Wine, Salmon and Whisky Trading

Here’s a story about salmon, wine, and watching the water flow. It’s about how to find a site for a vineyard. It’s about how to get the land to speak. Or how to speak for it. It goes like this. East of the Cascades, the Columbia River leads from the desert to the snow. It does it over and over in each of its tributaries, including the Okanogan, the Yakima, the Naches, the Wenatchee, the Methow, the White Salmon, the John Day, and the Similkameen. All of them rise from the desert into the mountains, and in each of them a different population of salmon and a different nation of indigenous people once thrived. Many of those salmon rivers eventually became fruit-growing rivers, on the principle that water flowing into the desert could turn it into the Garden of Eden…

The Horse Heaven Hills, Kiona, Washington

Why, it seems that wild horses once roamed the hills up top, where farmers now plant wheat in a herbicide bath. Wild horses? Well, ok, the horses of the Yakima Nation, given a bit of freedom up there in the grass.

And so in the 1970s, the desert that was never a desert was planted and brought to fruit, with Canadian water. In Washington parlance, this is called “Reclamation”. Oh, it was very Biblical, this idea of returning the wasteland outside of the Garden to the fruitfulness of God’s First Earth, and the Canadians signed their water over in return for good old political cash, but it was still a dumb idea. Take a look at what happened to the Garden, the Water, the whole darned thing…

Red Delicious Orchard, Kiona

Going back to the horses!

We could have saved ourselves a whole lot of effort by actually paying attention to the land. The hills outside of Kiona are prime vineyard land now, on the principle that if grapes like heat, more heat is better, and in Kiona, if nothing else, it is hot. You can’t fry an egg on the sidewalk in Kiona, because there are no sidewalks, but you sure can get a hamburger down the hill in Benton City that tastes like it was fried on the deck of a semi-trailer. The wines of Kiona are predictably big and hot and, well, one-dimensional. This is a no-brainer. This is the mouth of the Yakima River, not its headwaters, which is where the salmon were off to in the long ago. Here’s a different headwater system, high above the Columbia:

View over Lake Wapato and Joe Creek Valley, Manson, Washington

This is the high country of Lake Chelan, where the lakes cool the vines that are beginning to replace the red delicious orchards, and the mountain weather cools the lakes.

Forget the heat. Plant your grapes here. The Chelan Valley was an independent ecosystem for the salmon and an independent ecosystem for the Chelan Nation. Go where the salmon go. They need cold water, cold air at night, deep lakes, and good gravel. So do grapes. Here’s another view of the Chelan country, kind of as a salmon might see it coming home:

Where the Desert Meets the Sky

Looking up to Lake Chelan from the bed of the Columbia River north of Wenatchee.

Dynamic landscapes make dynamic wine. This…

Rattlesnake Ridge, Washington, at End of Day

Squeezed between the industrial vineyards of Kiona and Prosser and the mothballed nuclear reactors of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, it’s overgrazed and is washing away in the slight rain and the mighty winds.

…is good for horses and snakes, what few survive after decades of neglect. The Similkameen River, which rises in the Cascades near Mount Baker, wanders north into British Columbia, then seeps back into Washington again at Chopaka, teaches the same lesson as the Chelan country…

The Similkameen at  Rich Bar

That’s Chopaka Mountain (left) and Hurley Peak (right) in the background.

This isn’t rocket science. As the valley twists and turns, exposing different soils and old gold and silver mines to the light, it holds the promise of many small vineyard properties. Everything that the grapes need is being done by the land. Instead of technology, we just need to look, and see. After all, the great vineyards of Europe were planted in just this way. Know where you are. Pay attention. Follow the path of the water and the light. Here’s the only vineyard planted to date on the American stretch of the Similkameen:

Vineyard, Oroville, Washington

Sadly, the need to compete industrially has driven these folks to mowing off their vines mid-season to control their growth…cutting off just those growing tips that do most of the sugar production for the vines. That’ll work in Kiona, where the goal is to reduce the sugar and to try to get some shade on the berries, low down. Not here. Here the sun is in balance. Such tricks break that cycle of respect.

I have my fingers crossed that these people will figure it out, the way their neighbours have…

Sumacs, Oroville

Where these things grow wild, grapes should do well, too. 

The appropriate technology for growing grapes is the land. Everything else is just a way to honour that relationship. In fact, that’s the point. Everything else is just whisky trading.

3 replies »

    • Me too! I thought it was going that way, but then it kinda darted off. But you’ve convinced me: back to the salmon, for sure. They are my heroes. After all, of the three books that this blog is leading towards, one is about those fish. Hopefully I’ll have something for you next week.


  1. I look forward to it! (and your books). I’ve also been thinking about salmon, watersheds and the human institution known as the nation. Although, I have to say, my salmon darted off into the realm of queer sexualities, so you never know where you’re going to end up when you follow salmon.


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