Always Growing

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STORY AND PHOTOS BY PAOLA THOMAS

dick-boushey (2 of 5)It’s a glorious late-September day on the slopes of Grandview in Washington’s beautiful Yakima Valley. A bright blue sky is streaked with wisps of cloud. Mount Adams and Mount Rainier gleam in the distance, and the hills all around are snuggled under a striped quilt of vineyards and orchards.

Shafts of morning light stretch down between the rows and highlight the ruffled leaves of the vines, whose branches are groaning with ink-dark fruit. Dick Boushey and his wife Luanne have been out with their crews since dawn, methodically bringing in the bounty of their 275 acres of vineyards and orchards. Dogs scamper between the rows, and crates of grapes stack up by the side of the dusty track. Dick darts between the trees and comes back with a couple of perfect apples. As he hands me one to me, the symbolism is not lost: We are in the Garden of Eden.

This paradise, though, is accessible by modern technology. Dick’s phone rings and pings constantly with requests and questions from some of the 40 winemakers who use his grapes, each keen to have their grapes harvested at the optimal moment.

The decisions that Dick makes on a daily basis have a profound influence on the wine we eventually pour into our glasses. Which varietals and clones to plant? Which slopes to plant on? Which soils and temperatures are best suited to which grape? When to pick? Harvest by hand or by machine? Dick’s five vineyard locations, which range in elevation from 800 to 1,400 feet and feature a diverse range of vineyard soils, are like an experimental laboratory for the whole Washington wine industry.

Outside of Walla Walla, Washington wine is unusual in that much of its production is split between the grape growers — many in the Yakima Valley — and the winemakers, located primarily in Woodinville. Each focuses on their own specialty, but work together in close collaboration.

If you have any interest at all in Washington wine, you’ve almost certainly tasted Dick’s grapes, although you may not be familiar with his name. His grapes are integral to many of Washington’s most critically acclaimed wines and are of such quality that several winemakers are now crafting single vineyard–designated Boushey Vineyards offerings.

Though Dick has been at the cutting edge of Washington’s wine industry for nearly 40 years, he still refers to himself simply as a farmer. Born in South Dakota, he grew up in Sumner and initially studied for a business degree and interned as a banker. But banking’s loss was the wine industry’s gain, when Dick’s father asked him to move to Grandview to take care of an apple orchard he’d purchased.

dick-boushey (1 of 5)“Originally I said I would stay for a year,” Dick says. “But I’m still here.” A few years after moving to Grandview in 1975, he met Luanne, who had moved there to take up a position as an art teacher.

Dick threw himself into learning basic horticulture. His studies soon took him to Washington State University in Prosser, just as Walter Clore, Chas Nagel, and George Carter – the founding fathers of the Washington wine industry – were publishing their research on the feasibility of growing European wine grape varietals in Washington.

“I was already interested in wine,” says Dick, “but their work hooked me on growing wine grapes.” He planted his first experimental block of grapes in 1977 and his first commercial blocks of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in 1980, three years before the Yakima Valley was recognized as an American Viticultural Area.

Although Dick now grows an astonishing 23 different varietals in his vineyards — as well as Rainier cherries and table grapes — it is his Syrah for which he is probably most renowned. After tasting a barrel sample from one of Washington’s first experimental Syrah plantings in 1988, he was one of the first to plant Syrah blocks in 1993, a move which helped cement Washington’s now world-class reputation for Rhone-style varietals.

Unlike in Europe and other more established wine-growing areas of the U.S., wine growers in Washington are not hidebound by decades — sometimes centuries — of rules and tradition. “This is a young wine grape–growing area,” says Dick, “so everyone is still trying to find the best way to manage the vineyards.”

Over the years, Dick has studied everything from plant physiology, soil science, and enology to managing vine diseases and pests. He continually experiments with new clones, new training systems, better water management, and even the distances between vine rows. “Understanding these disciplines and how they interact with each other within a vineyard is what is important to me. Just as wine-making is a blend of art and science, so is grape-growing.”

What is becoming increasingly clear to Dick, though, is that the soils and growing conditions in Washington are very special. “As I travel and learn about other great growing areas of the world I better appreciate how lucky we are to farm wine grapes in Washington.”

Grapes, Dick says, are both the most challenging and the most satisfying crop he has grown. “When you pick grapes, the journey is just beginning,” he says. “For other crops, it’s the end.”

 

dick-boushey (5 of 5)Over the years, Dick has made a conscious decision to work with small wineries and winemakers, most of whom do not have their own vineyards and many of whom like to take the same experimental approach to wine that he does. He wants winemakers to feel that they have a stake in the vineyard, and he works very closely with them to grow grapes that match the style of their wines. The winemakers, in turn, have a huge influence on the growing process. “There is a give and take on some decisions, but ultimately, we are both dependent on making good wine that will sell.”

Dick tempers his love of experimentation with a close eye on market trends, and although he enjoys the challenge of growing new varietals such as Picpoul, Marsanne, and Cinsault, he will only do so if requested by the winemakers. “Though,” he says wistfully, “there are a number of Italian varietals I’d like to try. I’ve always wanted to plant Vermentino.”

In a call-back to that long-ago business degree, Dick’s fascination with all facets of the wine business also extends to the marketing side. The industry has grown and changed significantly in Washington in the decades since Dick planted his first blocks, and he still likes to keep ahead of the trends. He stays in touch by serving on industry committees, interacting with clients, and talking to marketers, brokers, distributors, wine shops, wine and food writers, researchers, sommeliers, other growers, and suppliers.

A long-time wine connoisseur, he also tries wines from all over the country and the world. “It is very important to know what is going on elsewhere,” he says. “Learning how to make wine and appreciate wine has made me a better grower.”

But despite his outsize influence, Dick is still most at home in the vineyard, putting his problem-solving skills to the test. Even after what ended up being a challenging — though record-breaking — harvest due to the October rains, his enthusiasm remains undimmed. “I love being in the vineyard and actually farming,” he says. “It can be difficult when Mother Nature acts up, but I never tire of it.” He relishes the unpredictability, adapting to each season’s environmental conditions, and trying new approaches and techniques.

“To me, it’s the ultimate challenge to grow great grapes under all growing conditions,” he says. “One of my personality quirks is that I am never satisfied and always think I can do something better.”

 

Paola Thomas tells food stories through images, words and recipes and is often to be found with a glass of Washington wine by her side. See more of her work at paolathomas.com.

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