Seattle Times illustration of Tom Stockley
Tom and Peggy in a rowboat near their houseboat on Lake Union.
Tom Stockley, the Wine Writer
In 1972, journalist Tom Stockley began writing a column devoted to wine for The Seattle Times, the largest newspaper in Washington. There were fewer than ten wineries in the state at the time. The established California wine industry, as well as European labels, dominated retail wine selections everywhere. Although there had been a few small wine-grape growers in the state as far back as the 1930s, the wine industry in this far northern piece of the country did not even begin to take hold until the mid-1970s.
Stockley began his journalism career in California before returning to his home state of Washington. After several years at The Seattle Times, he proposed the idea of a weekly wine column to his editors, and they agreed to it on a trial basis.
“Wine” was an immediate success, coming just as the early Washington wineries — such as Chateau Ste. Michelle, Preston, and Associated Vintners (AV) — were beginning to see potential for a growing industry. In 1977, Stockley wrote a small book about touring wineries in the Pacific Northwest, encompassing Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia. It listed eight wineries in the state and is frequently cited as the first overview of the burgeoning industry. Many winemakers and wine journalists over the years have referenced that book as a turning point in the recognition of the industry here. By 1984, there were 80 wineries. Today, almost 900 wineries and vineyards dot the state, and the sector brings in $4.8 million dollars in revenue each year.
Through his columns, articles, and special sections, Stockley sought out and recognized his state’s wines and its winemakers. He reported on the growing national recognition of regional wines as they began to win awards and were featured at White House dinners and at higher-end venues such as the Plaza Hotel in New York. In 1990, Stockley was the first Northwest writer to be named Wine Writer of Year by a national wine industry publication. After his death in 2000, Tom Stockley was honored by winemakers throughout the state for his contributions to the industry.
From the current perspective of an industry that has a significant profile both nationally and internationally, the beginnings of the Washington wine industry might seem to be just the first steps in an obvious trajectory. However, knowledge of access to higher quality wines was limited in the 1970s. The average consumer most likely knew only the names Manischewitz and Gallo. When Stockley began writing “Wine,” the beverage was, at best, considered elitist or special-occasion fare. The first wine shops in Seattle — Champion Wine Cellars and Pike & Western Wine Shop — opened in the 1970s. The earliest wineries were developed more from the passion of hobbyists than from the vision of a young industry with the potential to take on the California wine establishment. In an early Seattle Times wine section, Stockley and a panel of judges reviewed sparkling wines commonly available in the state liquor stores. They consisted of a few European labels as well as domestics such as Cooks and Andre.
Stockley’s “Wine” column taught the newspaper’s readers not only about the local developing industry, but about wine in general. Along with Washington’s early winemakers, Stockley saw wine as something that could and should be accessible to the average person. His readers learned that price should be no barrier to buying good wine, once you knew how to do it, and they eagerly awaited his recommendations. Wine shops, meanwhile, braced for the crowds of buyers. Stockley’s daughters vividly remember the phone ringing with requests for wines that would go with meatloaf or tuna noodle casserole. His work helped create an educated consumer base at a time when both interest and demand for good and affordable wines were on the rise. For this work, Stockley received a posthumous award for Outstanding Wine Educator. His career as a wine writer, critic, and judge grew alongside this cultural change and is inextricably linked to the rise of the Washington state wine industry.
In the 1970s and even into the 1980s, Stockley was one of only a few professional wine writers in the country — and the only one covering the industry regionally. His rise to prominence as a critic, judge, and writer goes hand in hand with the growth of Washington state’s wine industry. Stockley’s recognition as an authority through awards and various honors speak to his enduring credibility. But what was equally important to him, if not even more so, were the close friendships he made with wine lovers throughout the state, from the growers, the makers, the wine-shop owners to his readers and his neighbors down the dock from the Lake Union houseboat he shared with his wife, Peggy.
Tom Stockley was in the right place at just the right time, putting him in the unique position of watching firsthand the rise of Washington state’s wine industry and the winemakers who made it happen. Lucky us.
*Tom and Peggy Stockley’s lives were cut short (he was 63, she was 62) when Alaska Airlines Flight 261 crashed into the Pacific Ocean off Southern California on Jan. 31, 2000, killing all 88 passengers and crew. The Stockleys, who were married for 40 years, were heading home after a week in Puerto Vallarta.