On March 22, 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the Cullen-Harrision Act, legalizing the manufacture of beer and wine. The U.S. Alcohol Tax Unit — forerunner of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) — then issues Washington’s first post-Prohibition winery permit to Charles Somers, owner of the St. Charles Winery on Stretch Island. Somers, who has been growing distinctive Island Belle grapes in Mason County for nearly 15 years, hires a French winemaker to oversee the first crush, which yields 3,000 gallons of wine. Thus is born the modern wine industry in Washington state.
Pioneers of the Vine
Lambert Evans’s story is a classic tale of pioneering spirit. Newspaper accounts differ on some details, but this much is known: Evans (1842-1917) was a farmer who grew grapes, walnuts, and tobacco on a patch of land in his native Florida. He fought for the Confederate Army during the Civil War. Some accounts claim he wearied of the conflict and deserted; a Seattle Times story says he was captured by Union soldiers and held as a prisoner in St. Louis. After the war, Evans did an about-face and started walking west, all the way to California. “‘I just started walkin’ and walked ’til I reached the ocean,'” he was said to have said (“Grapes To Front …”). From California, Evans made his way to Washington Territory. Paddling around Puget Sound by rowboat, he came upon Stretch Island and homesteaded 160 acres. Here he built a home, planted fruit and nut trees, and with cuttings from nearby Arcadia in Mason County, Concord grape vines. The year was 1872.
Evans was the county’s first grape grower. He said he kept the vines “just to gulp at” and not for commercial purposes (“Grapes To Front …”), but the grapes themselves were spectacular — big, juicy, and sweet — and Evans soon was selling his surplus fruit and vegetables, and oysters from his beach, in towns such as Olympia, a 20-mile row in his open skiff, and Steilacoom, 22 miles distant.
Adam Eckert arrived on Stretch Island in 1889, 17 years after Evans planted his first vines. Eckert came to the island in a roundabout manner; he was en route from New York “to engage in the grape industry in California” (“California Knows …”) but came via Puget Sound to visit a friend who had recently settled on Stretch Island. Eckert looked around and canceled his California plans. “Eckert saw how well grapes were growing on Evans’ property and promptly bought land on the north side of the island. There he gradually and scientifically experimented with many varieties of grapes until he developed the distinctive Island Belle grape” (“Stretch Island …”). For the next 30-plus years, the Eckert Fruit Company produced grape juice, and fresh grapes packed in oval, 6-pound wooden baskets, for markets in Tacoma, Seattle, Shelton, and Olympia.
Charles Somers Jr. moved to Seattle from Pennsylvania in 1903 and soon joined his father in the real estate business. They specialized in retirement and waterfront property, and in 1918, the year after Lambert Evans died, Somers purchased 40 acres on Stretch Island from his widow. The property was covered with Island Belle vines, and before long Walter Eckert, son of Adam, had convinced Charles Somers that grapes were a going concern. Partnering with his brother, Frank Somers, Charles quickly built Somers Brothers into a thriving grape business. In November 1921 they shipped a ton and a half of fresh Island Belles to San Francisco, a watershed moment for Washington grape growers. “I don’t know how far this will develop,” Somers told The Seattle Times, “but we do know that California can’t produce a grape of the quality of the Island Belle. The Island Belle has qualities not found in any other grape” (“California Knows …”).
Bountiful Stretch Island
Stretch Island sits in the southern reaches of Puget Sound, 16 miles north of Shelton. Separated from the mainland by a narrow channel and reached by a two-lane bridge, the island encompasses about 300 acres. The town of Grapeview is on the mainland side, a welcoming portal to the island. The town was originally named Detroit, but its mail kept ending up in Michigan, so the name was changed in 1922. In 1930, when the Success Club, “one of Seattle’s wide-awake and enterprising businessmen’s organizations,” motored to Stretch Island to view the vineyards, “the trip was made via the Alki-Manchester ferry and then over the highway through Port Orchard, picking up the Navy Yard Highway to Belfair and then down to Grapeview and Stretch Island” (“Vineyards Lure …”). To reach the vineyards from Tacoma, a 1981 Tacoma News-Tribune story directed readers to “take Washington 16 to Port Orchard and Washington 3 to Allyn. South of Allyn, look for the sign to Grapeview. In Grapeview, turn left at the country store and you’ll be on the road to the island. When you reach the island’s only intersection, turn right” (“Stretch Island …”).
