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Wednesday, Sep. 17, 2008

A century in the Yakima Valley

PROSSER, Wash. -- Surrounded by vineyards lit by a golden sunset, longtime Whitstran farmers and brothers Larry and Dick Olsen celebrated 100 years of family history since their grandfather arrived in the Yakima Valley.

Many folks associate the Olsen brothers with apples, cherries, grapes, hops and wine, and likely assume the 2,600-acre Olsen farm has been passed down for generations.

But that's not the case. Their grandfather Martin Olsen didn't pass down real estate, though his grandsons and great-grandsons may have inherited his tenacity and work ethic.

This week, family members gathered on a hilltop near Prosser to reflect on their family's farming legacy. They kicked off their centennial celebration by dedicating "Olsen Hill" -- a favorite family spot in a vineyard with sweeping views of the Yakima Valley.

Martin Olsen immigrated from Norway, arriving at Ellis Island in 1904, only to be turned away. Apparently the quota of Norwegians had been filled. But that didn't dissuade him from finding another way into America -- through Canada.

Though his grandsons can't fill in all the details of his journey, they know he ended up in Tacoma, doing carpentry to save to bring his wife and three children to America.

He read about opportunities for farmers on the east side of the state and decided to try his hand at growing fruit. In 1908, he bought 10 acres in Whitstran and helped build the area's original irrigation canals.

Though he struggled during the Great Depression, he eventually acquired 40 acres of orchards before selling it all in 1957 to buy a small grocery in Whitstran. He ran it with his son Ralph.

Ralph's sons, Larry and Dick, grew up in Prosser and helped at the store until Dick went off to college to earn a journalism degree and Larry went to Vietnam.

When their dad's health deteriorated, Dick left his job at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer to help at the store.

"This farmer I knew came into the store one day and said he was getting out of it and asked me if I wanted to buy his farm," Dick Olsen remembered. "I told him I didn't know anything about farming."

The farmer reminded Dick Olsen of how much he had enjoyed working for him when he was a teen.

That night, Dick Olsen called his brother Larry in California. They decided then to return to their roots. They bought their first 80 acres and, like their grandfather before them, planted apples and cherries.

Over the next 25 years, they built their farm to 2,600 acres, weathering volatile markets and Mother Nature.

"Early on we recognized the importance of diversifying," said Larry. "We knew we didn't want to compete with California, so we looked at the Yakima Valley and the crops that grew well here."

That's how they ended up adding hops to their portfolio. They also planted juice and wine grapes and daydreamed about getting into the wine business.

"But we were having too much fun buying farms," said Dick.

Over the years, Larry's son, Leif, got a business degree and became a viticulturist, overseeing Chateau Ste. Michelle's Canoe Ridge and Horse Head estate vineyards. Dick's son Martin earned a marketing degree and went into management for Hertz.

Building a winery brought both back to Olsen farms.

Two years ago, the Olsens began saving some of their best wine grapes for themselves and making wines. And last summer they opened Olsen Estates tasting room in Vintners Village in Prosser.

"You always have hopes and aspirations for your kids, and to see them work so hard makes you proud. Seeing your kids not just survive but thrive ... it's a relief," Dick Olsen said. "And it's very personal for them."

With the help of winemaker Kyle Johnson, the winery is already collecting awards. Its first vintage of chardonnay was included in Seattle wine writer Paul Gregutt's list of Top 100 Washington Wines and was selected as an Editor's Choice by Wine Enthusiast magazine.

For the family's centennial, Martin Olsen said the winery will introduce The Heritage Series of high-quality wines and all 2008 vintages will bear a special logo.

"In a way, it seems like things are moving along at lightning speed, yet as a family we know this is decades in the making," he said. "We're tied to this land and we have this passion for making great estate wines that showcase our vineyards."