KLIPSUN: HAND-PICKING ITS WAY TO FAME
By Dennis Globus
THERE ARE CERTAIN PARCELS of land whose very names
can quicken the pulse of a serious wine lover. Burgundy boasts La Tâche
and Echézeaux. Bordeaux gives us the estate vineyards of Pétrus,
Margaux, and d'Yquem. Italy nominates Sori San Lorenzo. And (not to forget
the Napa-philes) California has Martha's Vineyard.
Sure, there are others, but serious wine drinkers tend to treat wine from these areas with a reverence that borders on the religious-complete with setting up a sort of altar for the bottle around which a totemic worship takes place. Yes, these names possess some powerful juju.
But what about the Northwest? Is there any growing site in this region that surpasses its neighbors to the degree that the above-mentioned vineyards surpass theirs? I submit the following: Klipsun Vineyards near Richiand, Washington.
Washington wine aficionados generally fall into
two categories: those who know Klipsun and seek out wines made from its
grapes, and those who gulp it down in blissful ignorance. The latter group
is sizable, as it's not always easy to know when you're getting a wine
made from Klipsun grapes. For every winery like Andrew Will or Seven Hills
(and now Apex, with a new $50 Klipsun Cabernet) that puts the name "Klipsun
Vineyards" on the bottle, there are a dozen wineries that don't, because
the Klipsun fruit is part of a blend. Some noteworthy names on that list
are Quilceda Creek, Waterbrook, DeLille, and Chinook. Clearly, some of
Washington's best wines are made in total or in part from Klipsun fruit.
Which brings us to a peculiarity of winemaking: it's one of the few industries
where customers (wineries) have to beg their vendors (vineyards) to sell them products. Isn't it usually the other way around? Imagine the product buyer at Ace Hardware calling up the Acme Spackle Company and saying, "Hey, Bob, you just gotta sell me some more of that No. 3 spackle of yours. All the reviewers love its precocious binding capacity. And it just received a 94 rating in Spackle Enthusiast. The stuff's flying off the shelves, Bob! I'll pay whatever you ask. Just name the price!"
If that sounds silly or far-fetched . . . well, that's pretty much the state of the wine business today. You've got retail stores kissing the feet of distributors to get a case of Leonetti or Andrew Will, and wineries elbowing each other out of the way to buy grapes from the top vineyards. The latter oddity is why Klipsun's owners, David and Trish Gelles, are very careful about who gets their grapes; the last thing they want is a mediocre wine that bears their name.
Why all the fuss over Klipsun? Because the grapes grown in Klipsun's loose, sandy soil have an exceptional intensity and focus of flavors. Simply stated, putting Klipsun fruit in the bottle greatly increases your chances of making an excellent wine. Klipsun customers who somehow managed to make a bad wine from Klipsun fruit discovered that it's a remarkably quick path to becoming a former customer. You think the Acme Spackle Company cares what people are doing with its product? Klipsun Vineyards does.
Considering that the property itself is virtually manicured and tweezed, you'd expect its relationships with wineries to be exceptionally buttoned up. But, oddly enough, the Gelleses don't believe in signed contracts. As David observes, "Contracts don't cover the real issues in the relationship. We'll grow the best grapes we can; you make the best
wine you can. It's subjective and not measurable. How can you put that in a contract?"
While the Gelleses are no-nonsense business people-the hammer of Thor comes down on wineries that don't pay their bills on time-they can be surprisingly flexible. For example, one fledgling winery wanted Klipsun grapes but lacked the start-up capital to buy them. Trish and David supplied them anyway because they believed in the winemaker's talent. A business risk, to be sure, but such is their regard for great wine.
THE DIRT ON THE DIRT
You might assume that a vineyard like this is run
by people with farming or horticulture backgrounds and a U.C. Davis degree.
But you'd be wrong. Born in England, Trish comes from a family that instilled
in her an appreciation of fine wines. (Being veddy, veddy British, they
revered Bordeaux above all others.) David, a scientist involved in developing
enriched uranium for breeder reactors, developed his wine passion when
he joined a tasting group at work and met two men who would have a profound
influence on his life. Jim Holmes and John Williams were about to plant
a vineyard on a little-known hill called Red Mountain, a few miles west
of Richand. They asked David to give them a hand.
