Pacific Northwest Winery of the Year: Maryhill Winery

March 16, 2015 

  • Visiting Maryhill Winery

    9774 Highway 14,

    Goldendale, Wash.

    509-773-1976

    Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.

    www.maryhillwinery.com

The Washington wine industry was a lot different just 14 years ago when Craig and Vicki Leuthold opened the doors to their winery near the tiny community of Goldendale in south-central Washington.

The state had only about 125 wineries back then, and putting a winery atop basalt cliffs in the middle of nowhere seemed like a risky move.

But fortune favors the bold, and today Maryhill Winery is one of the most remarkable destination wineries in the Pacific Northwest.

For its superb winemaking, stunning location, amazing concert venue, national reach and superb leadership, Maryhill Winery is our 2015 Pacific Northwest Winery of the Year.

The Leutholds were living in Spokane when they began to get interested in wine. They were part of a local group who bought wines to explore not only the Pacific Northwest but also the nation and the world. They knew they were hooked — and likely needed to get into the industry — when they started having pallets of wine delivered, which took over their garage.

“We wanted to get off the corporate merry-go-round,” Craig Leuthold said. “We always had a passion for wine, and we wanted to take that to a different level. We knew Washington was on the cusp of greatness, and everyone we met in the industry was so wonderful. That excited us, and we knew we wanted to become involved in it.”

Their first foray into the business was becoming business partners in Cascade Cliffs, a small high-end producer to the west of Maryhill Museum near the town of Wishram, Wash. This whet their palates for what was possible, so the Leutholds began to look for where they could start their own business. They looked in Walla Walla, the Yakima Valley and beyond.

But as they drove between Spokane and Wishram, they became entranced with the lower Columbia Gorge region and ultimately approached Maryhill Museum about building a winery on its property. Because the museum is run by a nonprofit board, the two parties could never come to an agreement.

Meanwhile, Dan Gunkel had planted vineyards a mile to the west and already had all the necessary permits to build a winery, so the Leutholds took advantage and located their future there. They called it Maryhill Winery.

When one drives down lonely Highway 14, the location the Leutholds selected would not seem to be ideal, but it has turned out that way. Maryhill Winery is purposely just outside the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area and its strict construction codes. It’s also an easy drive from Portland — less than two hours of freeway driving.

They opened in May 2001 with wines from the 1999 and 2000 vintages crafted by talented winemaker John Haw, who made his mark the previous decade at Sokol Blosser Winery in Oregon’s Dundee Hills.

Success came reasonably quickly. In 2004 at the West Coast Wine Competition in Santa Rosa, Calif., Maryhill’s 2002 Zinfandel beat out more than 100 other Zins — all from California — to win best of class. This propelled Maryhill to the A-list of Washington wineries.

The Leutholds soon built a 4,000-seat concert amphitheater and began to attract top talent (this year’s concert series has been canceled while improvements are made to Highway 14).

Before long, Maryhill Winery was attracting more than 50,000 visitors per year, and the Leutholds continued to increase their production accordingly.

Meanwhile, instability came to the cellar, the key to any winery’s success or failure. Haw left to become a consulting winemaker, so the Leutholds brought in a new winemaker, who didn’t end up fitting into the direction they wanted to go. He left, and they brought in their third winemaker, who also didn’t last long. In the summer of 2009, they found the right fit in Richard Batchelor, a New Zealand native who had been honing his winemaking talents in Napa, including Paraduxx and Hall wineries.

Batchelor took quickly to the Columbia Valley, producing stellar wines in his first vintage. By 2010, he was ready to play, so he and the Leutholds embarked on the Vineyard Series, a group of nine vineyard-designated wines using grapes from throughout the vast Columbia Valley. They were universally spectacular.

The wines were made available primarily to Maryhill’s wine club members, and the Leutholds even remodeled their tasting room to create a special members-only area with great wines and amazing views of Mount Hood, the Columbia River and the Gorge.

Even with a difficult 2011 vintage, Batchelor expanded his offerings, which were released last year. They received rave reviews from wine professionals. Last summer, Maryhill was named winery of the year at the San Francisco International Wine Competition for its performance primarily with reds from the 2011 vintage.

