Back in the early 1990s, Greg Lill got together with friends Jay Soloff and Chris Upchurch to create a winery. The result was the DeLille Cellars, which has become one of Washingtons most revered producers. Now DeLille Cellars is Wine Press Northwest magazines 2017 Washington Winery of the Year.
It all began a quarter-century ago when Greg, Jay and Chris met on property in Woodinville owned by Gregs father, Charles just a couple minutes drive from Chateau Ste. Michelle. The focus at DeLille remains red blends made in the Bordeaux tradition, and Upchurch seems to have made every innovation a successful one with his winemaking.
Today, DeLille continues to earn acclaim for wines such as Chaleur Estate, Harrison Hill, D2 and Doyenne, a line of wines inspired by the Rhône Valley.
One of the key vineyards for Upchurch has been Harrison Hill, a historic vineyard in the Yakima Valley town of Sunnyside. It was established by William Bridgman in 1914. All the original vines are long gone, but in 1962, Bridgman sold some land to the founders of Associated Vintners, now known as Columbia Winery in Woodinville. It was that group who planted Cabernet Sauvignon, and these old vines are what attracted Upchurch to Harrison Hill.
The one consistency around the world is that all winemakers worth a damn seek out old vines, Upchurch said. They are like old people in the sense that they dont move fast and they dont produce a lot.
Cabernet Sauvignon on Harrison Hill ripens slowly, a trait Upchurch cherishes. He was led to Harrison Hill in the early days of DeLille by his mentor, the legendary David Lake, then winemaker for Columbia Winery. Lake recalled working with those vines before Chateau Ste. Michelle took over the contract.
Upchurch remembers Lake nudging him, encouraging him to explore working with those vines. So Upchurch approached Allen Shoup, then CEO of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, who allowed DeLille to take over the small vineyard. At the time, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Noir also grew on Harrison Hill, so Upchurch worked with the Newhouse family, owners of the vineyard, to replant to Bordeaux varieties.
DeLille brought its first Cab out of Harrison Hill in 1994, a great vintage for Washington, Upchurch said. That marked his first old-vine Cab, and he was hooked.
By 1996, Harrison Hill became the blended wine it is today, and the 1999 Harrison Hill, a product of a cool vintage, remains one of Upchurchs favorites.
In 1999, I made one of the great wines of my career, Upchurch said. Its beautifully expressive with purity of fruit. It taught me my place. Its humbling. Were all benefiting from the guy before us.
Recently, Upchurch crafted what has become one of DeLilles finest wines: Four Flags. It is a Cabernet Sauvignon from four vineyards on Red Mountain. It started as a small project in the cellar when Upchurch and his team created a blend of Cabs from Klipsun, Ciel du Cheval, Grand Ciel and Upchurch. They made a small amount for the DeLille wine club. It sold out in a month and moved on to become a bigger part of the lineup.
In 2013, the Four Flags was named Wine of the Year by The Seattle Times.
Upchurch and his wife, Theodora, purchased a few acres of land on Red Mountain at a 2007 auction. They then hired famed grape grower Dick Boushey to plant and manage the vineyard. Theres now a building that serves as a small winery, laboratory and apartment, which Upchurch uses during harvest to cut down on travel between Red Mountain and Woodinville.
Most the grapes from Upchurch go to DeLille, and they make the cut for Four Flags, D2 and even the flagship Chaleur Estate. Upchurch also holds back few barrels for its own label, Upchurch Vineyard. In 2013, Upchurch released his first wine from the 2010 vintage. He views Upchurch Vineyard as a future retirement project, one thats years off.
DeLille is my pride and joy, he said.
Charles Lill passed away in 2008, and five years later, Bacchus Capital Management in San Francisco invested in DeLille Cellars. The arrangement sparked DeLille Cellars to expand production and distribution into other markets, including in the East Coast.
Our partnership with Bacchus provides DeLille Cellars with the financial backing and growth ability that we could not have accomplished on our own, said Greg Lill, DeLilles president and CEO. Now, we are at the point where we need additional resources and proven expertise in order to take advantage together of the opportunities ahead."
Among the points of pride at DeLille Cellars is Grand Ciel, its estate vineyard on Red Mountain thats a partnership with Red Mountain pioneer Jim Holmes, who founded Ciel du Cheval Vineyard. Grand Ciel is focused on Bordeaux varieties, and Upchurch uses some of that fruit for the flagship Chaleur Estate. Theres also a special Cabernet Sauvignon each year from Grand Ciel.
And while Red Mountain commands much of DeLilles attention, they also pull from famous vineyards such as Boushey in the Yakima Valley, historic Sagemoor overlooking the Columbia River, Mike Sauers iconic Red Willow near the Mount Adams foothills and Stillwater Creek in the Frenchman Hills.
DeLilles original chateau now is home to special events and has become a popular setting for weddings. Lills team also operates the Carriage House tasting room, near Brian Carter Cellars, and a tasting bar in downtown Kirkland called Maison DeLille.
ANDY PERDUE is the editor and publisher of Great Northwest Wine, an award-winning media company. Hes also the wine columnist for the Seattle Times.