With innovation and dedication, Washington growers up the ante
With more than 33,000 acres under vine, 11 American Viticultural Areas (or appellations), 650-plus wineries and more than 350 wine-grape growers in Washington state, it was tough to choose just four vineyards to profile.
IF YOU LOVE good wine, you've heard of them: Canoe Ridge. Celilo. Cold Creek. Red Willow.
These are the famous Washington vineyards, the pricey plots of land where the top fruit is grown.
Our state's leading vineyards headlined in April during Taste Washington!, when two of 10 seminars for wine professionals focused on Klipsun Vineyard on Red Mountain and Champoux Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills.
During the popular public tasting event, vineyard owners and growers proudly poured wines crafted from their grapes to show just how important the vineyard is.
Why all the hoopla over vineyards and their accompanying "terroir" — that ineffable combination of soil, nature, location and the human touch? Because it's common wisdom that "wine is made in the vineyards," and that "you can't make good wine out of bad grapes."
Sadly, you get no guarantee when you buy a bottle of wine. But a bottle from a respected vineyard is more likely to be pleasurable than one from an unknown. Like a dog with a pedigree, a vineyard-designate wine comes with papers and lineage and the reputation of a good "breeder" behind it.
With more than 33,000 acres under vine, 11 American Viticultural Areas (or appellations), 650-plus wineries and more than 350 wine-grape growers in Washington state, you can bet it was tough to choose just four vineyards to profile.
But rest assured. From Dutch greenhouse growers who hit it big in the Yakima Valley to a self-styled "recreational" winery in Naches Heights to a posh wine resort in Central Washington to high-tech, build-to-suit vineyard sites in the Walla Walla Valley appellation, these four vineyards bring fresh concepts and new practices from the fields to our tables.
OLD WORLD KNOWLEDGE, NEW WORLD RICHES
Wallula Vineyard/ The Benches
As we bounce around in a pickup tearing through a tangle of winding washboard roads overlooking the Wallula Gap in southeastern Washington, brothers Bill and Andy Den Hoed regale me with tales of growing up in a household where Dutch was the common language, summertime workdays on the farm began at 4 a.m. and Mom (Marie) was the glue who held it all together.
His family were "well-to-do greenhouse farmers in Holland, where they grew hothouse tulips and vegetables," says movie-star handsome Andy Den Hoed. But after immigrating to New Jersey when World War II was over, they found themselves practically penniless. Through sheer hard work and determination they began vegetable farming, paid off their sponsor and bought farmland in Hoboken.
Family ties brought them to Grandview, Yakima County, where they bought land and started dairy farming. But Bill and Andy's father, Andreas, decided that dairy farming wasn't for him. Instead, he planted row crops (mint and potatoes) and a patch of concord grapes for juice. Next came apple and pear orchards. In 1978, he planted his first wine grapes in the lower Yakima Valley.
By 1984, Chateau Ste. Michelle came calling. The company paid Andreas $900 a ton for his chardonnay, chenin blanc, gewürztraminer and cabernet sauvignon. Juice grapes brought $100 a ton.
A few years later, Andreas offered his three sons the chance to join the family grape-growing business. Bill and Andy signed on; oldest brother Archie stuck with organic apples.
Drawn by its south-facing slopes, picture-postcard views over the Columbia River, desirable Horse Heaven Hills location and potential to produce ultra-premium grapes, the Den Hoeds bought the 550-acre Wallula Vineyard in 1997.
"A whole lot of earth-moving took place," according to Bill, as 27 steep "benches" were carved into the slopes, creating level vineyard sites that run from 1,350 to 300 feet above sea level.
These days, Andy says, "we don't turn the earth as much. We want that sense of place and terroir, the taste of Wallula Vineyard to stay in the wine."
Allen Shoup, the longtime top man at Ste. Michelle/Stimson Lane and founder of Long Shadows Vintners, had been interested in Wallula Vineyard's premium grapes to supply the winemakers at Long Shadows. Finally, in 2008, at a purchase price reputed to be the highest ever paid for a contiguous vineyard in Washington state, the Den Hoeds agreed to sell majority interest in their "dream vineyard" to Shoup's investor group. They kept some of the acreage and agreed to manage it all.
Shoup renamed the property The Benches. The earliest planted vines, along with a 145-acre biodynamic vineyard, retained the prestigious Wallula Vineyard name.
"We have Dad to thank for this. He made himself by his own sweat and blood," Andy Den Hoed says as we enjoy a gourmet picnic lunch with wines from Long Shadows and Den Hoed Wine Estates, a new joint venture with Long Shadows. Made from Wallula Vineyard grapes, "Andreas" is 100 percent cabernet sauvignon, while "Marie's View" is crafted from five robust red varietals.
Tasting Terroir: Aromatic cabernet franc. Spicy sangiovese. Wild syrah. Mellow merlot. Long, elegant, highly structured cabernet sauvignon.
