Founded in 1975, the Enological Society of the Pacific Northwest was the oldest volunteer-organized wine appreciation group in town. Rechristened the Seattle Wine Society in 2004, it continued to sponsor monthly wine dinners and an annual wine judging whose excruciating fairness was better suited to the days when Washington and Oregon combined had fewer than 100 wineries (many owned by paranoid individualists barely on speaking terms). But its leaders recruited international wine authorities as judges, and their influence helped put the Pacific Northwest on the map.
Life goes on, conditions change, and many volunteer organizations took advantage of their non-profit tax status to change direction. Not the Enological Society. “Our work here is done,” the Board of Directors decided, and they literally closed up shop. They had $30,000 or so in the bank, but didn’t spend it on fancy trips for their top brass; instead, they gave the money to the educational institutions they’d been funding for years, a lump sum to be distributed (as scholarships) over the coming years. That was in 2013.
The founding board came straight out of Seattle’s Blue Book (Dorothea Checkley, George Taylor, Nancy Davidson Short, Betty Eberharter), with a mission to guide its members “in viticulture, enology, and the appreciation, enjoyment, knowledge and proper usage of wine.” Its mission accomplished, it fell to international business attorney Mel Simburg, serving a term as president, to decommission the Seattle Wine Society.
Under the guidance of an early recruit to the cause, Dr. Gerry Warren (a clinical professor of medicine and bioengineering at the University of Washington), the Society provided its 3,000 members with monthly educational programs, wine dinners featuring wine regions across the globe, and an annual wine festival, all of it run by volunteers. Chapters were added in half a dozen outposts, from the Tri-Cities to Spokane. The annual Festival became a focal point for a growing body of wine enthusiasts, not the least of them the internationally renowned judges. Over the years, they included Paul Pontallier of Chateau Margaux; the Italians Angelo Gaja and Piero Antinori; the American historian Leon Adams; writers Roy Andries de Groot and Gerald Boyd; California wine makers Joe Heitz and Warren Winiarski; UC Davis professors Maynard Amarine, Denny Webb and Ann Noble. Their palates, unfamiliar with the unique wines of the Northwest (especially in the early years) were always impressed by the quality of the top bottles; they were also unafraid to criticize flawed wines.
Today, the number of wineries in Oregon, Washington and Idaho has grown from fewer than 100 to well over 1,000 in Washington alone. The Wine Society’s casual, chatty summer wine fair has morphed into the tony Auction of Northwest Wines, one of the nation’s biggest charity auctions. The Washington Wine Commission (which didn’t even exist when the Society started) runs a two-day Wine & Food Festival; there’s also a privately run Seattle Food & Wine Experience. There are smaller festivals in every valley and hillside of the wine country, and wine-maker dinners at restaurants across the region. And no shortage of independent, benchmark judgings, either, from the Platinum Wine Awards run by journalists Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman of Wine Press Northwest, to the high-profile Seattle Wine Awards (and its companion, the Oregon Wine Awards) run by sommelier Christopher Chan, who brings in a panel of top-name judges.
John Bell, an engineer who spent his career working at Boeing while he made wine in his Everett garage, is among those who regard the Wine Society’s work with fond nostalgia. Until this summer, Bell owned a successful boutique winery, Willis Hall; he’s also a longtime Society board member who appreciates what the Society has done as a catalyst for wine education and appreciation, “to the point where that mission has now been taken up by a plethora of individuals and groups.”
For the first time in over a decade, three dozen of the “old crowd” gathered recently to reconnect over a luncheon of chicken with papardelle at the elegant Women’s University Club. Many of the founding board members were on hand, chatting about early memories. like the shoebox in which membership records were kept on 3 x 5 cards. When the Society was launched, wineries weren’t allowed to have tasting rooms, assuming you could even find the vineyards or the production facilities. It took an act of the state legislature to legalize the pouring of samples. Today, of course, Washington grows more wine grapes than any state but California, and the industry generates hundreds upon hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. The folks at today’s event (average age perhaps 80) savored treasured bottles they’d brought from the own cellars, as befits the Society’s “volunteer” ethos.
Warren noted that the Society was based on three principles: an almost academic approach to the then-novel subject of wine appreciation; the importance of promoting a local wine industry; and to have a good time while pursuing the first two goals. Having achieved that, it was time to plan for a “soft landing” and close up shop.
“We are proud of our accomplishments,” Bell said. “It’s the end of an era, but it was truly a bright era, wasn’t it?”