Washington state is one of the world’s great wine-growing regions. We are the second-largest premium wine producer in the United States, with more than 900 wineries and 350 grape growers. Only California has more. We’ve come a long way since 1981, when there were only 19 wineries in the entire state. And we may not have achieved that leap without the work of an unpretentious scientist who was proclaimed the “Father of Washington Wine” by the state Senate in 2003.

Walter Clore was born in 1911 and raised as a teetotaler in Oklahoma, where he got his bachelor’s degree in horticulture. He graduated during the Great Depression, and jobs were so scarce he ended up sweeping the floors at an oil refinery for 25 cents an hour. After reading an article on the Grand Coulee Dam irrigation project, he decided the West offered better opportunities, and in 1934 he finagled a $500 horticulture scholarship to Washington State University. He and his new wife Irene started life in Pullman with just $5 between them.

Three years later, he got a job at the WSU Irrigated Agriculture Research Extension Center in Prosser. It was still fairly new, roughly 200 acres of barren sage land with an irrigation system and a patchwork of experimental fields. He and a few fellow scientists started working with vegetables and small fruits, including grapes. Clore didn’t set out to create a major wine industry, and he wasn’t a wine connoisseur, but as he worked with the vines, he became convinced that classic European wine grapes would grow in our climate, despite the fact that everybody else said they couldn’t because of our cold winters.

The first colonists to settle the New York area brought European vines across the ocean and tried to grow them, but failed. “Successive attempts were all failures until the 1960s. Invariably, the failed vineyards died from winter cold injury,” according to horticulturists at Cornell University. What they carried here was Vitis vinifera, an ancient family of vines originally from the Mediterranean region, brought to Europe by the Romans. It includes the most well-known wine grapes, like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Reisling, and hundreds of other varieties.

Chinook Winery Co-Owner Kay Simon says Clore “was the first to scientifically approach the question of growing Vitis vinifera in Washington.” She and fellow UC Davis graduate Wade Wolfe, co-owner of Thurston Wolfe Winery, were hired out of the renowned University of California viticulture program in the 1970s to work for Chateau Ste. Michelle, which operated one of the first large wineries in the state in Grandview. At that time, there were no educational programs for viticulture in our state. Clore was working as a consultant for the winery by the time she and Wade met him.

Clore drove Wade from vineyard to vineyard in his old pickup truck. “Walt was the one who spent the whole summer touring me around,” Wade remembers, “introducing me to the growers and wineries here and telling me what the strengths and weaknesses were as he saw it. That was a fabulous experience.” Kay and most everyone who knew Clore describe him as unpretentious and humble. Kay says he was “gentle, soft-spoken, and able to explain things very carefully and methodically.” Wade adds “He’d never say anything bad about anybody.”

By 1974, Clore and his WSU team had planted more than 300 grape varieties in all kinds of locations. Wade says “as a result of that, they published a series of papers, about how the vines were formed, their yields, all their maturity data, when they were harvested, how cold it got, how much winter injury, then the evaluations of the wines. They did preliminary quality evaluations, and as a result of that they came up with a series of varieties they felt would do well in this area.” Clore worked with WSU Food Science Professor Charles Nagel, who was the one who made the wines, says Kay. “In order for it to have scientific significance, you have to be consistent in the way you’re making those wines. Walt was about the grapes and vines, and Chas was about the wine.” They published their study, “Ten Years of Grape Variety Responses and Wine-Making Trials in Central Washington,” in 1976, and that meticulous research laid the foundation for Washington to become a wine powerhouse.

Washington wines began winning big competitions in the mid ‘70s, and at the same time writers began promoting them, and the industry started to explode. By the 1980s, Wine Country Magazine recognized Chateau Ste. Michelle as Best American Winery, and five Washington wines were ranked in Wine Spectator’s Top 100.

Clore retired from WSU in 1976, and consulted for Ste. Michelle until he was in his 90s. Kay, motivated by his enthusiasm, opened her own Chinook Winery in 1984. “He’d just pop into your vineyard — he’d just show up!” she says, laughing. Other winemakers report surprise Clore-sightings in their vineyards as well.

Wade says Clore had a near-photographic memory when it came to wine. “He had this tremendous history of this area and how the wine industry evolved. Every meeting and conversation he attended he could cite back to all these climate and temperature things. It was a great resource to have someone like him to advise each succeeding generation of people coming into this industry.” He died in 2003, just days before the state Senate proclaimed him the Father of Washington Wine, saying “Dr. Clore had the wisdom and foresight to envision Washington, particularly the Columbia Valley, as one of the best wine-making regions in the world when others said it was not possible.”

In 2014, The Walter Clore Wine and Culinary Center opened in Prosser, where Clore lived most of his life. It’s a beautiful, airy space with a view of the valley, a large tasting room, extensive educational displays about the history of wine in our state and the contributions of Walter Clore. It offers wine education classes for those in the hospitality industry, cooking classes, meeting rooms, and a space for large events like weddings.

They don’t make wine at the Clore Center. Instead, they focus on a different Washington wine-growing region, or AVA, every month, bringing in wines from such a diverse variety of wineries in that AVA that even industry experts are sometimes surprised, says Executive Director Abbey Cameron. “Compared to Europe, where it’s steeped in tradition and there are lots of rules about which wines you can grow, and what you can call them — Here, it’s so different. It’s just this complete and utter freedom … you can start up and grow anything you want.”

“One of the things that makes me smile is when we get an invoice for wine we’ve purchased and it’s like invoice 0004. We know that purchase means a lot to them. But the big guys appreciate it too, and we’ll feature them right next to that new wine.”

The Clore Center is one of only two of its kind in the nation, besides The New York Wine and Culinary Center, and it gets a lot of support from local wineries. “This is a very cohesive, supportive industry, there’s definitely a sense that a rising tide raises all boats. That’s kind of how the center came to exist. People saw the value of a central place to promote Washington wine to consumers,” Abbey explains. She gets a faraway look in her eyes when she talks about what Walter Clore means to her.

“There’s a heart and an authenticity to it. Even if you’ve never heard of Dr. Clore, and you come here from the East Coast, and it’s about wine — just the idea that there’s this humble guy; who you can get a sense of when you walk in the door — that makes it a little more personal for people.” Researchers are still using some of the vines Clore planted to this very day.

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