Andy Perdue

Washington heads for the hills

Walla Walla collects the accolades, and Red Mountain gets the headlines. But in the end, the Horse Heaven Hills will be regarded as Washington’s most important grape-growing region.

It’s a bold statement, and the defenders of Red Mountain and Walla Walla could well be offended, but the Horse Heaven Hills already is there.

The Horse Heaven Hills is a huge swath of land south of the Yakima Valley. At 570,000 acres, it has enormous potential. It is bordered on two sides by the Columbia River and has an agricultural history that goes back well over a century. For the most part, it’s been known for row crops such as corn and carrots and huge amounts of dryland wheat.

The Horse Heaven Hills is Washington’s second-largest grape-growing area with nearly 12,000 acres of wine grapes (the Yakima Valley is the largest with about 17,000 acres). It’s also the fastest-growing region and could well take over the No. 1 spot in the next 15 years.

As recently as 2009, just about 9,000 acres of wine grapes were planted in the Horse Heaven Hills. That’s now nearly 12,000 acres, a 29 percent jump in just five years. If we look at red wine grapes only, we notice a 34.4 percent boost during that same period. And if we drill down to just Cabernet Sauvignon — the No. 1 wine grape in Washington — we see that the Horse Heaven Hills has increased by an astonishing 47 percent in that same period.

And we’re not just talking about lots of low-end, high-production grapes. Much of this is for high-quality wines driven by — you guessed it — Ste. Michelle Wine Estates.

The first grapes in the region were planted by Don Mercer in 1972. That vineyard, Mercer Ranch Vineyards, has been known as Champoux Vineyards since the 1990s. It’s home to some of the most-coveted Cabernet Sauvignon in Washington. In fact, the area around Champoux is a pretty nice neighborhood, with such vineyards as Phinny Hill, Double Canyon, Discovery and Palengat. Most of the grapes for Quilceda Creek Vintners’ multiple 100-point Cabs came from this area known as Alderdale.

Count in such vineyards as Alder Ridge, Canoe Ridge (owned by Precept), Canoe Ridge Estate (owned by Ste. Michelle), Spice Cabinet and Destiny Ridge amid top plantings. Horse Heaven Vineyard, which is at Columbia Crest (and was planted by Paul Champoux back in the late 1970s), not only is a workhorse vineyard but also provides top-end grapes for multiple brands. Earlier this year, the Aquillini family — which bought more than 500 acres of land on Red Mountain — has invested in the Horse Heaven Hills by purchasing Aldercreek Vineyard.

And to the east is The Benches, a vineyard controlled by Long Shadows founder Allen Shoup. It is not only considered one of the finest and most fascinating plantings in Washington, but it also might just be the most beautiful and dramatic setting for a vineyard anywhere.

The growth spurt is hardly finished. In fact, it’s just getting some steam. While Ste. Michelle has probably hit its limit on the amount of Riesling it needs, the Woodinville giant has a serious craving for red grapes, particularly Cab.

This year, grower Rob Mercer added 300 acres of grapes to his vast vineyards. Next year, Rob Andrews of McKinley Springs already has 2,000 acres planted and will add 160 acres in 2015, 250 acres in 2016 and 250 acres in 2017 — most of which will go to Ste. Michelle. His brother Mike, owner of Coyote Canyon Vineyards, has scheduled another 150 acres to be planted in 2016. This will add to his 1,135 acres already in the ground.

As it is everywhere in the West, water is the key factor in figuring out how the Horse Heaven Hills will grow. Fortunately, most growers have that puzzle solved. A few years ago, a change in law allowed farmers to use conservation methods to reduce water use in one area and apply it to newly purchased ground. For example, if a farmer converts row crops or orchards to vineyards, he will use less water (grapes require less). He can then take that water and use it on a different piece of nearby land. This means that for every acre converted to grapes, a farmer might be able to plant an additional acre without ever having to purchase more water.

Mercer, who is the third-largest grape grower in the Horse Heaven Hills, believes Washington will double its 50,000 acres of wine grapes in the next 15 years. And the Horse Heaven Hills will be the driving force behind it. He’s probably right.

The only thing not in the Horse Heaven Hills’ favor is tourism. Tasting rooms in this large, dusty area are few, and that isn’t likely to change. The exception is Columbia Crest, which receives maybe 50,000 visitors per year. Most of the travel near its southern border is along Interstate 84 — on the Oregon side of the Columbia River. However, Maryhill Winery, farther down the river in remote Goldendale, now attracts 100,000 visitors per year, so maybe there is an opportunity along Highway 14.

Regardless, the quality and quantity of red wine grapes coming from the Horse Heaven Hills will drive Washington’s future.

-- Andy Perdue is the editor and publisher of Great Northwest Wine and wine columnist for The Seattle Times. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com.

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