FROM MOUNTAIN BIKING TO BIODYNAMICS
Wilridge Vineyard/The Tasting Room Yakima
www.tastingroomyakima.comLike many veteran winemakers, the aptly named Paul Beveridge grew tired of getting his grapes from others and decided it was time to plant his own.
The environmental and winery lawyer by day co-owns and makes the wine at Wilridge Winery in Seattle. He also helped develop The Tasting Room: Wines of Washington and is president of the Family Winemakers of Washington State.
Beveridge always figured he'd end up planting somewhere from Yakima to Walla Walla. But it was love at first "site" once he discovered the Naches Heights region near downtown Yakima. How great he could cross the mountains in the morning and be back home with his family by night.
Beveridge felt good about the region's potential, thanks to the pioneering efforts of Philip Cline. In 2002, Cline had planted grapes on family property where orchards once flourished. Although neighbors referred to Naches Heights Vineyard as "Phil's Folly," he has since produced award-winning pinot gris, riesling and syrah. This year, Cline's 2008 pinot gris won the Governor's Award for best white wine in the Washington State Wine Competition.
In 2007, Beveridge settled on a 20-acre site with sweeping views over Cowiche Canyon. "The geology here is that you are standing on a 1 million-year-old lava flow from near Mount Rainier," he says. "There's lots of andacite boulders and cliff faces — great for rock climbing."
Beveridge decided he would create the state's first "recreational winery," the sort of place where "a case of wine meets Patagonia."
Today a half-mile feeder trail connects The Tasting Room Yakima to the William O. Douglas Trail — nirvana for hikers and bikers — that runs from downtown Yakima to Mount Rainier and the Pacific Crest Trail. A quaint 1904 farmhouse serves as the winery's tasting room. Beveridge offers free wine shipping if you arrive on foot or bike. Camping sites are also free.
Early on, Beveridge committed to certified biodynamic farming practices on The Tasting Room Yakima's Wilridge Vineyard. The biodynamic farm aims to be eco-conscious by avoiding chemicals and using the farm's own materials (compost and such) to sustain itself.
"I went biodynamic totally due to taste, and so my sons could safely play in the vineyard," he says as he leads the way into a dimly lit underground laboratory — the farm's former root cellar. Here he mixes ingredients such as camomile, valerian bark and hoptail into organic teas and composts that he then "dynamizes" (swirls into spirals, eddies and whirlpools) and spreads in the vineyards (to help the plants grow or to ward off pests).
"The preparations are like the on-off switch for the vines," he explains. "Most of the process makes sense, especially planting according to the lunar cycle, which is similar to 'The Farmers' Almanac.' "
Beveridge and the 14 winegrowers in the Naches Heights region have applied for official American Viticultural Area designation. With 100 acres all organically grown, the founding farmers hope all future winegrowers will continue the practice. If so, Naches Heights will enjoy bragging rights as our state's only all-organic appellation.
Tasting Terroir: Intense concentration and lower alcohol levels in red wines are more typical of European-style wines than many produced in Washington. The whites show nice concentration, bright fruit, good acidity and pleasing minerality.
A RESORT BUILT ON KNOWING THE TURF
Cave B Estate Winery
www.sagecliffe.comIn 2005, the buzz began to build about Cave B Inn at SageCliffe, which billed itself as Washington's first wine resort.
Owners Dr. Vince Bryan II, a Seattle neurosurgeon, and his wife, Carol, shared a grand vision: To turn 700 acres of desert sagebrush planted with 100 acres of vineyards into a mecca where visitors from Seattle, Spokane and the Tri-Cities, as well as travelers from around the globe, could enjoy estate-grown wine, gourmet food, luxurious lodging and the time to relax and commune with nature.
They hired a big-name, Seattle-based architect, Tom Kundig, to design a stunning barrel-vaulted inn surrounded by a 15-room "cavern house" and 15 chic individual "cliffehouses" overlooking the Columbia River in the small town of Quincy.
They enlisted a famous chef and a well-respected winemaker. Alfredo "Freddy" Arredondo, a charismatic culinary- and enology-school grad (and their son-in-law), was brought in as assistant winemaker.
Years before, the Bryan family had quite literally established deep roots in the central part of Washington. In 1980, they planted chenin blanc, chardonnay and gewürztraminer vines there. In 1984, they launched Champs de Brionne, the state's 12th bonded winery.
"Customers used to call it, 'Château Mobile Home,' " Vince Bryan reminisces.
In 1985, the Bryans opened the Champs de Brionne Music Theater, later known as the Gorge Amphitheatre. Throughout the summer, caravans of concertgoers, attracted by the site's rich natural acoustics, enjoyed national acts such as James Taylor and the Beach Boys while sipping Champs de Brionne wine.
But eventually the state banned alcohol at concerts. In 1993, the Bryans sold the Gorge but held onto most of the grapevines and the modest winery building.
