Long before there was an established wine industry in Washington state, Gary Cox was helping lay the groundwork when he was a graduate student at Washington State University.

The Ellensburg, Wash., winemaker was among the volunteer wine-tasters who participated in the state’s original wine project, launched by legendary viticulturist Walter Clore in the mid-1970s. More than 40 years later, Cox is making his own award-winning wines at Ellensburg Canyon Winery.

“I remember there was a sign saying ‘free wine tasting on Friday,’ and I immediately signed up,” said Cox, who first planted grapes on his majestic Yakima River Canyon property in 1998. “We were the guinea pigs, and it took a while to figure out what worked. But we eventually learned how to make good wine. And the rest is history.”

Ellensburg Canyon Winery owner Gary Cox started his business in 1997 in the Yakima River Canyon on State Route 821.

Today, the Washington wine industry accounts for approximately $8.4 billion in economic impact per year, second only to California. Ellensburg Canyon Winery is one of more than 1,000 wineries statewide — most of which are found in Central Washington — but Cox and his wife, Susan, haven’t had any problem standing out.

Aside from an impressive award haul over the years (21 total, including eight gold medals), the business also benefits from its picturesque natural surroundings.

“We live in God’s country,” Cox said of his hillside property on State Route 821. “It’s truly spectacular. There’s a magic in the canyon that you can’t duplicate anywhere else in the world.”

The canyon, located in the Columbia Valley AVA, provides superior growing conditions for the three grape varieties at Cox Canyon Vineyards: Riesling, Cabernet franc and Malbec. Cox describes his wines as “fruit forward,” without being too sweet. 

“We’re in a cooler climate than some of the wineries in the Yakima Valley, so our grapes don’t develop as much sugar,” he said. “The higher elevation and limited rainfall also force the grapes to produce more flavonoids (flavor compounds), which gives our wines a more distinct character.”

Cox produces about 450 cases of wine per year, selling most of his 11 varieties out of the tasting room, at farmers markets, and at other small businesses in the area. He also ships to customers in 45 states via FedEx, but the majority of his sales are done face-to-face.

The past few months have presented some obvious challenges to the in-person business model due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But since Kittitas County has fared better than some areas of the state, the couple has been able to offer wine tastings since May. 

“We’re limited to 10 people at a time and we have to stay outdoors,” he said. “But we don’t usually see more than a dozen people at a time anyway, so we’ve done OK.”

Located eight miles south of Ellensburg, the tasting room often attracts customers from the Puget Sound area, although most of the regular visitors are from the Yakima and Kittitas valleys. Groups who fish, camp and float the river also like to stop by after a day of outdoor recreation.

As long as people are enjoying his wines and new customers continue to find Ellensburg Canyon Winery, Cox will keep doing what he loves.

“The terroir is really unique and it has helped us create a niche with our fruit-forward style,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for 23 years and I’m in no hurry to do anything else.”

Ellensburg Canyon Winery is open Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Learn more at ellensburgcanyonwinery.com.

This article appeared in the Capital Press in September 2020.