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Made In The Northwest: Whitestone Wine

Published On: Feb 17 2012 02:55:13 AM CST   Updated On: Feb 17 2012 07:22:27 AM CST
WILBUR, Wash -

Washington continues to make a name for itself as one of the up and coming wine regions in the world. Now, Spokane is making its mark, with wineries and tasting rooms opening all the time. But, one winery just outside of Spokane is unique from the ground up.

If you blink when you drive through Wilbur, you just might miss it. But, tucked inside a converted old gas station, future celebrations are coming together. Here, Michael Haig creates barrels of wine under the Whitestone Wine label.

Haig is in charge of what goes into and comes out of dozens of barrels and tanks that fill the warehouse. It's his family business, poured into a glass.

"One will be our St. Vincent blend which is a high end red wine blend we do, named after St Vincent of Saratoga, who is the patron saint of winemakers," says Haig, as he points to one of the tanks that's about to be bottled.

Haig clearly loves his job. In fact, he says wine is like baseball cards for adults. Winemakers and drinkers love to trade and collect bottles of wines they love - and, like baseball cards, show them off to our friends.

But, Haig is proof that while wine is celebratory and often ceremonial, being a winemaker isn't always glamorous. He blends the wine, bottles it up, puts on labels and even secures the corks the rest of us will unscrew later. But, this small tasting room is not where the magic of Whitestone comes together.

To see what makes this wine unique, you have to travel down a rural road with only a few road signs here and there. Pass a turn-of-the-century church and some windswept wheat fields and you're finally there.

"This is my office," Haig says, pointing to the dramatic landscape around him. His office is the vineyard where Whitestone grows all of its grapes. Steep basalt cliffs line the edge of the vineyard, which also overlooks Lake Roosevelt.

"I don't think there's any vineyard in the world that looks like us," Haig explains.

Every piece of the geography here makes Whitestone taste the way it does. The fog keeps the grapes from freezing in early fall; the basalt cliffs protect the fragile fruits from ripening too quickly or freezing before harvest. The Cabernet franc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes were all planted in certain regions to get the perfect amount of sunlight when they need it most.

"When the sun's almost at its hottest around 4-4:30, the sun goes behind these cliffs," Haig says. "So, you still have the heat and the basalt rock will be radiating heat, but, you're not getting the hot afternoon sunlight directly on the plants."

Why this spot? Turns out, it's perfect for growing wine grapes. And, don't take Haig's word for it. Washington State University viticulturists proclaimed it so in the 1970's. While most Spokane wineries get their grapes from the Yakima Valley, Whitestone grapes grow just down the road from where they'll be bottled. This is truly a family operation, started by Haig's parents in the 1990's. The vineyard itself was cultivated by his classmates in the Gonzaga Prep class of 1994.

"A bunch of my classmates and myself came up here and spent spring break planting the vineyard - and, a lot of them will never forgive me because it rained all week long."

Now, Haig largely goes it alone. Right now, he's carefully pruning every vine. It's the less glamorous side of wine making, but to Haig, it's the most crucial.

"You pretty much set the quality of your fruit this time of year," Haig said. "Even though harvest is 6-8 months away, what we do in the next month and a half will determine the quality if the fruit that we do."

While the vineyard is beautiful even in the dead of winter, you don't have to drive all the way out to Wilbur to taste Whitestone Wines. You can sample and buy at their tasting room in downtown Spokane. They just moved into a new location this month at 8 North Post. In addition to the traditional Cab Franc, Cab Sauv and Merlot, Whitestone makes special blends a couple of times a year, including the Valentine-themed Love You to Pieces on sale now. Pieces on Earth is a holiday favorite and the black cat on the bottle of Scared to Pieces signals Halloween is near.

The tasting room and the neighboring Cougar Crest Winery tasting room show how much the Spokane wine industry is thriving. Haig sees new wineries and tasting rooms not as competition, but as something that's good for the industry as a whole to put Spokane wines on the map.

It just goes to show, you don't have to look for Napa or Bordeaux on a bottle of wine to know it's good. Next time, just look for Wilbur instead.