by CHRISTINA KELLY & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & t the age of 16, while still in high school, Michael Haig became vineyard manager, cellar rat and general laborer at his parents' vineyard dotting the shores of Lake Roosevelt near the sleepy, farm town of Wilbur, 60 miles west of Spokane.
Haig is not a farm boy raised in the wheat fields, but rather a graduate of Gonzaga Prep in Spokane and the son of a well-known certified public accountant who lectures around the country to the financial community. While looking for property for a retirement home, the family serendipitously discovered an area along the region now flooded by the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam -- a land that was lush with grapevines nearly a century ago, in an area called Whitestone Rock.
Fifteen years later, Whitestone Winery and vineyards sit on 500 acres next to Lake Roosevelt, land high enough that it was not flooded during the 1941 creation of the dam. Haig, now 31, evolved from a teenager struggling with whether to follow his dad's footsteps to the winemaker of Whitestone Winery with a passion and zeal for growing grapes and producing estate wines.
"I used to dread having to go to the vineyards," says Haig, who learned his craft initially by selling the estate grapes to other winemakers and learning their secrets. "I was planning where we would plant the grapes, building deer fences, learning about grape clones and everything else, all while I was still in high school and college. I didn't think it was much fun."
Whitestone Winery existed in relative obscurity, selling its grapes to Walla Walla winemakers as that region exploded with new wineries trying to find new sources of fruit. In 2001, the family decided to produce its own wines.
"We could see that Michael had developed a deep connection with the vineyards and wine," says Judy Haig, who has supported the careers of both her husband, Walter, and son, Michael. "This was supposed to be a retirement project for Walter, but Michael developed such a natural touch, an instinct, that making our own wines seemed to be the next step."
Although people driving through Wilbur are delighted to discover a winery and tasting room in such a rural location, for the most part, Whitestone Winery has dwelled under the wine industry radar with its first few vintages. Michael says the relative obscurity gave him time to learn and experiment without everyone watching.
Last year, the 2002 Whitestone Merlot stunned judges at Washington CEO magazine's wine awards competition, taking first place with an outstanding rating, along with an excellent award for the 2002 Cabernet Franc.
A month after the awards were announced, the 2002 Merlot was sold out and Haig was suddenly fielding phone calls from consumers who wanted to know more about the wines.
"When you have 500 wineries in the state, it is hard to get noticed," says Haig.
With the 2005 vintage, Whitestone Winery will prodce 100 percent of its wines from grapes grown on the estate. The vineyard produces Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.
The winery is just now releasing its 2005 vintage, and Haig's time under the radar has paid off. Some of the 2003 crop was blended into the winery's Pieces of Red, a non-vintage blend that serves as Whitestone's second label. The 2004 vintage, according to Haig, is still "cooking" in barrels. The family says the 2005 is ready to drink and the Merlot, once again, is fabulous.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & S & lt;/span & tanding in the vineyards, the view is breathtaking, as the vineyard slopes down into a postcard photograph of Lake Roosevelt, with the back of the vineyards abutting rugged hills and cliffs. The Haigs hire a handful of local people to handpick the grapes, while three vineyard dogs -- rescued from animal shelters -- frolic among the rows of vines.
The family has studies from Washington State University and Walter Clore, a pioneer in the early days of the Washington wine industry, concluding that the Lake Roosevelt region is a prime grape-growing area, similar to the conditions of Bordeaux, France.
The studies concluded that the massive body of water behind Grand Coulee Dam provides cool nights during the summer, building up the acid and tannin structure of the grapes, while hot daytime temperatures help to produce the sugars. In fall, the lake remains warmer than the surrounding area, warming the vineyard and extending the growing season. While many wineries harvest in late August, Whitestone can harvest as late as the end of October or early November.
While the winery was struggling to get on its feet, Haig says his family members were "squatters" at other wineries. Haig would drive around Eastern Washington, looking for a winery that would allow them to crush grapes and truck the juice back to Wilbur. With the purchase of new equipment, and a 10,000-square-foot warehouse at the vineyard, the Haig family can now produce its wines on the estate.
The family has many plans for the large warehouse and recently held an event where participants could taste grapes just picked and follow the process, including barrel tasting more recent vintages. Shining new equipment and oak barrels still wrapped in plastic line the walls, suggesting the winery has passed the milestone of self-sufficiency.
"Now, I can take my time, and taste the grapes throughout the process without having to go anywhere else," Haig says. "I am looking for that moment that makes my hair tingle. I am looking for the right smells, the right colors. It's all right here at our vineyards, and it just takes time to learn it."
Whitestone Winery's Tasting Room, 115 Main St., Wilbur, Wash., is open Fri-Sat 11 am-5 pm, or by appointment. Call 509-647-5325.