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Sunday, Mar. 01, 2009

Washington wine pioneer Preston, wife amassed 600 corkscrews

PASCO, Wash. -- Most people remember Bill Preston as the man with the vision to create Washington state's first destination winery.

He began planting wine grapes in 1972, a time when there were only three wineries in the state and none in the Tri-Cities.

Originally considered crazy for his experiment, Preston was named in 2006 as the first inductee to the Legends of Washington Wine Hall of Fame. He died in 2001.

But his family also remembers Preston as a man who loved a bargain and who would purchase anything he thought was a good buy.

The result is a collection of more than 600 corkscrews at Preston Premium Wines north of Pasco that was amassed by him and his wife, Joann.

"It was a lot of fun collecting them," she said.

The winery displays just a sampling of the collection at a time. Right now, the display features corkscrews tucked inside ornate keys. Pull the bottom of the key off and you reveal a corkscrew attached to the ring that formed the top of the key.

There also are a few other surprises thrown in, ranging from a functional corkscrew that looks like a close cousin to a farm tool with its red-painted handle to a pair of striped dancing-girl legs that kick up from the corkscrew to lift a cork out of a bottle.

Next up likely will be a display with an animal theme, said Chenyn Preston-Johnson, the tasting room manager and granddaughter of Bill and Joann. The display is changed out every six months or so.

That collection includes puppy dogs with curly corkscrew tails. It has an alligator that has swallowed a corkscrew, and a fish with a corkscrew that folds out. And it has parrots, owls, cats, turtles, horses and mice.

Anything that walked, swam or flew appears to have been an inspiration for a corkscrew maker at some time.

Most of the Preston corkscrews are piled into plastic bins kept in storage, and going through those bins produces memories.

"Who can forget him?" said Joann, pulling out a corkscrew and bottle opener in the shape of a dour man. The corkscrew was made to mock Rep. Andrew Volstead, who oversaw passage of Prohibition in 1919.

Bill and Joann started the collection with a few that were given to them by Bill's parents, Joann said. But in 1983 they started collecting them in earnest.

"It gave us an excuse to go to antique shops," she said.

Together, she said, they must have visited every antique shop in Spokane, Yakima and the Tri-Cities. Other corkscrews were purchased on trips across Washington, to other states and to Europe. They visited Germany and France three times.

At one time, a corkscrew collector from Michigan stopped by the Tri-City winery and later offered to sell the Prestons part of his collection.

They paid $750 plus a case of Johannisburg Riesling.

"My husband was always bargaining," Joann said.

They bought two lots of about 115 total from the Michigan collector in the mid-1980s. But most of the corkscrews were acquired one at a time as the Prestons poked around antique shops and auction goods. In a few cases, they also received corkscrews as gifts.

That's how Joann received the little metal boy -- fashioned after the Brussels' Manneken Pis -- Dutch for "peeing boy."

On a trip to Germany, she and Bill had been seated at a restaurant with another couple who they assumed were German. In fact, one of them was the manager of the famed Canlis restaurant in Seattle, which served Preston wines.

Later, when Joann was dining at Canlis with friends in 1984, the manager presented her with the little boy sporting a corkscrew penis.

"I was a little embarrassed," she remembered, but now she laughs when she looks at it.

For the first few hundred corkscrews that they collected, the couple kept a list with prices and dates. In 1985, they paid $350 for an ivory and silver corkscrew. A year earlier they paid $100 for a gold corkscrew with a brush.

Brushes were inserted into the handles of corkscrews as far back as the 18th century but dropped out of use by the end of the 19th century, according to information collected by the winery. They were used to brush off dusty labels and bottle tops before the wine was opened.

But most of the Prestons' collection had a more modest price -- such as a little red iron devil with a corkscrew tail bought for $20 on a trip to California in 1990. Others were bought for just $1.

"Look at this one," said Joann as she and her granddaughter went through one of the plastic bins.

"Oh, this one's old," said Chenyn, pulling another one out. "They're just all so fun to look at and go through."

* Annette Cary: 509-582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com