Don Corson, PhD ’80 may have started making wine 33 years ago, but the story of his winery, Camaraderie Cellars, begins 15,000–13,000 years ago during the most recent ice age.
During the Wisconsin stage of the ice age, the Spokane floods from the glacial Lake Missoula covered parts of Washington and Oregon, sweeping down the Columbia River Gorge before depositing nutrient-rich topsoil over the Pacific Northwest states. The floodwaters were up to 400 feet above sea level in some places, deep enough that if the flooding occurred again today, in Portland only the tops of the tallest buildings would be visible.
The topsoil left behind when the ice age floods receded helped to turn the Pacific Northwest into the fertile area it is today—an area where hazelnuts, grass seed, hops, apples, cherries, and grapes all grow in abundance.
It is the latter that is of utmost interest to Corson though, as the one-time city planner and former vice president of planning and development at timber company Merrill & Ring has spent more than 30 years turning his winemaking hobby into a label that has garnered nationwide acclaim.
Corson attended the University of Oregon in the late 1970s to work on his PhD in urban geography, after receiving his BA from Seattle Pacific University and his MA from California State University, Los Angeles.
“I was attracted to the department because it emphasized both social and physical geography,” Corson explained. “They believed you should have a balance of both, and that was important in my career.”
While at the UO he developed a love of wine, and after going on every tour possible and reading every book on the subject that he could get his hands on, he decided the logical next step in learning about the process was to make some himself. He made his first vintage in 1981, a year after receiving his doctorate, and continued to make wine on and off for the next 11 years.
“It was an exciting time,” Corson said. “We used real grapes, not just a kit. The wine didn’t turn out too badly, and for 11 years we made more and more, until in 1992 we decided to become a branded winery.”
Work commitments took Corson and wife Vicki north to Washington, where they settled in Port Angeles. Not wanting to sacrifice the security of a steady paycheck, Corson continued working at Merrill & Ring while making wine commercially at Camaraderie Cellars, at the time one of only 50 wineries in the state and the northwesternmost winery in the lower 48. Today, there are more than 800 wineries in Washington, and Corson has retired from Merrill & Ring in order to focus Camaraderie.
“I’m a Washington state winemaker with Oregon sensibilities,” Corson explains. “People in Oregon have a real individualist bent, and I’m a bit of an individualist. Our wines are very European in style, they’re very food friendly, much like Oregon wines. They’re not New World in style at all; New World wines have a lot of oak.”
Corson is asked often why he chooses to make wine in Port Angeles, a small Washington city better known for its proximity to the setting of teenage vampire love stories than for its varietals. For the geographer though, Port Angeles’ location has everything he needs to produce his award winning wines.
“Our high latitude gives us longer growing seasons,” Corson said. “The Cascades block the storms and give us warm temperatures. There’s a food and wine pairing saying: “If it grows together, it goes together,” and Washington and Oregon both produce a wide range of food crops.”
Camaraderie does not enter wines into competitions with the goal of winning awards—rather, Corson explains, the winery just likes to know it is competitive in the market. That hasn’t stopped the label from reaping rewards though, as the initial 1992 vintage won the gold medal at the Enological Society of the Pacific Northwest, and in recent years the 2000 Merlot and the 2004 Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Grâce have all claimed gold or double gold medals in competitions around the country; and the 2003 Merlot and Cabernet Franc both earned marks in the 90s from Washington CEO magazine.
Camaraderie wines, which have won more than 300 national and international awards in total, can also be found on menus around the country, including at the prestigious Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill in New York City.