Airfield Estates Wineries: Where History and Heritage Meet on the Vancouver Waterfront

Marcus Miller cheersing a glass of cabernet beside barrels of Airfield Estates Wines. Photo courtesy: Airfield Estates Archives

Nestled amongst the sleek new builds on the Vancouver waterfront, a piece of American history and family legacy intertwine at the Airfield’s Vancouver Tasting Room. It’s a tale woven through four generations of farmers and pioneers, with echoes of WWII pilots and the fine crafting of Washington wines.

Airport Ranch opens the base for WWII training pilots. Photo courtesy: Airfield Estates Archives

History of the Airport Ranch in Yakima

H. Lloyd Miller, a natural salesman, ventured from Illinois to Yakima Valley over a century ago on promises of fertile land. Embracing the opportunity, he immersed himself in the budding community of Sunnyvale. His entrepreneurial spirit thrived. As promised, things were growing quickly in the valley; there was just one problem — water.  

A single canal served the area, leaving Yakima’s hillside dry and covered in brush. As an elected local official, H. Lloyd went to Washington D.C., navigating a bureaucratic maze before President Eisenhower himself approved the Roza Canal and its promises of agricultural prosperity.

WWII trainee pilots gathered around an old jet on the base at Airport Ranch. Photo courtesy: Airfield Estates Archives

The land was ready. Water was on its way — it was time for H. Lloyd’s dreams to come to life. Then, the fatal attack on Pearl Harbor dramatically altered America’s landscape. All the Roza Canal’s resources went to war efforts, seeming to cut off the ranch’s pathway forward. Fortunately, Washington was a prime location for WWII pilot training bases. As a respected name in the community and partner in one of Yakima Valley’s most reputable real estate companies, H. Lloyd received a fate changing call. The Olympia Airport needed land for another base, and H. Lloyd had just the place — his ranch.  

“Within like six weeks,” Marcus Miller recounts four generations later, “they’re flying at the property. It was all very quick.” A story that’s lived through the family since the ranch’s first pilot took flight. H. Lloyd changed the land’s name to Airport Ranch, and a new legacy was born.

WWII fighter jets stationed at the base on Airport Ranch. Photo courtesy: Airfield Estates Archives

As life calmed post-war, land tensions grew, and the fate of Airfield Ranch hung in the balance. H. Lloyd’s lawyer feared the worst for his client and friend. He encouraged the Millers to stand up to the government in a letter. “Fight the good fight,” the lawyer wrote. “If they throw you in jail, me and my wife will bring you hot soup.”

Fortunately, tensions settled when the government sold the base facilities to H. Lloyd for $1. It was time to ranch, but H. Lloyd was getting older; his first son was teaching at Harvard, and his youngest, Donald, saw cattling for the back-breaking labor it entailed. So, the ranch that never took full form turned to row crops. It wasn’t the dream H. Lloyd started with, but he couldn’t be prouder of their farm, often photographing himself with the largest watermelon or asparagus, radiating the message of the land’s fertility.

Bringing Washington Wine to Airfield Estates

It was a complicated time for Washington wine. While California was making a name for itself, Washington’s name was so tarnished that one of its largest vineries renamed itself Santa Rosa Winery, as if it weren’t making Washington wines at all. But in 1967, everything began to change. Chateau Saint Michelle and Associated Vintners (known today as Columbia Winery) ushered in the genesis of Washington wine, bringing back the state’s wine business

H. Lloyd always said the soil was something special. And he was right. When Donald was serving on the Washington State Asparagus Commission, the father of Washington wine himself, Walter Clore, told him that “Donald’s land was perfectly suited for wine grapes,” as Marcus recounts. “He got them to plant their first five acres in 1968.”

Grapes headed to the winery to make Airfield Estates Wine. Photo courtesy: Airfield Estates Archives

The wine troubles didn’t deter the Millers. They went full in on grapes, eventually rebranding the ranch as Airfield Estates. The ‘68 vine’s first yielding would only entice home brewers in British Columbia, but it wouldn’t take long for Chateau Saint Michelle to start buying all the Miller’s wine grapes. They perfected their skills for decades before cultivating the first bottles of Airfield Wine in 2007. By then, Donald’s grandson Marcus was internationally trained in winemaking and ready to take over.

“I want you to promote and tell the story of the vineyard,” Marcus recalls as the sole requirement his father asked of him. “We try to take the family story and run with it.”

In sharing, they’ve heard stories from people all over Washington about their experiences during WWII and their piloting adventures. What started as a ranch without water became a vineyard, supplying grapes to Washington’s largest winery for decades to winemakers who bring history to life with every bottle. Visitors at the Proccer County location can still see the old hangers from its WWII days, and lucky locals to Vancouver get to see a piece of that history in the Airfield’s Tasting Room on the Vancouver Waterfront. You might mistake the old tin sign on the wall for rustic décor, but it dates back to the original days of Airport Ranch.

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