Marc, Luke, and Katie Nelson on their farm overlooking the Snake River.

Image: Stacey Azure

In the Pacific Northwest, thriving vineyards aren’t confined to the Columbia Gorge or Walla Walla Valley. In the sunny, dry region east of the Tri-Cities, Katie Nelson’s family grows grapes, cherries, and alfalfa on the southern-facing slope of the Snake River.

In 1978, when Katie’s parents Vicki and Jeff Gordon bought the land with Jeff’s brother Bill, it was fruitless. Washington was home to only 19 wineries, compared to nearly 1,000 today. But the riverfront property came with water rights, so the Gordons dug a well and made a go of it.

More than 40 years later, it’s Katie and her husband Marc who are running Kamiak Vineyards, Inc., the family farm that includes Gordon Estate Winery

Grapes are one of the many crops grown at the Nelson’s farm.  

Image: Stacey Azure

Raised by the river.

The Lower Snake River, because it is regulated by dams upstream and downstream from the Nelsons’, provides the consistently high water table their harvest depends on. Over the years, they’ve relied on the river to grow apples and Asian pears. Today, they grow Bing, Rainier and Chelan cherries, as well as grapes for their winery and others in the region.

Katie was raised in sight of the Snake River and spent her summers trimming grapevines and packing cherries. A fervent Washington State University Cougar, she earned her degree in agricultural economics because she wanted to keep alive what her parents started.

Katie keeps six apps on her phone to monitor air and temperature conditions on the farm. Marc rattles off soil characteristics as easily as the names of the couple’s sons, Isaac (22), Max (19) and Luke (9).

“There’s just no other profession in the world that is more dependent on a healthy environment than farming,” says Katie Nelson.

Marc manages the family’s vineyard.  

Image: Stacey Azure

A devastating gamble.

If the dams disappear, the Nelsons’ consistent water supply will, too. They will lose their home, their farm and their winery – everything Katie’s parents built. Dam removal, proponents say, may one day mean that more salmon will swim in the Snake River; although ocean conditions, not dams, are the biggest factor affecting fish survival.

A different outcome is more certain: Dam removal will spell the end of Kamiak Vineyards and an eastern Washington way of life.

“It doesn’t make sense to me why people would want to destroy the dams, when you would ruin the livelihoods of a lot of people and maybe still not have more fish,” says Katie Nelson. “We’d figure our lives out. We know we’re employable. But our lives as we know it would be over.”

To learn more about the Nelsons and others who live and work on the Snake River, visit snakeriverfaces.com.