Vineyards of the Yakima Valley

By Kori ~ April 14th, 2009.

Dick Boushey of Boushey VineyardsMany people think of wine as an uppity beverage. They think beer is for the common folk while wine is for high society. Oh, how I wish we could break down these stereotypes once and for all.

What those people fail to realize (or remember) is that wine is an agricultural product. Wine grapes are grown in vineyards just like corn, wheat, and cotton are grown on farms. Growing up on a farm in Texas, I have always felt a special kinship with the land so I guess it is no surprise that I am fascinated by vineyards. After all, great wine starts in the vineyard. Over the course of the past year, I have had the opportunity to visit a number of vineyards around the state of Washington and I am always anxious to learn more about them and meet the people behind them.

This is a big reason why I was so excited that the Washington Wine Commission decided to feature vineyards at Taste Washington for the first time. Through the Common Ground seminars on Education Day and the Common Ground booths at the Grand Tasting, wine lovers like me were able to taste wines from the same vineyards but different wineries and get a sense for the terroir of that particular vineyard.

Elephant Mountain VineyardsIn addition, I had the great pleasure of interviewing five growers from the Yakima Valley: Kathy Shiels of DuBrul Vineyard, Todd Newhouse of Upland Vineyards, Dick Boushey of Boushey Vineyards, Patricia Gelles of Klipsun Vineyard, and Joe Hattrup of Elephant Mountain Vineyards. The thing that stood out to me the most after speaking with these five growers and thinking back to my visit with Mike and Jonathan Sauer of Red Willow Vineyard last year is how nice, genuine, and down to earth they all are. None of them exhibited one ounce of pretension, and it is abundantly clear that they all love what they do.

The Yakima Valley AVA was established in 1983 and last year celebrated its 25th birthday. It is the oldest and largest growing region in Washington State. Located in central Washington, it runs from Yakima to the Tri-Cities. There are three sub-appellations within the larger Yakima Valley AVA: Red Mountain, Rattlesnake Hills, and the newly established Snipes Mountain.

Yakima Valley vineyards, boasting over 12,000 acres total, produce more than one‐third of Washington State’s grapes, and its fruit is a key ingredient in more than half of all Washington wines. In fact, one‐third of the vineyards in Washington are located in the Yakima Valley AVA.

The most widely planted varieties in the Yakima Valley include Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Syrah, Riesling, Cabernet Franc, Gewürztraminer, and Sauvignon Blanc. The Yakima Valley has a rich diversity of microclimates, rugged hillsides, and wetlands. These factors contribute to the many wine grape varieties and wine styles achieved from Yakima Valley grapes.

Here are a few highlights from my grower interviews at Taste Washington:

DuBrul Vineyard
In 1992, Kathy Shiels and her husband Hugh expanded their vineyard operations into wine grapes. DuBrul boasts some of the oldest Riesling vines in Washington. They currently grow six grape varieties. They started their own winery, Cote Bonneville, in 2001 after their last child left home. They wanted to take DuBrul Vineyard to the next level and have complete control over their fruit and the wine made from it. DuBrul was named Vineyard of the Year by Seattle Magazine for the second year in a row.

“We are always trying to improve, and I think that’s the attitude of the Yakima Valley growers. It is an exciting place right now.” –Kathy Shiels

Upland Vineyards
Upland VineyardsUpland Vineyards was probably the first formal vineyard to get started in Washington. William B. Bridgman planted the first vinifera vines in 1917 on Snipes Mountain which are still in cultivation today. In 1972, the Newhouse family bought all of Upland Vineyards and currently farm 700 acres of wine grapes. Owner Todd Newhouse was instrumental in getting the new Snipes Mountain AVA established. One of the unique things about Upland Vineyards is that they have slopes that face in all four cardinal directions which allow them to grow over 35 different grape varieties.

“The Yakima Valley is established. It’s been there longer than anyone else and proven it can grow just about any variety.” –Todd Newhouse

Boushey Vineyards
Dick Boushey, owner of Boushey Vineyards, planted his first experimental block of ten different varieties in 1977. In 1980, he planted his first commercial block. Currently, he has over 110 acres with more expected to be planted next year. Boushey Vineyards is known for its red varieties, and the Syrah gets the most recognition. The area is well-suited to Syrah because the site has a cooler climate, leaner soils, higher elevation, is rocky, and you can control the vigor.

“A wine can make itself in good years, in good vintages like 1992, 1998, and 2003. You don’t have to adjust anything. It’s the other years when you have to be a good winemaker to adjust acids, use a different fermentation routine, or adjust when you pick, and that’s what good winemakers do.” –Dick Boushey

Klipsun Vineyard
Patricia Gelles of Klipsun VineyardOwned and operated by Patricia Gelles and her husband David, Klipsun Vineyard is located on Red Mountain and was started in 1984. Klipsun means “sunset” in Chinook Indian jargon and is an appropriate name because the vineyard faces west. According to Patricia, everything grows well there except for Chardonnay. Currently, they have approximately 120 acres planted to Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Malbec, Nebbiolo, Sauvignon Blanc, and Semillon. About 25 to 30 producers buy Klipsun grapes including Quilceda Creek which is generally considered the premiere winery in Washington State. Gelles is particular about who she will work with in order to maintain a good reputation for the vineyard.

“If they [winemakers interested in purchasing Klipsun grapes] haven’t made wine before, I want to know what their background is. Have they been to school and/or who will their consultants be? If they don’t have a decent consultant or any consultant, the answer is probably no.” –Patricia Gelles

Elephant Mountain Vineyards
Joe Hattrup, a third generation farmer in the Yakima Valley, bought Elephant Mountain Vineyards in 1995. It is located in the middle of the Rattlesnake Hills AVA. Elephant Mountain is at a higher elevation than just about any vineyard in the AVA and higher than most in the state. Because of their higher elevation, Elephant Mountain focuses on red varieties. Their goal is to get balance and consistency year to year in order to turn out a high quality product.

“There are some great advantages in the Yakima Valley. Often referred to as a cool site, but I prefer to think of the Yakima Valley as a long season site. With its elevations, it has a longer frost-free season. The biggest thing that separates us from all other sites is that we can all pick at the same ripeness or heat accumulation, but it tends to be two to three weeks later in the year which allows for phenolic ripeness, not just heat driven brix runs that cause you to have to pick to shut down that rapid maturation. You get to have nice, slow, and even maturation. That’s the key to Yakima. We can finish the grapes on the years and in the weather patterns that may be a challenge to others.” –Joe Hattrup

Red Willow Vineyard
While I did not interview the Sauers at this year’s Taste Washington, I did have the pleasure to meet both Mike Sauer and his son Jonathan and tour Red Willow Vineyard last summer. I would be remiss in discussing the vineyards of the Yakima Valley if I did not mention Red Willow Vineyard. The first Syrah grapes in Washington were planted in the Yakima Valley at Red Willow Vineyard in 1986. Here are links to my previous posts about Red Willow:
Red Willow Vineyard: The Mother of Washington Syrah
Red Willow Vineyard: Wines We Tasted
Red Willow Vineyard: A Look Ahead

Filed under: American Wine, Vineyards, Washington State Wine

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