There are scores of boutique wineries in the Pacific Northwest, most of which were born from a common thread: a carboy-filled garage, a make-wines-for-friends project or a hobby that simply got out of control. Annual production for these wineries is extremely limited and often measured in hundreds of cases instead of the thousands or tens of thousands.
In cases produced, Joseph Christy Vineyards certainly fits the definition of ultra-boutique winery, but that’s where the similarities end. The beginnings of this family-founded enterprise are rooted in a somewhat remote, yet picture-perfect location in Washington’s Horse Heaven Hills American Viticultural Area and part of a remarkable 50-year journey it took to establish its vineyards.
THE HOMESTEAD AND FAMILY HISTORY
Denis and Mary Hyatt are the husband-and-wife team at Joseph Christy Vineyards. Mary is the daughter of the late Joseph Christy, a chemical engineer originally from Philadelphia. Christy moved to Washington during World War II as one of the original scientists of the top-secret Manhattan Project at Hanford.
In 1966, and with no prior farming experience, Mary said that “he wanted to be on a farm and he found this property,” (near the Columbia River not far from the unincorporated community of Paterson). “He contacted three or four people who owned parcels and bought it all up.”
Mary recalls her early years on the homestead as enjoyable but isolated. “When you grow up in the middle of nowhere with a two-room schoolhouse, you can’t get out of there fast enough,” she said. After graduating from the Washington State University School of Nursing, she took a job at Holy Family Hospital in Spokane, where she worked for 37 years until her retirement in 2015.
Denis grew up on a cattle ranch in Western Montana and, after completing a four-year stint with the Navy, established two physical therapy clinics in Spokane, which he operated for almost 25 years. It was there that he met Mary in 1985, and they raised their three children. Their youngest graduated in 2015, triggering an already-planned move back to the Christy homestead a year later.
RETIREMENT’S “SECOND CAREER”
How does a physical therapist make the jump to farming and, in particular, planting vineyards and winemaking? “We’re both country people,” said Denis, and after decades of living in the “big city,” both he and Mary were ready to move to a quieter location. “We thought about moving back here or Montana and doing some farming, and this won out because of the warmer weather.”
The decision to go into winemaking stemmed, in part, from their personal enjoyment of what could best be described as ‘economically-priced’ wines. “Then we made the mistake of buying a $20 bottle of wine and from there it went up,” Denis said with a laugh.
After he retired in 2009, he almost immediately enrolled in the two-year viticulture and enology program at Walla Walla Community College. He did a weekly commute, of sorts, by staying in Walla Walla during the week and piloting his own plane home to Spokane on the weekends.
By his own admission, Denis said, “I knew nothing about raising grapes, and after getting into the viticultural program, I knew even less than I thought. But I always knew that I was going to do something agricultural-wise.” The question now was whether the Christy homestead could successfully accommodate wine grapes.
SELECTING THE PERFECT SITE
“We realized we were in the Horse Heaven Hills AVA, and a south-sloping ridge towards the river was probably the best bet for a vineyard,” Denis recalled. He asked Dr. Kevin Pogue, a geologist from Walla Walla’s Whitman College, to conduct a site review.
Pogue’s report confirmed that the land was a drainage area for the Missoula floods. “If you walk the property, you’ll find that a good lot of the rock that’s 18 to 24 inches below the loess soil is rolled rock … like you’ll find at the bottom of a river bed,” Denis said.
In addition, he recently learned from Tim Donahue, one of his professors and director of winemaking at Walla Walla Community College, that the biological components and qualities of the grapes produced here carry an amazing similarity to those from The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater AVA in the Walla Walla Valley.
“In some ways, yes, it was luck,” Denis said about the quality of their location, “but I’ve always been able to grow a garden, and I have agriculture in my background and I’ve always felt close to the land. I thought, if we hit this right, this ground, which has never had a plow on it, could be one of the best wine vineyards anywhere.”
THE GRAPES AT JOSEPH CHRISTY VINEYARDS
The Hyatts currently own and manage about 453 acres of land; 320 of those acres are leased out to alfalfa growers and about 15 are planted with wine grapes they established in 2012. Sixty acres may possibly be developed later for other commercial wineries.
Denis maintains five acres of Syrah as Joseph Christy Vineyard’s one-and-only wine, along with a quarter-acre of Viognier for co-fermenting. “The boutique winery is probably going to stay just the way it is with those five acres,” he said. The remaining plantings are contracted out to other wineries and include Malbec, Merlot, Grenache and Cinsault.
Although wine production is modest, there’s plenty to keep the Hyatts busy. “We do it all ourselves. Mary helps with the processing and bottling — along with one or two of our kids if we can get them to stick around long enough,” Denis chuckles. Noting that he’s “retired,” he plans to keep annual production at no more than 150 to 200 cases.
After the winery’s inaugural 2016 vintage, Denis decided to enter the 2017 Syrah in the Tri-Cities Wine Festival competition in the fall of 2019, and earned his first medal, a gold.
“Everyone was looking at me with only one wine (and thinking) it’s either really, really good or really, really bad,” Denis laughs. “We were surprised more than anything, but it’s the only wine I’m ever going to make.”
Eight months later, that same wine was entered in the 2020 Bellingham Northwest Wine Festival Judged Competition. Of the 274 wines submitted for judging, the 2017 Syrah earned a unanimous double gold medal and best-in-show honors.
TODAY’S WINNERS: WINE CONSUMERS
A visit to the Joseph Christy homestead today reveals a production facility where the original house once stood, along with Denis and Mary’s nearby home. There isn’t a tasting room with structured hours per se, but Denis notes that it only takes a phone call or an email to order wines or set up an appointment for those wishing to visit and taste in-person.
Although the 2017 vintage has since sold out, Denis feels that the 2018 Syrah (85 cases of which should be available this fall) is just as good and the 2019 Syrah (still in the barrel) may be even better.
Considering the rich history of the land that supports an excellent vineyard location, coupled with his award-winning past performances, Washington wine enthusiasts should have little reason to doubt him.
DAN RADIL is a freelance wine writer based in Bellingham, Wash. Dan taught wine classes at Bellingham Technical College, is President of the Bellingham Northwest Wine Festival Judged Competition. and produces a wine blog, danthewineguy.com
JOSEPH CHRISTY VINEYARDS
PO Box 21
Plymouth, WA 99346
This story was originally published September 23, 2020 12:03 PM.