The environment on Stretch Island was conducive to the Island Belle. At a 1921 meeting of the Island Belle Grape Growers’ Union, Adam Eckert noted that, “the reports of the United States weather observer at Seattle show that no other district on Puget Sound has a better all-around climate than the ‘grape belt’ on Stretch and Harstine islands and the mainland bordering Pickering Passage and North Bay” (“Puget Sound Grape …”). A 1930 newspaper story said of Stretch Island’s climate, “It is particularly favorable for grape growing because it does not get the early frosts and the delicate blossoms turn readily to fruit” (“Vineyards Lure …”). The Island Belle was said to be the only grape know to thrive “in the rigors of this climate. It is tough skinned and endures almost anything. It is larger than the Concord, though not as prolific, and yields a rich purple juice which is ideal for grape juice and wine” (“Grapes To Front …”).
Commercial winemaking wasn’t feasible after national Prohibition began in 1919, but the market for fresh grapes and grape juice was surprisingly robust for the Island Belle Grape Growers’ Union. “If any member had expressed the thought that he would receive 75 to 85 cents for six-pound baskets of grapes, he would have been judged mentally unbalanced,” Adam Eckert said in 1921, “yet these were the average prices received. Many buyers came here offering to pay $200 a ton, and do their own picking and packing” (“Puget Sound Grape …”). By 1930 there were two juice plants on the island, Eckert Fruit Company and the Belle Island Grape Juice Company, part-owned by Charles Somers, each pressing about 20,000 gallons of grape juice a year.
The Great Depression crippled Mason County’s grape business. Growers who’d commanded $30 a ton for grapes before the 1929 crash were paid just $8 a ton in 1932. There was no financial incentive to harvest the grapes, and many were left to rot on the vine. Later, newspaper accounts would claim the events of 1932 convinced Somers that the path to survival for the county’s grape growers was to build a winery to coincide with the end of Prohibition. In fact, according to The Seattle Times, Somers was planning for a winery as early as 1930. “The grape growers of the district are hopeful of providing a further outlet for their juice and the 1931 session of the State Legislature will be asked for a modification of the state’s present bone-dry prohibition law,” wrote Mitchell Sutherland in the Times on October 19, 1930. “Members of the association assert that the manufacture of light wine is not ‘immoral’ and ‘is now countenanced by the Federal Prohibition Enforcement Bureau and approved by many of the leading dries of the nation.’ The juice of the Island Belle grape can be converted to a very delicious wine, it is declared” (“Vineyards Lure …”).
U.S. Bonded Winery No. 1, Washington
The manufacture and sale of beer and wine was legalized on March 22, 1933, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Cullen-Harrison Act, and repeal was made official nine months later, on December 5, when the states ratified the 21st Amendment. Somers applied to the newly organized Alcohol Tax Unit, a forerunner of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, for a winery permit, and soon St. Charles Winery was granted the first U.S. winery permit for the 15th District, incorporating Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana. Somers “employed a French winemaker to supervise the first crush. The entire first year’s production was fermented in used, 50-gallon white-oak whiskey barrels in a building smaller than a basketball court. Compared to modern wineries covering acres and equipped with row upon row of 60-, 80- and 100-thousand-gallon tanks, U.S. Bonded Winery No. 1, Washington, had a modest beginning” (“From Real Estate to Riesling …”).
That same year, Somers’s oldest son, Charles W. “Bill” Somers, graduated from the University of Washington and joined his family on Stretch Island. A winery building was put up, and production climbed from 3,000 gallons in 1933 to 38,000 gallons two years later. In 1941 younger son Howard Somers graduated from UW as a chemical engineer. For the next 20 years, father Charles ran the business end, Bill managed the vineyards, and Howard made the wines. St. Charles kept as many as a dozen fulltime employees and relied on scores of seasonal workers to pick the grapes. “Harvest hands were easy to recruit. Local housewives from the island and from Shelton and Belfair were eager to supplement their egg money by working in the vineyards. The grape harvest took on almost festive overtones when the pleasures of gossip and the exhilaration of gratifying work in the fresh air were augmented by the jingle of new money in the family sock” (“From Real Estate To Riesling …”).
In 1935, St. Charles produced 30,000 gallons of wine and 8,000 gallons of loganberry wine. Production increased steadily thereafter; in 1965, its final year of operation, St. Charles Winery bottled a record 100,000 gallons. After Howard Somers took control of winemaking in 1941, he made a range of about a dozen wines whose “formulas involved the exact control of fermentation. And the light dry and dessert wines produced there reportedly were excellent” (“Stretch Island …”). A News Tribune reporter visiting St. Charles in 1952 detailed some of Howard Somers’s winemaking process:
“There are eight 10-ton open-top redwood vats for the first process, in which the grapes with skins still on are stirred four days. Liquid is drained off into the huge cellar vats, the pulp, seeds and skins machine-removed and juice also sent to the cellar for second fermentation in closed-top redwood vats of 2,536 gallons each, 24 of them. Juice remains here several days or months, according to varied formulas, then goes into (the) hugest vats of all, 5,110-gallon ones. Each holds 40,880 pints. Wines remain in aging vats up to eight years, according to their ultimate purpose. Before bottling, the wine is refrigerated and immediately after, is pasteurized and labeled and sealed while still warm. Quart bottles are passe nowadays; just pints, fifths, half-gallons and gallons are used” (“State’s First Vineyard …”).
