Made There: A WWII airfield turned winery in the Yakima Valley

The historic property has been passed through one family since the 1920s. Now it’s used as a vineyard and facility for Airfield Estates.

Siblings Marcus Miller and Lori Stevens talk casually about their children’s activity schedules as they examine a row of grapes in their Sunnyside vineyard, known as Airport Ranches. It’s early May and the crops are in a stage known as bud break. As temperatures warm, the dormant fruit begins to wake up, preparing for a burst of growth. The pair have seen this process year after year since childhood. 

Their family business, Airfield Estates, wasn’t always a winery, but its operations were formed well before the two were born. The story of their family’s winery echoes the evolution of the agricultural industry in the Yakima Valley and how multiple generations embraced the twists and turns that make the region unique.

With a rich farming heritage spanning generations, this family-owned estate is currently managed by Miller and Stevens, who oversee the vineyard and winery operations together. 

Their great-grandfather, H. Lloyd Miller, is considered the founder of the Roza Irrigation Canal, to this day an important water source for farms in the high desert of the Yakima Valley. An entrepreneur and real estate investor, H. Lloyd Miller acquired his Yakima Valley property in the 1920s and 1930s before it had reliable access to water, with the plan to bring irrigation to the region.

But before the water project could be completed, the ranch played a part in the U.S.’s World War II efforts. Following the Pearl Harbor attack, the U.S. military ramped up its pilot training throughout Washington state. Looking for possible locations, military officials met H. Lloyd Miller, who showed them his land in Yakima Valley. 

“And next thing we know, they’re breaking construction on some runways and troop barracks, mess hall[s and] hangars. From 1942 to 1944, 500 pilots learned to fly on our property,” Marcus Miller says. 

After the war, H. Lloyd Miller acquired the buildings that the military constructed on the family property and converted them to farm use. What was once an airfield training ground for WWII pilots has transformed into a thriving vineyard. 

“And that’s why the farm is called Airport Ranches, because we still farm today out of World War II-era hangars there.”

After the war, the property received irrigation access and was converted to a farm that grew a variety of produce. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that grapes were introduced to the land by H. Lloyd Miller’s son, Donald Miller.

“My grandfather Donald got into wine,” Marcus Miller says. “He got grapes from Napa Valley and planted them. And so today we still have some chardonnay from 1968, from that original planting. And as [Chateau] Ste. Michelle grew we became one of their go-to growers, and so today that’s all we do is grow wine grapes and juice grapes.”

The business took yet another turn when Miller and Stevens’s dad, Mike Miller, began crafting wine under Airfield Estates’ own label in 2005. For 10 years the winery grew under that multigenerational stewardship. In late 2014, Miller and Stevens were dealt a heavy blow when Mike Miller passed away.

“Well, my dad had this bigger-than-life persona. He was just a really gregarious teddy bear of a guy that everyone loved. And so trying to follow that act as the president of the farm has been difficult because I am just not my father,” Miller says. “It was great to work with him for 10 years and learn from him, and he definitely prepared me to do what I do today.”

The farm has grown a lot since those first grape plantings in the late 1960s. Today, more than 20 varietals are grown in its fields. The Yakima Valley, set right along the 46th parallel, happens to be an exceptional place to grow grapes. The high desert offers lengthy sunshine hours with cooler overnight temperatures that allow the grapes to maintain acidity, providing a good balance against the natural fruit flavor. With water control and good soil, the grapes have an ideal environment in which to thrive.

Starting back in the Ice Age, the region has experienced flooding and deposits that have left a healthy middle ground between clay and sand. The soil that remains offers a balanced retention and drainage that makes caring for grapes, a crop with specific water requirements, a little easier than in other places, including the Napa Valley.

“Here in Washington state, the soils are much more uniform because almost all the ground that we grow grapes [on] was affected by those floods,” Miller says. “Our soil structure is known as silt loam. And I love it because it’s right in the middle there.”

The siblings’ skills complement each other. While Miller handles the farming and wine-production side of the business, Stevens runs the winery and tasting rooms, including rooms in Vancouver and Woodinville. 

“Lori loves the customer experience and making sure that’s really dialed in for our guests,” Miller says. “She makes sure that’s spot-on and every one of our members is getting the experience that Dad so badly would have wanted to give them himself.”

Miller and Stevens have hit their stride with Airfield Estates, but know it’s never too early to involve the next generation, currently ranging in age from 4 to 10. From popsicle stands to cleaning up, it’s all about introducing them to the variety of tasks on the estate – anything that could help the fifth generation of the Miller family love farm life, grow into the business and carry on the tradition. 

For now, it’s up to Miller and Stevens to continue what their father, and his father before him, and his father before him, nurtured. 

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