roy Andries de Groot, a well-respected food and wine writer who, after losing his sight during the blitz of London in 1940, decided to devote his life’s work to writing about culinary masterpieces and exceptional wines. In Esquire, De Groot had declared to wine enthusiasts from France to California that Hinzerling Winery, nestled in the farming community of Prosser, was producing “world-class wines.”
Curious to see what was inside, I entered the building. Instead of finding a tasting room with tables and comfy sofas, I felt I had walked into an auto repair shop. Rather than marble flooring, my shoes touched something less divine — a concrete slab.
Suddenly the room exploded with sunlight as Mike Wallace, Hinzerling’s winemaker, made a dramatic entrance. He shook our hands and welcomed us with a warm smile. Seeing us gripping tightly to our copies of Esquire, Wallace figured we were another hapless pair of “wine nuts” from the westside. With a quick move, Wallace stepped over to an old, battered refrigerator and flipped open the door.
Imagine my surprise when the refrigerator tilted crazily forward and jettisoned several bottles of the prized wine. Somehow my fellow wine taster and I were able to catch the bottles before they exploded on the unforgiving floor. We laughed at our good fortune and were soon treated to colorful tales by Wallace of his pioneering efforts at making wine in the Yakima Valley. As many others would happily discover over the years, Wallace is as renowned for his storytelling as he is for his wines.
While studying in the early 1970s at the University of Washington, Wallace had already set his sights on making wine in Prosser. But where to learn more about the craft of wine making? That led him to Dr. Walter Clore, widely regarded as the “father of Washington wine.” At the time Clore was busily at work tending to varieties of European wine grapes at the Washington State University experiment station in Prosser. Clore’s advice to Wallace: head south to California and enroll in the wine program at U.C. Davis.
Wallace returned and began planting chardonnay, merlot and cabernet sauvignon north of Prosser in what is now the Kestrel View Estate Vineyard. According to the Great Northwest Wine website, these vines are some of the oldest in the state.
In 1976, Wallace uncorked his first bottle at Hinzerling Winery.
How De Groot discovered Hinzerling is, as they say, another vintage Wallace tale. It turns out a columnist with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer had become fascinated with the nascent wine industry in the Yakima Valley and arranged De Groot’s trip a year after Wallace had opened Hinzerling.
Following a tour of the vineyards, Wallace treated the author of Feasts for All Seasons to dinner inside the winery’s garage. Yes, no candelabra or white linens to honor Esquire’s celebrated columnist. Haute cuisine may be fine for those dining along the Champs-Elysées in Paris, but not Hinzerling Road in Prosser.
Wallace described De Groot as an inquisitive and chatty guest, who didn’t mind referring to himself as Baron de Groot.
“His stately presence, English accent and imperious manner perhaps contributed as much to his reputation as a man of taste, as his culinary expertise,” the New York Times noted in his obituary on Sept. 18, 1983. The 73-year-old De Groot died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound after becoming depressed due to failing health.
When talking to Wallace recently, I mentioned how De Groot and I had crossed paths again. After retiring four years ago, I tried out for a play at the Warehouse Theatre. Written by Yakima playwright Kurt Labberton, Dinner/Music revolved around a group of friends attempting to recreate a dinner party that Cole Porter, songwriter and fabled socialite, once hosted in 1947 for King Edward VIII and his American divorcee, Mrs. Wallis Simpson. The writer, who later lavishly described the feast, was none other than Roy Andries de Groot.
How’s that for a wild coincidence, I told Wallace. We both laughed loudly, the same kind of outburst we shared 36 years ago when Wallace’s world-class wines came tumbling out of his fridge.