A toast to Paul and Judy Champoux

December 21, 2014 

Ask Washington State winemakers whose Cabernet Sauvignon grapes they would like to purchase. Champoux Vineyards would be at the top of the list. The vineyard’s reputation is so great, winemakers want to market their wines with the Champoux name on the label.

Paul Champoux is synonymous with excellent Washington State Cabernet Sauvignon. He produced the fruit that made perfect 100 - point Cabernet Sauvignons - in four vintages. He accomplished this by nurturing vines and relationships. After 35 years of grape growing, Paul Champoux is retiring. He is approaching it the same way he approaches everything - with high spirits, careful planning, and his wife Judy Champoux by his side.

Ask Champoux about his legacy in the wine industry and this farmer with a magnificent green thumb struggles to answer and claim the accolades he so richly deserves.

Champoux is not shy, however, talking about his work. “There is no doubt in my mind that the grower is part of the terroir.” He also believes a sense of humor is crucial. When asked when he knew they had “made it” he answered, “About a week and a half ago.”

Champoux grew up in a farming family growing hops in Yakima Valley. In 1979 he took a job in Paterson installing vineyards at Ste. Michelle Vineyards, known now as Columbia Crest. Champoux explains, “I didn’t know much about grape varietals, but I knew how to install trellis and plants.” Champoux had found a new career.

In 1992 Paul and Judy Champoux struck out on their own. After four years of leasing, they purchased what is now Champoux Vineyards from Mercer Ranches. This vineyard was originally planted on the advice of wine industry icon Walter Clore. Block 1, the first grapevines planted in Horse Heaven Hills, grow here.

The Champouxs formed a partnership with friends and winemakers, Alex Golitzin of Quilceda Creek, Bill Powers of Powers Winery, Chris Camarda of Andrew Will Winery and Rick Small of Woodward Canyon Winery. Small, who had been using grapes from that site since 1985, jumped at the chance to buy in. “The Cabernet Sauvignon [from that vineyard] is special and exceptional and the partners were so well suited.”

Under Champoux’s careful attention, the vineyard thrived. Wine Advocate awarded a perfect 100 - point score to Quilceda Creek’s 2002, 2003, 2005 and 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon - made with 90% Champoux Vineyards fruit. “It was a humbling experience,” says Champoux. “The reputation spread without marketing, it just came out in the wine. We took a good vineyard and made it a world-class vineyard.”

Still it is the relationships that Champoux cherishes the most. Greg Powers shares, “Paul is like family to me.” Bill Powers, Greg’s father and one of Champoux Vineyards’ original partners, recently passed away. “Paul and Judy were some of the last people to see my Dad in the hospital.”

Paul Champoux’s most important relationship and partner has been Judy Champoux. Judy manages the financial aspects of their business. Small speaks fondly of their relationship. “When I think about Champoux Vineyards, I think about Paul and Judy both. I was always impressed that they worked so well as a collaborative team. This was especially important after the mosquito bite.”

The “mosquito bite” turned into one of the biggest struggles for the Champouxs. Bitten on July 4, 2009, Paul was completely paralyzed by July 17th. It took an airlift to Oregon Health and Science University in Portland and 13 days to get the diagnosis - West Nile Virus. Champoux was later transferred to Kadlec Regional Medical Center in Richland, Wash. Carmada recalls. “It was so strange and it came out of nowhere.”

Champoux was not released from the hospital until September. Judy set up a hospital bed at home. “It was our 27th anniversary,” Judy recalls, “and it was the most special one yet because for a while I didn’t know if we would celebrate another year together.”

It was also harvest time and the winemakers were still in need of Champoux’s expert input. He was not able to lift a telephone receiver, but Judy was by his side holding it to his ear. Some winemakers even brought in grape clusters for Champoux to sample before making the decision to pick. He never missed a harvest. Continuing to work was part of his recovery.

Today, Champoux still uses a wheelchair, though his mobility and strength are returning. He manages his vineyards travelling between rows on a four wheeler. He has found it makes him a better farmer because he is closer to the vines than when he travelled in his pickup truck.

Part of the decision to retire is a need to devote more time to therapy. He wants to dance with Judy again - country swing. “Wouldn’t that be something. I would have bragging rights if I did that and it might involve some Dom Perignon.”

The other reason to retire is to just enjoy life. “We want to travel, see the historical sites, visit friends and family around the country. I’ve never been much past the Rockies. We are ready to kick back a couple of gears and do things on our own schedule.”

The Champouxs have managed retirement with the same care they managed the vineyard and business. They and the partners have been planning the transition for over a year. Northwest Winegrowers LLC will take over vineyard management. Dan Nickolaus, operations manager, has worked the 2014 harvest alongside Champoux. Small remarks, “Even though it was a compressed harvest, things went really well and I am pleased with the fruit so far.” Small sees this as a good sign. Ownership of Champoux Vineyards will also remain with the original partners. Quilceda Creek will now be the majority shareholder of Champoux Vineyards LLC. Carmada comments, “Paul is one of the pillars of the grape growers of Eastern Washington. He provided a solid vista for us to stand on and look out to see where we will go in the future.”

“I’ve enjoyed every moment in the wine industry. It is not work, it is just what we do,” explains Champoux. He admits it will be a little hard to leave behind. “Sitting here on the porch looking out over the vineyard on what we did - we did good. We did what we set out to do.” As he prepares for the next leg of the journey with Judy, he does not worry about the vineyard or the future, adding with a grin, “There will be wine involved.”

Jade Helm is the primary author of Tasting Pour, a wine blog. Based in Oregon, she is a Diplomate of the Wine and Spirits Education Trust of London and a Certified Specialist of Wine, Society of Wine Educators. Visit tastingpour.com.

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