Judkins family dedicated to cultivating clean grapevines

Clockwise from left, Jerry, Kevin and Tom Judkins (with his grandson) have been raising disease-free grapevines for decades in southern Washington.

Inland Desert Nursery, the Pacific Northwest’s largest grapevine nursery, took root five decades ago with a teenager’s knack for growing vines in southern Washington.

For his high school FFA project in Prosser, Tom C. Judkins Jr. learned to cultivate vines of Concord grapes, prized for juice and jelly.

“I learned the techniques in the early ’60s, then started the nursery in 1968,” said Judkins, 72, who retired a few years ago. “The growth of the business all along was due to providing what clients wanted. If someone asked for something, we did our best to provide it.”

As the business near Benton City evolved, Judkins blended time-tested growing techniques with the latest technology. In the mid-1970s, the nursery became distinguished for supplying disease-free vines through a certification program with Washington State University’s Clean Plant Center. Judkins worked with the late Walter Clore, a researcher hailed as the “Father of Washington Wine,” who oversaw the program.

Judkins’ business philosophy focused on excellence.

“Patient investment in quality and the long-term view pay off for years and years — not just for a season,” he said.

He attributes the nursery’s vast growth in the past decade to his sons, Kevin and Jerry, who uphold those ideals.

“They’ve really taken it to the next level,” Judkins said.

Kevin, general manager, supervises 70 full-time employees who grow more than 500 grapevine varieties and clones, mostly for the wine industry.

From a 150-acre field nursery and eight greenhouses, they harvest 3 million field-grown and green-potted vines annually to supply commercial vineyards throughout North America. The nursery provides about 75 percent of certified new vines planted annually in Washington.

Inland Desert Nursery’s most recent distinction is becoming a licensee of proprietary French clonal grapevines.

“There are only five licensees in the United States,” Kevin said of the program affiliated with France’s most respected grapevine research institutions.

In the winter of 2017 and earlier this year, 19 French selections were planted at the nursery. Vines will be available next year.

“Clients have been requesting the clones, so we wanted to keep up with changes in the industry and accommodate their needs,” Kevin said. “We also do proprietary grafting to accommodate different growers’ needs specific to their vineyards.”

Besides the Clean Plant Center at WSU, the nursery is also affiliated with the Foundation Plant Services at the University of California-Davis.

“Our certified vines are only a generation or two away from foundation-sourced cuttings indexed as disease free and true to type,” Kevin said.

WSU scientists and Washington State Department of Agriculture inspectors visit the nursery regularly to conduct tests and ensure the vines are as reliable as when they left the foundation.

Trends in the wine industry shift.

“For about five years in Washington, there was a big push for the reds, especially Cabernet Sauvignon and Sirah,” Kevin said. “Now, we’re seeing a shift toward Pinot noir. Whatever growers need, we usually have it or try to get it.”

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