If someone had told a teenaged Michael Haig that his work in the vineyards was just beginning, he might have laughed himself right off the tractor.
“Viticulture is just farming, and a 16- or 18-year-old kid, spending your summer in a dusty, hot vineyard is not exactly your idea of a good time,” he says.
He vowed to let life take him far away from the family vineyard, studying economics and accounting instead of enology or viticulture. Yet the pull of the family business prevailed. Now, at almost 32 years old, Haig is the winemaker for Whitestone Winery.
He likes to boast that he’s been in the Washington wine business now half his life.
The Whitestone Winery tasting room is in Wilbur, a wheat town along Highway 2 west of Spokane as unlikely as any place to have oak barrels of red wines in waiting. But that’s only half of the story.
The Whitestone Winery vineyard grows 16 miles north of town above Lake Roosevelt in the Columbia River valley. It sits in the northeastern tail of the sprawling Columbia River viticultural area, and among the places pegged by Washington State University researcher Walter Clore, the father of Washington’s wine industry, as ideal for grape growing.
The 16-acre vineyard is near the huge granite outcropping known as Whitestone Rock, a lake landmark used by area tribes and early explorers.
Haig’s parents, Walter and Judy Haig, bought the land in the late 1980s, and among the things they got from the previous landowner was a document from the U.S. Geological Survey with suggestions about what crops might fare well. Haig said someone cracked a joke that it would probably say “wheat,” the most abundant crop in Eastern Washington.
“It actually said grapes,” Haig says.
The family’s research led them to find that early settlers had already tried it. An early vineyard near Whitestone Rock thrived until the Grand Coulee Dam created Lake Roosevelt in 1941. The vineyard disappeared beneath the water.
With the help of WSU researchers, the Haig family planted vines in 1994 and harvested grapes two years later. The cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot grapes were sold to winemakers in the Walla Walla valley – including L’ecole No. 41, Canoe Ridge and Walla Walla Vintners.
It wasn’t until 2001 that the Haig family decided they might like to try winemaking as well as wine growing. They kept a bit of the crop that year for themselves and in 2004 they opened the tasting room in Wilbur.
Haig says he never intended to become the winemaker for his family’s business, but in a way, that course was charted when he was a teenager. He’s not formally trained, but learned the job at the elbow of some of the state’s finest winemakers, studying winemaking on his own and through old-fashioned trial and error.
“The plan was to eventually go into the wine,” he says. “Having me become the winemaker … Well, that is just something that I grew into. I’m incredibly blessed that my parents had the patience with me.”
His father, Walter, trains accountants as his day job, but helps with wine blending. Haig’s mother, Judy, runs the Whitestone tasting room.
It took a few years for Whitestone to fulfill the contracts selling grapes to other winemakers, but since 1995 the crop has stayed put. Haig makes about 2,000 cases each year – more or less depending on the yield. They usually have about 200 cases each of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot, and they turn the rest into a blended red wine they call Pieces of Red.
Perhaps the hardest part of his job, though, is convincing people that they can make a Bordeaux-style red wine in Wilbur.
“I always like to point out that we actually sold our grapes to Walla Walla. So when you drank those wonderful wines from Walla Walla in the ’90s, you were drinking our fruit,” he says.
“The big thing for us is introducing people to our style. It is more of a European style … it is less fruit forward and more structured on the backside. They are designed to age very well.”
Validation for all of the hard work came last year, Haig says, when Washington CEO magazine heralded the winery’s 2002 merlot as the state’s finest. Critics selected it from blind tasting with hundreds of others. Other Whitestone wines have been honored as well, winning gold and silver medals in the Indy International Wine competition.
Haig gives the vineyard and its growing conditions most of the credit.
“I love the fact that Washington State can produce such a diverse signature types of wine,” Haig says.
“You have so many little pockets and microclimates created by the Columbia River and the terrain around here. One winery’s merlot can taste completely different from another winery’s merlot and both can be spectacular because of the terroir.”
At the Whitestone vineyard, officially the Lake Roosevelt Shores Vineyard, the lake provides a sort of air conditioning in the summer and gently keeps the fruit warm when fall’s frosts threaten.
The vineyard is cradled on three sides by water. While the hot summer sun is still warming the lake, air from the water keeps the fruit cool. When the air cools in the fall, the heated lake provides warmth for the ripening grapes.
The vineyard had a wonderful canopy of green leaves right up until harvest two weeks ago.
After wishing away the days during those testy teen years, Haig now has an admission to make: He looks for reasons to drive the dirt roads through the steep canyon to the vineyard.
“I love changing the oil on the tractor,” says Haig, who lives in cargo shorts and T-shirts and claims that he doesn’t own a tie.
What he’s learning now is patience.
“I’m harvesting this week but the wines won’t be ready for a minimum of two to three years,” he said recently. “As a young winemaker you want to see how those decisions that you make today are going to make a difference in the wines.”