"Grape Expectations: Klipsun Vineyards Allows Land to Shape Flavor of Fruit"

Washington/Oregon winemakers 
wait in line for Klipsun grapes
By Christina Kelly

Patricia Gelles had the brightest purple hair I'd ever seen.

The color could make her Eastern Washington vineyards shiver with envy, outshining her Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet grapes with the neon luster in her hair.

I'd spotted her at a grape growers meeting a few years ago. Before the meeting, grape growers and farmers mingled with winemakers and owners, talking shop.

It was easy to spot the farmers. They were the ones in suits and ties who fidgeted uncomfortably in clothing that restricted movement for bodies used to free-flowing motion. These were mostly men who reflected the soil-conservative earth colors with little flair and even less concern about New York fashions. 

When Patricia Gelles walked into the room, I saw a 50-something woman with spiked, grape-colored hair, a brightly-colored dress and open-toed shoes, showcasing a painted rainbow of toenails. 

Who on earth was this woman, I thought to myself. Apparently I must have muttered that question because my host leaned over and whispered, "That's Trish Gelles, co-owner of Klipsun Vineyards in Richland, and she grows some of the best fruit in the state."

At this meeting, seeing Gelles was a little like seeing a heavy metal-garbed musician sitting in on a tent revival meeting.

I couldn't wait to meet her, and when she spoke, her clipped British accent was charmingly punctuated with colorful metaphors.

"What you see is what you get," she said laughing.

Gelles is a tireless promoter of grape growers in the Northwest. As winemakers in Washington and Oregon turn to the practice of terroir-allowing the wine to express the growing region of origin, Gelles' message is finally getting heard.

Klipsun Vineyards is located on Red Mountain, a relatively new appellation in Benton County in the Tri-Cities area of Eastern Washington. Red Mountain has a reputation for producing grapes that make premium wines with big flavors and heavy structure. Klipsun's intensely flavored fruit is sold out every year.

Farming grapes on 120 acres was not what Gelles had in mind for a career. She worked in advertising and public relations in London in the early 1970s. However, she met David Gelles on a skiing trip in Switzerland in 1973, fell in love and was soon married.

David Gelles is a material scientist who went to work for the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in 1974. He is a soft-spoken man who prefers to leave the limelight to his wife. He does, however, cheer her along the sidelines.

"We compliment each other," said David. "I'm a morning person, she is a night person. But we share things in common, like good food and wine."

In the early '80s, Gelles and a few other engineers at Hanford began an experiment with growing grapes on nearby Red Mountain. The experiment proved to the scientist that outstanding fruit could be harvested. The Gelles bought 120 acres, hired consultants and began Klipsun Vineyards.

Klipsun means sunset in the Chinook Indian language.

"We were right at the beginning of the wine industry growth," said Patricia. "We were very lucky. A lot of people needed grapes back then, and we hired the best experts available to produce the highest quality possible."

Every row of grapes at Klipsun is spoken for. The vineyard produces fat, sassy grapes including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Nebbiolo, and this year, Syrah.

Patricia spends considerable time with winemakers, getting a sense of what they want in their fruit. But she also spends about a quarter of her time traveling to promote good viticulture practices, sing the praises of grape growers and winemakers in the Northwest.

Her colorful persona does attract attention and raise a few eyebrows. Patricia shrugs it off.

"My hair and appearance is a small eccentricity," Patricia said. "When people first get to know me, I can see they have questions. Plus, I am fairly outspoken about this industry.

"I think this just shows you can't judge a book by its cover, doesn't it?"

The Gelles get top dollar for their grapes. Tom Hedges, owner of Hedges Cellars, owns property on Red Mountain near Klipsun. Of the 250 or so grape growers in Washington, the average price for grapes is $1,100 per ton, he said.

"Klipsun can get $3,000 per ton, and that probably irks some people," Hedges said. "I am not sure that the stereotypical dirt farmer understands what Klipsun is doing in regards to terroir.

"The Gelles are allowing the land to determine the taste of their fruit, with little interference. Her grapes are the best."

Winemakers use the Klipsun name on their labels if the fruit comes solely from Klipsun Vineyards. It is a way for consumers to know the wine has the distinctive Red Mountain flavors, under the watchful, and colorful eye of Patricia Gelles.

Wineries using Klipsun grapes include Andrew Will Cellars, DeLille Cellars, Seven Hills Winery, L'Ecole No. 41, Quilceda Creek, Woodward Canyon, Foris Vineyards, DeStefano and McCrea Cellars. The Gelles provide a list of their customers at www.klipsun.com.