On Saturday, June 22, oenophiles (wine enthusiasts) gathered at Spokane’s Fox Theater for an event cosponsored by Washington State University Spokane. “Savor the Columbia” was heralded as a festival of wine, food and fun, with Washington winemakers and restaurateurs serving up samples of their best wares. But there was also purpose to the party.

One purpose was to promote the “Fix the Fox” campaign, a drive to raise funds to restore the once elegant downtown movie palace, now a victim of neglect. The second purpose was twofold — raise funds for two WSU programs (viticulture and enology, and hotel and restaurant administration) and promote the rising and successful Washington wine industry. Twofold because the industry will look to graduates from the WSU viticulture program to help sustain and prosper this asset to the state economy.

Young but determined

Anyone looking at the Washington wine industry 30 years ago could hardly be criticized for discounting the tiny youngster. But as time progressed, the vintners, ever increasing in number, were determined to prove that Washington wines could be “world class.” (The premier issue of “Washington State Magazine,” November 2001, details the history and determination of Washington’s wine entrepreneurs.)

In the ‘90s, Washington winemakers were winning national and international competitions, even against some impressive industry veterans. Jim van Loben Sels, general manager of Arbor Crest, isn’t surprised. He said that, after 35 years, established Washington vines are just hitting their stride.

“The Washington wine industry is focused on quality,” he said, and admits that a scientific approach to managing the industry will play a strategic part now and in the future.

Jim’s wife, Kristina Mielke-van Loben Sels, is Arbor Crest’s winemaker and representative exhibiter at “Savor.” “Washington is still young,” she commented. “We’re still learning what to grow, where.”

Helping growers/producers learn and “scientifically manage” is where WSU comes in with the viticulture and enology program.

So the “Savor” event was almost like a victory announcement to the public — Washington had proved its point.

Celebrating success

Jay Soloff, an owner/partner in one of the newer enterprises, DeLille Cellars, offered a perspective of this point that seemed typical of the exhibiters. “We want to make the best wine,” he said.

An in“sip”id statement? Not when you fully realize what he means.

American wines typically want the varietal label (cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay) as a denoter of quality and to get it, the wine must be 75 percent from the specified grape.

But DeLille follows a time-honored tradition from Bordeaux, France. The winemaker, Chris Upchurch, emulates the “flavor profile” of great Bordeaux wines then intentionally blends the quality presses of a number of varietals to fit the profile. DeLille wines have a proprietal rather than a varietal label.

Other vintners aren’t necessarily following suit with proprietary blends. Varietals were in the majority at “Savor.” Rather, this illustrates an attitude of pride and artistry common to all the Washington exhibiters — make the best wine.

So in the pleasure of swirling, sniffing and tasting some first-rate reds and whites — and chatting the jargon: appellation, vitis vinifera, terroir, tannins, brix, nose, legs — patrons and supporters got their chance to enjoy the success of a state industry that is decidedly on its way up and is already relishing the view from the heights.

And in paying the $75 per person/$130 per couple fee for the privilege of joining in on the celebration, they also helped the Fox get some of the money it needs to reverse the effects of time and perhaps restore its fortunes. At first tally, about $10,000 had been raised for the theater.

What am I bid?

But celebration was not all that the exhibiters had in mind. Some of the cellar owners — such as Arbor Crest, Preston, Gordon Cellars, and Book Walter — are or have been associated with WSU. And they, like other growers/producers have supported the expansion of the university’s viticulture and enology program. Considering the detrimental effects of recent state budget cuts on some college courses, they and WSU hoped to raise private money to help pay for this program that is likely to benefit Washington vintners.

Thus the auction, displayed and conducted from the Fox theater stage. The auction packages were sumptuous: Giant bottles of wine — formerly known by biblical names like “jeroboam” and “methuselah,” denoting volume — the dark glass of which is so skillfully hand-decorated they look like works of art; vacation, “evening out” and restaurant packages; baskets of wine, glassware and assorted gifts; even a customized, in-home wine-tasting party and an autographed WSU Cougar football.

Kaarin Appel, WSU Spokane event coordinator, reported that 200 attendees participated in the auction, a good number for a first-time event. She said that by evening’s end, supporters had contributed over $8,000 through their bids.

The future looks ‘rosé’

Kristina Mielke-van Loben Sels enthusiastically defends the state industry, which is currently number 2 in the nation. “The future (of Washington wines) is incredible,” she exclaims. “We have the vines, the climate and the value.”

Jamie Peha, director of Marketing and Promotions for the Washington Wine Commission, agrees with Kristina’s assessment. She says the commission is working toward “‘branding’ Washington as a wine state, as a premier wine region of the world.”

She sees WSU’s new program partnering with growers/producers to promote and unify the industry from vineyard to market. The commission also contributes funds to the WSU program.

“The future is limitless,” asserts Peha about Washington wine, which she says has tremendous momentum, foresight and education. “It’s a contagious industry that will greatly benefit the state.”