by Leslie kelly
Bill Powers didn’t get a lot of encouragement when he began exploring the possibility of growing grapes organically back in the 1980s.
“First thing I did was call the county extension office and ask who I could talk to about it and they told me there wasn’t a soul who could help me out,” said Powers, his soft accent showing his Southern roots.
Then, he connected with Walter Clore. The man who’s often referred to as the father of Washington wine assured Powers that he was making a smart move. “He said everybody was growing everything organically before 1949,” Powers recalled.
That initial encouragement was the beginning of a long friendship, planted on those first organic vines, but flowering out of mutual respect and shared background. Clore, whose groundbreaking growing trials at Washington State University jump-started the planting of vinifera grapes in the state, also hailed from Oklahoma.
“He had such charisma. If he had been a preacher, he would have been as big as Billy Graham,” said Powers, who started his wine industry career as a contract grower for Chateau Ste. Michelle before starting his own Badger Mountain and Powers Winery in 1988.
Powers agricultural roots go back to western Oklahoma, where he began farming when he was just 18. Ten years and one dramatic drought later, he started looking for greener pastures. He moved to the Columbia Basin in 1957 and became a fruit tree farmer. “Back then, plenty of people made a good living and sent their kids to college growing apples,” he said.
During a labor shortage, the newly developed mechanical grape harvester got Powers thinking about making a switch. “I went to the local library and looked up every winery in the state and sent them faxes asking if they’d be interested in buying grapes,” he said.
He bought 80 acres near Kennewick, attracted by its drainage and the proximity to good schools for his kids. His son Greg was 16 when Powers got into the wine business and almost 30 years later, he runs the place, producing 70,000 cases of a long list of varietals that are sold in 46 states as well as Japan and Great Britain.
While his son is the winemaker – “He’s the man,” said Powers – the 85-year-old father still comes into work every day. “My house is about 100 yards from the office,” he said.
But it’s in the vineyards that he feels most at home. With careful tending by Powers and two longtime employees, those organic vines have improved over time, he said. “We have a big advantage being in a desert, where you don’t have to worry about humidity,” Powers said. “And the pests that cause the most problems, the leaf hoppers and spider mites, well, they aren’t a problem because when you stop using chemicals to kill them, you stop killing the good bugs, too.”
One of the original members of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers, Powers was honored with a lifetime achievement award from that organization in 1997. In 2010, he was inducted into the Legends of Wine Hall of Fame at the Walter Clore Wine and Culinary Center, cited as an “organic pioneer.”
The Powers were also on the cutting edge of the move to put premium quality wine into alternative packaging. Its box wines have received shout-outs from The San Francisco Chronicle and on CNN.
When it comes to sipping a glass of wine or two with dinner, Powers said he drifts back and forth between Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon. But he wasn’t always a wine fan.
“The very first time I tried wine it was something awful like white port,” Powers said, laughing. “I couldn’t even look at wine without shuddering for about 20 years. I’m glad I learned to appreciate it.”
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