As the name suggests, our family estate has historical ties to aviation! To find out more about the WWII airbase that resided on our property, see the sections below:
The official story:
Just prior to the United States entry into World War II, the Olympic Air Transport Company contacted our founder, H. Lloyd Miller, about the possibility of leasing land from him for a period of a few years in order to build an airbase to train military pilots. Lloyd, a successful realtor and landowner, knew it would be several years before the arrival of Roza irrigation water so he agreed to lease out his property.
Construction of the airbase commenced in the latter part of 1941. The buildings erected on the site included a 70 foot water tower, several airplane hangars, a mess hall, barracks, and several smaller storage buildings. Three dirt runways were also formed, each of which was over a half mile long. The pilots trained primarily on bi-winged Stearman Airplanes.
The airbase continued operations until the mid 1940’s. Shortly after WWII came to an end, the pilots moved off site and the recently constructed buildings were auctioned off to the highest bidder. The only bidder turned out to be H. Lloyd Miller, and it is said that he got one heck of a deal on all the buildings. These unique buildings became the headquarters of the Miller family’s farming operations up to today. Over time, many of the buildings began to deteriorate, but two of the original hangars still exist and we continue to use them as workshop and storage facilities.
The unofficial story is that the military airbase had ulterior motives. It was not just designed for training pilots. During the war years, there were six small airbases that made a horseshoe pattern around Hanford Reach. These bases were located near Moxee, Ephrata, Connell, Othello, Richland, and “Airfield’s” base in Sunnyside. These bases were strategically located around Hanford Reach in order to conduct surveillance over the highly classified Hanford Nuclear Reservation that was refining plutonium for the atomic bombs that would eventually be dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The airbase also provided potential defense if we came under attack because the runways were long enough to allow for the landing of larger fighter and attack aircrafts. Although these are just rumors, they do make a lot of sense.
Our first wine grapes were planted in 1968 by Don Miller. To learn more about Don’s background and how our farm evolved into a large-scale commercial vineyard, read the discussion below:
Don was born November 27, 1919 in Sunnyside, WA. His parents were H. Lloyd and Ruth Miller. As a newborn, Don began to lose weight unexplainably. In need of special care for several months, Don lived with Mrs. Quessenberry, a mid-wife and wife of a local dairyman. He was the younger of two sons. His older brother, Howard, worked in the movie industry for a time but eventually moved on to become a speech professor at San Jose State and Stanford Universities. Don attended Washington State College in Pullman, but left school his junior year to join the army air corp. Don saw duty in India, Australia, and Tinian (which is part of the Mariana chain of islands). Tinian was the staging point for the Enola Gay assault on Japan, which took place while he was there. He later related that until that day, no one could imagine what was taking place in their on backyard at Hanford. After he left the service, Don returned home where he joined the family farm. He served as managing partner from 1950 until the farms incorporation in 1978. He continued to manage the farm as its president until his retirement.
Like so many other farmers, Don was an avid fan of Dr. Walter Clore. Dr. Clore was adamant that Washington State could grow premium wine grapes, and he tirelessly tried to convince growers to plant. Don visited the Napa Valley in 1966, and the staff at Freemark Abbey was of significant help to him in the procurement of heat-treated, certified, virus-free plant material from Napa nurseries. Those first vines were planted the following spring. The planting covered 3 acres and consisted of 4 different varieties (Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Riesling). In 1969, Don entered a joint venture with a local nurseryman, Maynard Huenfeld. Together, they established a second experimental vineyard, which included new varieties that they could observe and screen, as well as propagate new vines from. This planting contained varieties such as Zinfandel, Semillon, Ruby Red, Chenin Blanc, and others. Many of our initial observations were skewed by the manner in which the vines were managed.
First Commercial Vineyards
In 1971, Don decided to make his first commercial plantings. The vines were planted on a 10 acre parcel of ground. The varieties consisted of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and White Riesling. After a period of observation and at least one hard winter, Don had decided that those 3 varieties had the highest likelihood of success. In those early years, most of our markets were across the border in Canada. The wine grapes, although planted on a commercial scale, were still secondary to our four main cash crops (sugar beets, spearmint, peppermint, and asparagus). The farming was less than stellar and the crop was of questionable quality, yet its demand seemed to be strong.
Chateau Saint Michelle Metamorphosis
In 1977, US Tobacco acquired Chateau Ste. Michelle. Its acquisition and subsequent investment in the winery marked the beginning of Washington’s entrance into the World of Wine. After formulating business plans and doing sales projections, it was obvious to them that they needed to procure grapes from others. At the same time, U and I Sugar began to question its position in the marketplace, and the company announced its plan to close all Washington production facilities. This decision essentially removed the most consistently profitable component from our crop portfolio. Ste. Michelle was looking for product and we were looking for a new crop – it seemed like a perfect marriage! Our first large scale planting, headed by Mike Miller (Don’s son), took place the following spring. It consisted of 71 acres of White Riesling. The following year, we planted 25 acres of Merlot. The technical support that we received from Chateau Ste. Michelle was invaluable in our education as growers. Today, we are still heavily involved with the company and know that they have been an instrumental player in the evolution of our industry.
The Next Transition
Over the course of time, we became comfortable producing grapes for the State’s largest wineries. As Marc began associating with the winery crowd in Walla Walla, it became painfully obvious that people there had never heard of Airport Ranch, even though we were one of the larger producers in the state. To them, we were virtually invisible. Concurrently, we were in the process of renegotiating our grape contracts and realized how dependent we had become on the larger wineries. With Marc already involved in the study of enology and with Mike’s latest epiphany, it became clear that we could brand our vineyards through the production of fine wines produced from our estate vineyards. Thus, the idea of Airfield Estates Winery was born.
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