Clark County Coup
Decades-old vines revitalized as White Dog Farm
By Viki Eierdam
On a south-facing slope in La Center, Washington, Pinot Noir vines have been growing for 32 years. Some years yielded a good crop, while others less than stellar. Now, under the care of one industrious couple, they are thriving, and all fruit from the 2015 has processed or sold.
Planted in 1983 by Liane McIntyre, La Center Vineyards is changing hands once again. Kevin and Kristi Kotrous, who’ve renamed it White Dog Farm, are the guardians of 5,280 Pinot Noir vines — clones include Wädenswil and Pommard, among others.
Vines in La Center can be traced back even further to 1971, when Joan Wolverton began planting winegrapes on her property, Salishan Vineyards — the winery ceased operation in 2006. In addition to her own estate, she sourced Pinot Noir from what is now White Dog Farm.
Others bought fruit from the vineyard as well, including the late Carl D. English Sr., founder of English Estate Winery. In his 1980 book (revised in 2006), “Winegrowing in Clark County, Washington,” English wrote, “This vineyard has proven it has great potential and, in its best years, produced up to 20 tons, which were sold to Columbia Winery, Facelli Winery and others. The vines are well-established with sturdy trunks and are head-pruned with vertical shoot positioning.”
The care of these legacy vines has passed onto capable hands, albeit ones in need of expert grapegrowing advice. Kevin, raised in Nebraska, spent many summers working alongside his grandfathers, tending to a variety of crops — wheat, corn, cattle. Kristi’s been adept at driving a tractor since she was quite young, as her La Center family tree dates back to 1885.
Moving onto the property four years ago did not inspire an immediate desire or need for the Kotrouses to take over maintenance of the vines. Over the past several years, an area winemaker had held a long-term lease on the fruit, but other responsibilities kept him from dedicating enough attention to tending them on a regular basis. Regardless, Kevin and Kristi found themselves watching, reading up on grapegrowing and volunteering to help with harvests and other chores.
At that point, the couple decided to take the plunge.
“Not knowing anything about it, I knew I needed to call someone who did,” Kevin said. “I was told to call Walt [Houser, owner of Bethany Vineyard & Winery in Ridgefield], and he said, ‘Do it. Do it. Do it. You’ll have a great time.’”
A 90-minute phone call with Houser solidified Kevin’s decision. Mark Gibbs, senior agronomist with Oregon Vineyard Supply, surveyed the grapes and made recommendations for a spray program. On Feb. 25, the Kotrouses were ready to clear the ground, replace posts, repair wires, cut back trees and replant a section in the southwest corner of the vineyard where deer had taken up residence.
Pruning plump clusters was a defining moment for them both. Kristi said, “That was the hardest part for me because we thinned probably one-third of our fruit, but it paid off.”
White Dog Farm sold this year’s bounty to nearby Pomeroy Cellars and Rusty Grape Vineyards; a yet-to-open Ridgefield winery; a student from Walla Walla Community College’s enology and viticulture program who founded Eternal Wines in 2014; and a home winemaker from Chicago.
Rusty Grape, located in Battle Ground, Washington, has grown steadily since opening in 2006, with an almost 70-ton harvest last year. Owners Jeremy and Heather Brown chose to support White Dog Farm in its first year because, according to Jeremy, “It is a link to the past but very much a part of Clark County’s future.”
He added, having access to 32-year-old vines is amazing and crafting that into a Southwest Washington Pinot Noir is an exciting proposition. This sentiment also rings true for Dan Brink, winemaker at one-year-old Pomeroy Cellars in nearby Yacolt, Washington.
“I looked at the vineyard in May and got excited by the age of the vines and the possibility of the depth of flavor you may get from vines of that age,” Brink said. “You won’t find many vineyards, even in the Willamette Valley, let alone in Clark County, that are that old.”
The major challenge for the Kotrouses, in regard to their location in Clark County, is the lack of an AVA (American Viticultural Area). They’re hoping that, by committing to preserve this piece of wine history, great vintages made from it will bring them one step closer in that process.
Employing a strong fall fertilization program, predictions for full vineyard capacity are as near as 2016, according to Kevin, and beyond that, he has his eyes set on a small label of their own with the expertise of a consulting winemaker.
The significance of what they’ve inherited is beginning to register for the Kotrouses .
“I don’t think we realized the gravity of [owning 32-year-old vines ]. To be the custodians of them is a privilege,” Kristi said. “I think these are showing that they’re pretty productive still, and, with good care, they should produce for a lot of years to come.”
Viki Eierdam is the wine columnist for The Columbian and a freelance writer. She lives in Battle Ground, Washington.