Tim Harless has spent much of his life at 30,000 feet in either a B-1 Lancer or T-38 Talon for the U.S. Air Force, then in MD-80s and 737s for commercial airlines.
Last year, he grounded himself, retiring after 20 years as an airline pilot. As winemaker/co-owner of Hat Ranch Winery in the Snake River Valley, he doesn’t miss the travel.
“I’ve got a tractor now. I can go and start it up anytime I want,” Harless quipped. “I don’t miss flying one bit. I’m over it.”
Harless and his wife Helen, a dentist with a practice in Boise, never have been on auto pilot since they both retired from the Air Force to create an estate winery in the Snake River Valley. Now, they’ve joined a select group as Wine Press Northwest’s Idaho Winery of the Year.
“We’re in Year Eight of this, and every year we’ve experienced growth,” Dr. Helen said of their 3,200-case project. “This has been an amazing ride — and what is life for if not to have an adventure and try something new? — but the best part is the people we've met around the industry and in the industry.”
Last year, they earned gold medals at the Cascadia International Wine Competition in Richland, Wash., for their Vale Wine Co. 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon, the Vale Wine Co. 2016 Chardonnay and Vale Wine Co. 2016 Viognier.
“That label always been an outlier for us, but we knew those wines were good,” Tim said. “We have instructed our staff to talk about the Vale brand as a classic interpretation of traditional varietals, whereas Hat Ranch has been anything that we grow ourselves or blends or one-offs. But it’s obvious that we should market the Vale wines better.”
Their flagship wine, however, is the Hat Trick Red, a proprietary blend that in 2015 led with Cabernet Sauvignon, backed by Petit Verdot and Tempranillo.
“It’s been pretty important to us because the red blend category is so hot right now, which makes it the best chance you have to make that biggest impression,” she said. “It allows us to make a great wine every year.”
Indeed, the Hat Ranch 2015 Hat Trick Red picked up a gold medal at the Idaho Wine Competition. Judges included Mike Dunne, wine writer for the Sacramento Bee; Bill Ward, James Beard Award-winning wine writer for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and Sheri Sauter Morano, a Master of Wine from Durham, N.C. This winter, the Hat Ranch 2015 Petit Verdot grabbed a gold at the Savor NW Wine Awards, an international judging staged in tony Cannon Beach, Ore.
“The tide has really turned in the acceptance of Idaho wines, and we have an influx of people moving here who seem to be open-minded,” Helen said.
Tim, 55, a Wyoming native, graduated from Ohio State with a degree in aerospace engineering prior to becoming an instructor pilot in the Air Force. He spent 10 years on active duty and more than a decade in the reserves. Helen, who grew up in Michigan, earned her dentistry degree at Marquette. Before serving her country, she lived in the Bay Area, spending two years as assistant tasting coordinator for Wine Spectator magazine.
In 2006, they met in Texas through friends who knew of their shared interest in wine. Tim’s “ah-hah moment” hit while taking his parents to Italy for a vacation. That experience inspired him to take winemaking classes at Grayson County Community College in Denison, Texas.
A search throughout the West Coast led them to the Sunnyslope of the Snake River Valley at the corner of Plum Road and Pear Lane. It’s less than two miles from the river, and the 40-minute drive northwest of Boise offers visitors views of the Owyhee Mountains.
“We started with $40,000 and a piece of dirt, borrowing from our 401k to get this going, which included a lot of elbow grease,” Tim said.
They launched their winery with the 2011 vintage, naming their brand in tribute to Tim’s great-grandparents who homesteaded Hat Ranch in Wyoming at the turn of the 20th century. Hat Ranch Winery twice struck gold with Chardonnay and Tempranillo from that debut vintage. Continued success prompted Wine Press Northwest to tag Hat Ranch as the 2014 Idaho Winery to Watch. That same year, the Harlesses acquired Vale Wine Co. from winemaking mentor John Danielson. Both brands are produced at the University of Idaho’s Food and Wine Technology Center in downtown Caldwell.
From the start, the pilot and dentist made Snake River Valley fruit their focus. While not every decision in their 6-acre vineyard has flourished, their dry estate Muscat Ottonel ranks alongside the best in the Pacific Northwest, in 2015 capturing best of show at the Idaho Wine Competition.
“It’s been something to introduce to the valley because nobody has done that yet, and we’ve been thrilled with it,” he said. “Another reason is that the vines would be something that would look great and smell good near the tasting room. People think of Moscato as sweet, so this also allows us to do something that’s exceptionally different. And sometimes, we don’t even tell people what they are tasting when we pour it.”
They also grow Cabernet Franc for rosé, Tempranillo and Sauvignon Blanc, but the white Bordeaux grape has struggled below their tasting room.
“We are giving it one last shot in 2019. We are pioneering the viticulture,” Tim smirked. “But we saw an absence of certain varietals in certain places and wanted something to hang our hat on. When you only have 6 acres, it can be a lab. It’s not the worst thing in the world to rip out 1 1/2 acres. You’re only talking 1,200 vines, which is a summer project.”
Among the most important investments made by the Harlesses have been in people, and they’ve compiled one of the strongest young cellars in the Northwest. Assistant winemaker Will Wetmore, a product of the Washington State University enology program, already has his Veer Wine Project, which the Harlesses allow him to promote on the Hat Ranch website.
“I can’t imagine a guy who can pick up stuff faster,” Tim said. “He came into this with a biology degree, so he’s got credibility. He’s a dream assistant that every guy who has a winemaking operation wished that he had.”
Helen adds, “As he continues to grow, we’ll figure out how to support him along the way.”
Nick Cheatham, with a fermentation science degree from Oregon State, is their bilingual associate winemaker/vineyard manager. His résumé includes stints in the Willamette Valley with iconic Adelsheim Vineyard, giant A to Z Wineworks and boutique Bluebird Hill Cellars.
This summer, however, they lose Lane Hewett, a graduate of Walla Walla Community College’s wine program, to his family’s fascinating Rivaura Estate Vineyards and Winery in the Lewis-Clark Valley.
Last summer, Hat Ranch deepened its relationship with the University of Idaho in Moscow when Scott Lawrence, assistant professor in the College of Art and Architecture, approached the Harlesses about turning their original tasting room into a class project, then guided students through a multi-month redesign and expansion. The interior represents a blend of repurposed steel and pine that fits the Hat Ranch brand. If they could, the Harlesses would give those two dozen students an A+.
“These kids were on it like a dog with a bone,” Tim said. “As a winemaker, it’s hard to give up control with something like that, but they came up with great ideas and a great design. Financially, it probably would not have been doable for us, and we ended up with something that we love. It was a big, ambitious project, but it takes a while to do great things.”
This spring, visitors to the Sunnyslope can help celebrate the grand opening of the new Hat Ranch tasting room and their latest award.
“There’s been an upgrade in tasting rooms throughout Idaho as a whole,” Dr. Helen said. “Around us there’s Koenig, Williamson, Sawtooth and Fujishin with their seated tastings. Our new tasting room is a big, big change for us.”