volcano wines

Monday, May 17, 2010

Thirty years ago tomorrow, Washington’s Mt. St. Helens erupted. For those living in the Pacific Northwest, the event has locked in memories as irrevocably as a presidential assassination. Where were you when St. Helens blew? is a question I posed on Facebook, and the answers came streaming in.

I was living in Seattle at the time, but was out of town, in southern Oregon, filming the Ashland Shakespeare Festival for public television. St. Helens had been burping for months, so it was a little disappointing that I missed the big show, but I saw plenty of ash on my way back up I-5 the next day. Because strong northwesterly winds were in play, Seattle itself did not get more than a very light dusting. Portland was hit pretty hard, and eastern Washington saw blackouts and massive amounts of volcanic ash.

This is the same stuff that has built much of Washington’s soils over thousands of years. It lays on top of bedrock, sometimes a thin layer, sometimes deep. The windblown soils are called loess – also the name of one of Leonetti’s estate vineyards. Because St. Helens went off in mid-May, and, as I recall, did not have any extended follow-up eruptions (basically the whole top blew off all at once), their was limited impact on the state’s vineyards.

I seem to recall a few volcano wines being offered that year, but can’t find any reference to them online. A search for volcano wines turns up a Volcano Winery on the big island of Hawaii (get your Macadamia Nut Honey wine here); a Volcano Vineyards in Bend, Oregon; and a note about a devastating volcanic eruption in 1650 BC on the Greek island of Santorini.

Some of the more interesting responses to the “where were you?” question:

Jan R: We were on a sailboat in the Gulf Islands. We didn't even know about it until we pulled into Friday Harbor 3 days later! Yikes! Bet your car engine was a bit messed up.

Katie J: I was riding bikes with friends in Prosser. The most vivid memory was driving back home to Renton and barely being able to see... we stopped and scooped up some ash... I wonder what happened to that jar - I was 6 years old...

Victoria T: I was in Spokane that afternoon watching the black wall of ash slowly approach and cover the town. People were running for cover like something from a sci-fi movie. We were trapped in darkness for two weeks, literally buried and ash. No stores, no services. Lots of panic over the unknown. Was it poisonous? How long would it last? Fine powdery, abrasive ash invaded everything. We wore bandanas over our faces to protect nose and lungs. As soon as I could see my way clear, I loaded my belongings and two small children into my Volkswagon bus and headed to Seattle.

Mike D: We were driving home from Oregon on I-5 and pulled over to watch. I was living in Longview, WA at the time and remember having to wear a mask every time we went outside.

Matt M: I was rafting the Wenatchee River on a warm sunny morning when suddenly this enormous "thunderstorm" looking cloud came over the horizon. Didn't get home for 3 days...

Nils V: I was on vacation out in the Hamptons getting ready to move back to Seattle in early June. First saw the news splashed all the way down the front page of the New York Times in the little Sagaponack General Store. Was still out there when the ash cloud passed overhead a few days later.

Sarah B: I was at WSU! Whole campus went dark as night. All stores were sold out of beer and wine! Made a bad situation fun.

Jamie B: I was swimming in my parents pool in Walla Walla, while my dad and Scottish uncle were in a ski boat fishing on the Snake river. The sky went black and it was like a sci-fi movie, but oddly Walla Walla barely got hit. My dad on the other hand was pummelled with ash drops and my uncle went into a panic.

Kevin P: I was an undergraduate geology major at the University of Kentucky - the ash was recognizable as a thin gray cloud when it drifted over KY a few days after the eruption.

Roger G: I was working on the hop farm when the mountain blew. We weren't sure what it was, but when it came over us we couldn't see and all the electronic sirens went off. At the time I was a volunteer fireman and we couldn't get the sirens to stop and couldn't tell what was an emergency or not. We then had to go and buy all of the women's nylon stockings we could find to put over the air filters on our engines. In the 80's try walking up to the cashier with all their nylons in a man's grocery cart, that's a way to get some looks...

Glenn C: I was on the south side....just around 5 miles from the base... fishing.... my story is a good one.... and helps me understand why now I am in the wine business. Story Title "How Alcohol Saved My life." I fished on the Toutle River on Thursday [May 15], and caught two nice salmon. On May 18th we were going back early in the morning, around 5 am, leaving from Vancouver, WA, where I lived. The other man who was driving, was not feeling well after having too much alcohol the night before, and asked me if I did not mind going up the Lewis River system at Woodland, WA instead of fishing on the Toutle that day. Of course I agreed...and up to Yale Lake we went......bottom line we were on the Lake around 7:30 and fishing for land-locked salmon....when she blew.....front row seat......we really had no idea what was happening on the Northwest side of the mountain.....was not our day to die.....everyone on the Toutle did.....


Jeff Lewis said...

I was living at home with my folks/brothers in Spokane at the time, working on a landscaping job with a good friend/next-door-neighbor. It had been a beautiful clear blue sky day, until we saw this stark wall of grey moving our way. "Gotta be St. Helens." We packed up our gear, jumped in the car, and headed home listening to the news on the radio.

I remember hanging out in the kitchen watching the sky get darker and darker. The street lights came on. When it became pitch black, we went back outside, very eerie, and then the ash began to fall.

In the days that followed, I remember everyone trying to figure out what to do with all the ash that accumulated. It was dense and heavy, and of course everywhere. In the end, we gathered up as much as we could, using snow shovels, wheelbarrows, buckets, and buried it in the backyard.

I can't remember seeing another really clear blue sky again in/around Spokane in the following years that I was living there.

Somewhere here in my house in Seattle, I still have a rolled up yellowing copy of the May 19, 1980, Spokesman-Review front page.



an insurgent terroirist said...

"This is the same stuff that has built much of Washington’s soils over thousands of years"

Not really Paul... Ash is a very minor component of most eastern Washington soils. As you say, they consist mostly of loess, which is wind deposited silt that was largely derived from wind erosion of vast mudflats deposited by glacial outburst floods (not volcanic eruptions). The silt is mostly tiny grains of quartz, feldspar, and mica eroded from granitic rocks north and east of the Columbia Basin. The loess rests on many substrates, including outburst flood deposits and bedrock of many different flavors, but predominantly basalt - BTW hope you're still up for that brunello tasting.....

PaulG said...

Insurgent - thank you for clarifying. Like many writers for the general reader, I do tend to oversimplify. And it sounds so good when you say we have volcanic soils!

an insurgent terroirist said...

"And it sounds so good when you say we have volcanic soils!"

- yeah, and it also "sounds good" when folks say we have 3 (or 2) more hours per day of summer sunshine than Napa - but it just ain't so... (around 55 min. more on the summer solstice, fewer than that every other day)

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