Meanwhile, Vince Bryan used the proceeds from the amphitheater to patent a cervical-disk prosthesis, which he sold to a national medical company for big bucks. He plowed those proceeds back into the land at Cave B to create his and Carol's grand vision.
Today, the inn, cavern house and cliffehouses seem as timeless as the ice-age rock faces that drop 900 feet to the Columbia. The surrounding area has been recast as the Ancient Lakes wine region, with 1,000 acres planted to grapes.
Head winemaker now, Arredondo produces 5,000 cases each year. His wines run the gamut from a creamy, yeasty sparkling wine to a lusty, cabernet-based rosé to reds such as barbera and a hearty Bordeaux blend called Cuvée du Soleil. He even crafts late-harvest riesling and ice wine.
"We're experimenting with 20 varieties, using 17 in single varietals and blends," he says.
Earlier this year, Arredondo's 2008 riesling won gold from the prestigious Seattle Wine Awards; the barbera and Cuvée du Soleil stepped away with silver.
Vince Bryan freely admits it's taken three decades to figure out which wine varietals grow best, and where to plant them, at Cave B. "Three hundred yards here are similar to 1,200 miles in European viticultural regions, a geographic area that runs from Bordeaux to Tuscany," he says. "We've moved 70 percent of the vineyards in 30 years, but now understand every square foot."
Tasting Terroir: Full-flavored, tannic and intense red wines with distinct earthy, menthol, smoky notes (perhaps due to the sagebrush!) not found in many other Washington reds. White wines are bright and high in acid.
A UNIQUE CONCEPT IN OWNING YOUR OWN
www.seveinvineyards.comYou've always dreamed of growing grapes in Washington's hottest appellation — Walla Walla. But you live in Woodinville. You're sensitive to sun. And you detest dirt.
What do you do?
If you're willing to commit to 40 acres of high-quality vineyard property at $25,000 to $45,000 an acre, then it's time to call SeVein.
Formed in 2004, SeVein is a group of companies made up of Seven Hills Properties, North Slope Management and Seven Hills Properties Water Association. The companies work in tandem, along with an on-site compost company, to provide a full-service, turnkey vineyard experience. The name SeVein alludes to the venerable Seven Hills Vineyard (which is part of SeVein Vineyards), the company's seven principals and the veins of mineral-rich basalt flows and alluvial sedimentation that run beneath the vineyards.
Walla Walla notables Norm McKibben (Seven Hills Vineyard and Pepper Bridge Winery), Gary and Chris Figgins (Leonetti Cellar) and Marty Clubb (L'Ecole No 41) are partners in SeVein. Bob Buchanan is general manager of North Slope Management and the conduit between the various companies and vineyard owners.
The more than 2,000 acres at SeVein Vineyards will be sustainably farmed using "precision viticulture." High-tech is the watchword here.
"Telemetry systems, solar panels, Webcams, Wi-Fi hot spots and PDAs are used extensively to collect and communicate real-time information to our managers and vineyard owners," according to SeVein's 19-page prospectus.
When complete, SeVein Vineyards will double the acreage in the Walla Walla Valley appellation. Already, half the acreage is spoken for.
John Bigelow was one of the first winemakers to purchase property at SeVein Vineyards after he and wife Peggy met Gary and Nancy Figgins at a winemakers dinner in 2005. No neophyte to the wine business, Bigelow started JM Cellars, based in Woodinville, in 1998; 2009 marks his 12th harvest as a commercial winemaker; 30 of his wines have been rated 90 points or higher. He has sourced fruit from all the leading vineyards but wanted to grow his own.
"Gary called me after the event," Bigelow recalls. They'd talked about the idea of a high-end estate vineyard "and he told me that the partners had agreed that JM Cellars would be a winery they would like to have involved. It took me about three seconds to think about it and tell him we were in."
In 2006, Bigelow chose a north-slope property he named Margaret's Vineyard (after his wife). Next, he and the SeVein team "ripped" a former wheat field and planted 16 acres with classic Bordeaux varietals. Bigelow harvested his first grapes this fall; JM Cellars Margaret's Vineyard Estate Red Wine, a Bordeaux-style blend, will be released by early 2012.
When Bigelow bought in, he hired Jim Holmes, owner of Ciel du Cheval Vineyard and one of the state's top winegrowers, as a consultant.
"When I asked Jim what he thought the best fertilizer would be, he gave me a great piece of advice," Bigelow says. "He told me the best fertilizer is 'your shadow.' "
Tasting Terroir: Depending on the specific location, SeVein Vineyards provides full-body fruit characteristics with soft tannins, expressive aromas, a complex mineral essence, robust flavor profiles, delicate mouth feel and a feminine complexity.
Braiden Rex-Johnson is the author of "Pacific Northwest Wining & Dining." Visit her online at www.NorthwestWiningandDining.com. Ken Lambert is a Seattle Times staff photographer.
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