Maryhill’s amazing year culminated when Great Northwest Wine named its 2011 Marvell — a Southern Rhône-style red blend using grapes from Rattlesnake Hills grower Joe Hattrup — its 2014 Wine of the Year.

But Batchelor and the Leutholds are far from satisfied as the awards continue to arrive (Maryhill has earned more than 1,000 wine competition medals in its first 14 years). Production is closing in on 100,000 cases, making Maryhill one of the 10 largest wineries in Washington — a state that now exceeds 800 wineries. Last year, more than 80,000 people visited the winery, and between customers and wine club members, Maryhill sells more than 20 percent of its wines directly to consumers, which is great for business.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is called Winemaker’s Red. At more than 46,000 cases, the blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Franc makes up about half of Maryhill’s production. It retails for $12 and is remarkable not only for its price but also its quality. In 2013, the wine won best of class at the uber-prestigious 6 Nations Wine Challenge in Australia, a competition featuring 600 wines from six wine-producing countries.

Batchelor now works with about 35 grape varieties from 26 vineyards.

“Richard likes the challenge,” Craig Leuthold said. “He isn’t intimidated by it all. He’s having fun with it all.”

Leuthold said that while neighboring Oregon has built its reputation on Pinot Noir, Washington’s success is via its diversity, and he more than embraces that.

“I think there may be something there,” he said. “It seems like we do so many things well. Our diversity is our strength. The most fun part of making wine here is the diversity and the high-level of quality across the board.”

With Maryhill, the list goes on, from Carménère to Primitivo to Grenache to Cinsault. It just introduced two new vineyard-designated Tempranillos (both of which earned our top “Outstanding!” rating in this issue).

“Most people who join wine clubs are reasonably sophisticated,” Leuthold said. “So when they get an unusual variety, it gets them excited. People expect diversity from Maryhill, and the Vineyard Series takes that to a new level.”

This year, there is the expectation that Batchelor will release more than 60 wines, with the Vineyard Series expanding beyond 30 offerings. Even he and the Leutholds wonder if that might be taking things a little too far. But with the kind of success they’re enjoying, it’s hard not to keep pushing, to keep expanding, to find the boundaries.

Last year, Batchelor put 9,000 miles on his company vehicle just driving to various vineyards he works with. Part of this is the vastness of the 11-million-acre Columbia Valley and Maryhill’s remote location. But a lot of it is his need to make sure he’s getting the finest grapes.

And Maryhill is helping other wineries. Just as Chateau Ste. Michelle brings success to Woodinville (and the state as a whole) and Leonetti Cellar is the nucleus of the Walla Walla Valley’s success, so too has Maryhill drawn attention and fans to the Columbia Gorge. As the primary source of visitors is Portland, wineries on both sides of the Columbia River in Hood River, White Salmon, Lyle and The Dalles benefit from all of those wine lovers who are driving to Maryhill.

It is difficult to imagine Maryhill being quite so successful if the Leutholds had decided to put their winery in Walla Walla, the Yakima Valley, Woodinville or anywhere else but this seemingly desolate location overlooking the Columbia River. It’s a special place, and it’s even better because of Maryhill Winery.

SIDEBARS

How the Pacific Northwest Winery of the Year is chosen

The Winery of the Year is selected based on longevity, quality, reputation, industry involvement, facilities and other considerations. A winery may win the award once.

Past Pacific Northwest Wineries of the Year

2014: Stoller Family Estate, Dayton, Ore.

2013: Chateau Ste. Michelle, Woodinville, Wash.

2012: Thurston Wolfe, Prosser, Wash.

2011: Zerba Cellars, Milton-Freewater, Ore.

2010: Vin du Lac, Chelan, Wash.

2009: Wild Goose Vineyards, Okanagan Falls, B.C.

2008: Dunham Cellars, Walla Walla, Wash.

2007: Elk Cove Vineyards, Gaston, Ore.

2006: Barnard Griffin: Richland, Wash.

2005: Ken Wright Cellars: Carlton, Ore.

2004: L’Ecole No. 41, Lowden, Wash.

2003: Sumac Ridge Estate Winery, Summerland, B.C.

2002: Columbia Crest, Paterson, Wash.

ANDY PERDUE is editor and publisher of Great Northwest Wine ( greatnorthwestwine.com) and wine columnist for The Seattle Times.

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