Beginning as a World War II flying school, Airfield Ranches hits 50-year milestone

Airfield Ranches has been growing wine grapes in the Yakima Valley for 50 years.

Passing down the farm from generation to generation has been a tried and true business model for farm families throughout the United States. Although the practice of multigenerational farming is less common today, one local family is celebrating four generations and 50-years of growing wine grapes in the Yakima Valley.

Marcus and Lori Miller (Stevens) are the fourth-generation to operate their family farming business — Airport Ranches and Airfield Estate winery. They are deliberately laying the foundation for the next generation.  “Farmland today is often purchased by larger corporations and is no longer passed down to future generations,” says Stevens. “One of our goals is to pass this legacy of farming on to our children. We want to think about what our Great Grandfather created and the vision he had for the potential of the Yakima Valley.”

H. Lloyd Miller, a successful realtor and landowner began acquiring dry farmland in Sunnyside, WA in the 1920’s with hopes he would someday have access to water so he could farm the land. Eventually he became the chairman of the Roza Irrigation Canal Board, and saw the project through to its completion in 1951.

When the country was preparing for World War II, Miller was approached by the Olympia Air Transport Corporation to lease his land for a civilian flight school. Knowing he wouldn’t have access to water anytime soon, he signed the lease. Construction began December 21, 1941 and included three dirt runways, several buildings including a 70-foot water tower, multiple airplane hangars, a mess hall, barracks, and several storage buildings. In 1943 the school changed to the War Training Service Program and began exclusively training aerobatics and evasive flying techniques.

The buildings were auctioned off to the highest bidder after the war. For his $1 bid, Miller became the owner of all buildings on the property. Two of the original hangars are still used as workshops and storage facilities for the family farm. The buildings and the stories are the cornerstone of the Airfield brand.

After serving in the war, Miller’s son Don, returned home to join his father on the farm. They secured irrigation rights and began growing asparagus, alfalfa, potatoes, onions, oats, hogs, cattle, mint, and sugar beets. Don was a friend of Dr. Walter Clore, known today as the Father of Washington wine. Clore was instrumental in persuading him to plant wine grapes on the property. Don made a visit to Napa Valley, CA where he purchased the vineyard’s first cuttings. In 1968 he planted Riesling, Gewurztraminer, and Cabernet Sauvignon marking the beginning of the estate vineyard.

After several years of experimenting, the Millers began planting on a commercial basis selling most of the grapes to winemakers in Canada. In the mid 70’s they started growing grapes for Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery which allowed them to scale the business into a commercial grape growing operation.

Mike Miller (son of Don Miller) became the third generation to carry on the farming legacy. He saw a bright future with Washington’s wine grape industry and transitioned the farm into what it is today – 830 acres of wine grapes. In 2005, he founded Airfield Estates Winery with his son, Marcus, and daughter, Lori.

Today Marcus and Lori pay homage to their family’s deep roots in the Valley with their aviation branded winery and wines. They are celebrating 50 years of growing wine grapes in the Yakima Valley on Saturday, June 23, from 6:30 – 10pm on the original property in Sunnyside. Dine in the Vines is a five-course winemaker’s dinner celebrating the winery’s Founders. Tickets and menu are available on-line at airfieldwines.com.

Featured Wines:
Founders Series 2015 Michael L. Miller $50. This premium Rhone-style blend is 67% Syrah, 19% Grenache, and 15% Mourvedre. Layers of blackberry, pomegranate, cocoa, tobacco, with savory nuances. Velvety tannins disperse into a smooth, elegant finish.

Founders Series 2015 H. Lloyd Miller $50.  A Bordeaux-style blend of 66% Cabernet Sauvignon, 23% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc, 2% Petit Verdot, and 2% Malbec. Sourced from the best of estate grown fruit showcasing a seamless integration of fruit, tannin, and oak. Layers of cherry, cranberry, leather, tobacco, and spice evolve into a full and round palate.

 

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