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Ridgefield’s Stavalaura Vineyard wins three medals at Seattle Wine Awards

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Joe and Beverly Leadingham's Stavalaura Vineyard and Winery in Ridgefield won three gold medals at the Seattle Wine Awards for their golubok and Zweigelt wines.
Joe and Beverly Leadingham's Stavalaura Vineyard and Winery in Ridgefield won three gold medals at the Seattle Wine Awards for their golubok and Zweigelt wines. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

RIDGEFIELD — Stavalaura Vineyard and Winery in Ridgefield recently won gold medals at the Seattle Wine Awards for three wines bottled with varieties of grapes that may not be familiar to Northwest wine fans.

Stavalaura, which has its winery and tasting room at 29503 N.W. 41st Ave., won the honors for its 2014 golubok, 2016 golubok and 2014 Zweigelt wines.

Golubok and Zweigelt aren’t nearly as well known as pinot noir or chardonnay, but Stavalaura owners Joe and Beverly Leadingham hope the awards will encourage people to try wine made from the two varietals grown on their land in Ridgefield.

The Leadinghams started their vineyard in 2003 when their daughter, Laura, decided to grow pinot noir grapes as a high school science project. The fruit flourished, inspiring Joe Leadingham to learn more about winemaking. He enrolled in a two-year viticulture course and a two-year enology course at Washington State University.

A professor introduced him to botanist Tom Thorton at Cloud Mountain Nurseries, who encouraged Leadingham to grow golubok grapes and Zweigelt-rebe grapes based on the climate and soils on his property. Golubok grapes originate from Russia and Ukraine, and Zweigelt-rebe grapes are a northern European varietal. Both are grown in regions with weather patterns similar to Ridgefield’s.

Leadingham planted these grapes as well as some pinot noir. Three years later, he made wine with them for his friends and family. He continued to make small batches of wine for several years.

In 2012, production grew to the point where the Leadinghams had to get a license. Their first wines for sale were ready in 2015. The following year, they opened a tasting room on their property.

This isn’t the first time Stavalaura Vineyard and Winery has won at the Seattle Wine Awards. Last year, it won a double gold medal for a 2015 pinot noir, a double gold for a 2015 Zweigelt and a gold for a 2015 golubok. It also placed in the competition’s “Fabulous Four.”

That first year of competition was challenging because golubok wasn’t recognized on the United States Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau’s list of approved wine grapes. It was listed as golubok Croatian indigenous instead.

For this year’s competition, experts at the University of California Davis and Washington State University assisted in getting the varietal added to the national list.

Since 2006, the Seattle Wine Awards — the largest and most prestigious wine-recognition program in Washington — has given silver, gold and double gold awards to winemakers in the state. The event also provides a separate competition for winemakers in Oregon and Idaho.

A local wine identity

Southwest Washington doesn’t have an approved American Viticultural Area (AVA) designation, so Stavalaura competes under the Washington AVA designation. An AVA is a region recognized by the U.S. government as a distinct wine grape-growing area based on geography and climate. An American Viticultural Area designation is listed on wine labels to let consumers know where the grapes in their wine are grown. Each region is associated with certain types of flavors and characteristics unique to that area.

An application for a Southwest Washington AVA designation is nearly completed and will soon be submitted for approval. Getting this designation will elevate Southwest Washington as a wine region and could lead to a thriving wine industry like the Willamette Valley or the Columbia Valley in Walla Walla.

It may also raise awareness of grapes like golubok and Zweigelt-rebe that grow well here and create unusual wines that could be associated with this new wine region.

“This is a great area for growing grapes,” Joe Leadingham said. “There are many grapes that like this area and weather.”

Stavalaura Vineyard and Winery

29503 N.W. 41st Ave., Ridgefield

Pioneer Street Restaurant

207 Pioneer St., Ridgefield

The key to harvesting good wine grapes is to allow them to go through their full metabolic cycle. This creates a well-balanced and full flavor. Picking them at just the right time requires constant attention.

“Every year is different,” Leadingham said. “Climate impacts how these grapes grow.”

The part of the grape that gives wine its flavor is the skins. Long skins that extend through the pulp into the seeds give golubok a very full flavor with hints of black currant, cherry, vanilla and slight oak.

Grafted plants are key

Leadingham credits his use of grafted plants for his ability to successfully grow them at Stavalaura. Grafting is the process of splicing one type of plant onto the root system of another. This allows plants to flourish in areas where their own roots wouldn’t be able to collect enough water to sustain the plant.

“Not all vineyards here use grafted plants,” Leadingham said. “This is necessary because there’s a lot of clay in the soil here from the Great Missoula floods. Grafting the plants creates a strong root stock that can get moisture from this clay soil.”

The Leadinghams often visited Maryhill Winery in Goldendale with their family in the 1990s. They see Clark County as potentially growing in a similar manner as appropriate wine grape varieties are developed and an American Viticultural Area designation is granted.

For now, they’re focused on drawing attention to their small vineyard and winery by operating an onsite tasting room and having their wine served at restaurants including Pioneer Street Restaurant at 207 Pioneer St. in downtown Ridgefield.

“Working on marketing and distribution can be a slow process if people don’t know your wines, but once you get your foot in the door, it’s easier,” Joe Leadingham said.