In 1955, a boom year for St. Charles, the winery processed 500 tons of grapes from Stretch Island and other Mason County vineyards, and bought 200 to 300 additional tons from growers in the Yakima Valley. Yet only a decade later, St. Charles was out of business. Charles Somers died in 1961, and on July 1, 1965, Bill and Howard Somers announced the transfer of St. Charles Winery’s trade name, trademarks, and inventory — but not the vineyards or property on Stretch Island — to the Alhambra Wine Company of Selah in Yakima County. For Alhambra’s owner Otis Harlan, the deal secured St. Charles’s contracts with grape growers in Eastern Washington. Alhambra needed more grapes, and buying St. Charles was one way to get them.
The St. Charles and Old St. Charles brands were eliminated after the sale in 1965, and Alhambra Winery’s own wines, introduced by the Harlan family in the 1940s, soon disappeared as well. “Ultimately, apple juice was more lucrative for the Harlans than wine,” wrote wine historian Andy Perdue. “They shuttered Alhambra but kept their vineyard (in Sunnyside). Otis Harlan began selling his grapes to Associated Vintners, later renamed Columbia Winery” (“Washington’s Wine …”).
Howard Somers continued to elevate Washington winemaking after selling St. Charles Winery. He first joined American Wine Growers in Seattle as a winemaker, and then “made the first wines for a new label in 1967 called Ste. Michelle Vintners (sic). That turned into something much bigger” (“Washington’s Wine …”). Later, Somers worked supplying wineries with materials and equipment. He died in 2005 at age 86.
Meanwhile on Stretch Island, Bill Somers held onto 25 acres, ran a booming U-Pick grape business, and indulged his passion for Puget Sound maritime history by converting the winery building into a museum. He died in 2005, the same year as his brother. He was 94. By then, little remained of the wine operation. When Perdue visited Stretch Island in 2015, he found “only a couple of small vineyards and an occasional wild vine growing in a meadow” (“Washington’s Wine …”). He also found Harley Somers, son of Bill Somers, residing on the island. Out behind Harley Somers’s home stood “a solitary vine that stretches perhaps a dozen feet across. It was planted in 1872 — 17 years before statehood. This vine is all that is left of Lambert Evans” (“Washington’s Wine …”). Also still standing was the original winery building. “Inside are artifacts of a once-healthy operation. One room is filled with old bottles from various wineries up and down the West Coast. This and Evans’ vine are all that remain of the genesis of Washington’s modern wine industry” (“Washington’s Wine …”).
“State Wine Growth Big,” Tacoma News Tribune, February 7, 1941, p. 9; “Stretch Island Winery Dates Back To 1872,” Ibid., May 25, 1958, p. 53; “St. Charles Winery Sale Announced,” Ibid., July 2, 1965, p. 17; Roland Lund, “Shadows, Memories Remain Where Wine-Makers Worked,” Ibid., December 21, 1969, p. 90; Dave James, “Grapes To Front In Mason County,” Ibid., November 6, 1936, p. 1; “State’s First Vineyard Marks 80th Birthday,” Ibid., October 19, 1952, p. 62; Andy Perdue, “Washington’s Wine History: A Confederate Soldier, Prohibition And A Vine Planted In 1872,” The Seattle Times, October 29, 2015 (seattletimes.com); Michael V. Sawyer, “From Real Estate To Riesling: Washington Wine Industry Now On Its Own,” Ibid., May 18, 1969; “Puget Sound Grape Growers Report Net Return Of $1,000 Acre During The Last Year,” The Seattle Times, March 5, 1921, p. 7; “California Knows Where To Get Good Things,” Ibid., November 6, 1921, p. 10; Mitchell Sutherland, “Vineyards Lure Motorologist To Stretch Island,” Ibid., October 19, 1930, p. 49; Elizabeth Rose Bell, “Island Winery Noting 30th Year, Vine 90th,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 8, 1963, p. 68; Walter Rue, “W. Washington Record Grape Harvest At Peak,” Ibid., October 30, 1955, p. 14; Charles S. Perrine, “The Island Belle Is Our Own Grape,” Ibid., October 23, 1927, Automotive Section, p. 1A.