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Ridgefield roundabout vineyards yield wine

By Shari Phiel, Columbian staff writer
Published: February 21, 2024, 6:08am
6 Photos
Ridgefield Mayor Ron Onslow trims back grape vines Tuesday at the Pioneer Street and South 56th Place roundabout in Ridgefield. In a good year, a roundabout produces 20 cases of wine.
Ridgefield Mayor Ron Onslow trims back grape vines Tuesday at the Pioneer Street and South 56th Place roundabout in Ridgefield. In a good year, a roundabout produces 20 cases of wine. (Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

RIDGEFIELD — In 2015, Ridgefield city officials had a decision to make: what to do with the empty land in the city’s two Pioneer Street roundabouts. Rather than building a welcome sign or planting native shrubs and flowers, the city council chose to create small vineyards.

Mayor Ron Onslow, who with his wife, Sandy Schill, helped lead the effort to plant grapevines, said the city had to do something with the roundabouts.

“They were on a state highway and the state does not take care of the areas around them,” Onslow said.

He and his wife came up with the idea of planting grapes as a way of promoting Ridgefield’s growing reputation as wine country. He admits he didn’t realize how much work it would entail.

“We proposed it to the council and the city, and they all said yes. We asked the state and they said, ‘Yeah, sure. Go right ahead,’ ” Onslow said.

The first grapes for Ridgefield Roundabout Wines were planted in 2015 and the first harvest came three years later. Because the roundabouts are on a state road, the rules for processing the grapes are a bit complicated.

Each year, volunteers pick the grapes, which are then sold to a local winery for processing. Gouger Cellars, Windy Hills Winery and 14 Acres Winery have participated in the program so far. The harvested grapes are turned into wine, which the city purchases from the winery. Each roundabout can yield around 20 cases (or 240 bottles) of wine.

Harvest isn’t the only time volunteers tend to the vineyards. Local resident Craig McKenna was one of several volunteers at the west roundabout on Tuesday cutting back last year’s growth and getting the vines ready for the spring growing season.

McKenna, who is a member of the Lions Club, said he didn’t know much about the Ridgefield Roundabout Wine program but wanted to help out.

“I like that we do this sort of thing here. You drive by every day and don’t always notice it or know what it is,” he said.

City Councilor Clyde Burkle also volunteered his time on Tuesday. His electric pruning shears were the envy of all the volunteers. Burkle said planting grape vines in the roundabouts has proved to be a great decision.

“We felt it was a great welcome to Ridgefield. It’s becoming, more and more, a location for many wonderful wineries,” Burkle said.

As one of the volunteers involved with the vineyards since the beginning, Burkle said he still enjoys tending to them.

“It’s rewarding to see them, every year, produce the grapes that we get and the wine that we get,” he said.

Schill also tended the vineyards on Tuesday. She said the idea behind the vineyards was never about making money but about promoting the city.

“Our initial thought was we wanted to showcase the fact that Ridgefield and north Clark County was into growing grapes. We wanted to tie in the wineries that were here,” Schill said.

Best variety

With more than 10,000 varieties of grapes possible, deciding which to plant in the roundabouts required some research. Onslow said volunteers talked with several local winemakers, particularly Gary Gouger from Gouger Cellars, to find out which variety would be the best.

“I wanted a grape that doesn’t require a lot of labor or attention,” Onslow said. “I didn’t know anything.”

The city eventually decided to plant Marechal Foch grapes in both the South 56th Place and South 65th Avenue roundabouts. Marechal Foch grapes, which are a hybrid French red wine grape variety, are known for being hardy and easy to grow.

“It’s more resistant to the types of diseases that other grapes are not resistant to,” Onslow added. “They’re more intense and they ripen a little bit faster.”

On the web

Ridgefield Roundabout Wines: ridgefieldwa.us/394/Roundabout-Grapes-Wine

Successes, setbacks

With the vineyards located in the heart of two busy intersections, Onslow said many people ask about pollution seeping into the grapes. He said the grapes are tested every year and have shown no contamination. Even heavy smoke from wildfires had little effect on the grapes, he said.

The program has had its share of successes and setbacks. Marechal Foch grapes may be resistant to cold and fungus, but bad drivers and flocks of hungry birds have taken their toll. No wine was produced in 2019 or 2020, and in several other years only the east or west roundabout had enough grapes to pick.

The wine can’t be sold because the grapes come from state-owned lands, but the city has provided bottles for wine tastings and other events like Ridgefield’s annual Farm to Table dinner. Onslow said the city is applying to transfer the roundabouts from the state to the city. If that happens, the city could have more flexibility to sell or give away the wine.