"I had absolutely no experience in that sort of thing, but I learned a lot from helping Jim and John plant Kiona Vineyard," says David. "In Washington, you don't need to graft a plant onto root stock like they do in other places. Here, you can just jam a stick into the ground, drop a pellet of fertilizer into the hole, and a couple of years later you find grapes hanging there." While that may be a slight exaggeration, it's not by much.
The Kiona experience gave Trish and David the confidence to purchase what was to become Klipsun Vineyards when the acreage became available in 1982. While some vineyard owners seek out land that slopes this way or that, the Gelleses bought 80 acres of essentially flat land on Red Mountain, theorizing that it could more effectively ward off frost and be more easily farmed. They christened it with a play on words: the name Klipsun derives from a Chinook Indian term for the end of day, or "clipped sun."
"We planted varietals we like to drink," recalls Trish. "Cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, s‚millon, and nebbiolo-just in case we didn't sell any grapes and we had to drink the wine ourselves." But the Klipsun fruit was snapped up from day one, so that fall-back position was never utilized. They added merlot grapes in 1991, and today have about 120 acres planted.
David recalls, none too comfortably, the cost of starting the vineyard. "We paid $1000 an acre," he says, "a lot of money back then." These days, Red Mountain land sells for about $5000 an acre, much to the horror of longtime residents Hedges Cellars, Blackwood Canyon, Kiona, and Ciel du Cheval. But the cost of the land is only part of it. Just getting well water to your land can set you back another $1000 an acre. And those are only the up-front costs. Fully 70 percent of the cost of running a vineyard is the cost of labor. Expensive, but David and Trish were determined to, as one of their friends put it, "invest in their dreams instead of the stock market."
While David and Trish's duties frequently overlap, in general David oversees the technical components of the vineyard such as plants and equipment. Trish deals with wineries and sets the prices for grapes. Day-to-day vineyard management is the responsibility of Fred Artz, who oversees eight full-time employees. During the harvest, the ranks grow to 85. From the beginning, Artz has had an unconventional relationship with the Gelleses. In addition to a salary, the Gelleses also give him one acre of land per year, adjacent to their own. Talk about a Christmas bonus! Fred has planted his land and began selling his own fruit in 1997-good news for winemakers reading this article.
The Gelleses tightly control the yields from each vine, allowing the grapes to receive a heavier dose of flavor concentration with minimal competition from excess fruit. Vines are planted 760 per acre, with six feet between each plant and 10 feet between rows, trellised to discourage mildew and excess leaf growth.
Artz oversees the harvest, a task that is accomplished by hand, one cluster at a time. Why do it that way in an age of machines and unforgiving profit margins? Trish insists that hand-cutting each cluster-as it has been done in Europe for hundreds of years-is better for the fruit. Heavy machinery, she insists, is clumsy and can destroy as much as 15 percent of the crop. The extra grapes yielded by hand-cutting offset the higher cost of labor.
THE ROLLERCOASTER OF VINEYARD OWNERSHIP
While Klipsun Vineyards has brought the Gelleses
into contact with
famous winemakers from around the world, it's important to remember that vineyard ownership is really about farming, not celebrity. (Unless you choose to make it about celebrity, and not farming, which a surprising number of ex-vineyard owners have done.)
Nothing brings home this point more than the winter of 1996, when temperatures in the vineyard plummeted to -17 F. This killer freeze wrought extensive damage to the Gelleses' beloved vineyard. Most vines lost primary and secondary buds, drastically reducing the crop for that vintage. Worse, the chardonnay vines were frozen down to the ground and had to be regrown.
As if nature isn't calamitous enough, sometimes human beings are capable of entirely new and creative ways of destroying vineyards. A few years ago, a crop duster sprayed herbicide on a field miles away, blithely ignorant of the fact that the wind was carrying the chemicals over a span of hills to settle on-you guessed it- Klipsun Vineyards. Imagine watching your beloved vines shrivel up like garden weeds after a spritz of Ortho. Keep the above two disasters in mind if you're considering going into vineyard ownership as a way to minimize your stress level.
But Klipsun survived and, if anything, the fruit is better than ever. So good, in fact, that virtually every wine-maker in the state would give a left arm to sign a long-term contract. For the Gelleses, that's a good place to be.
Another good place to be is standing in the middle of Klipsun Vineyards, taking in the pungent perfume that exists only in a setting like this, enjoying the impressionistic canvas of crimson and chartreuse leaves, observing the clusters of merlot grapes swelling with ripeness. And knowing that, in the near future, they are going to find their way into a wine that will likely be world-class. And when it gets right down to it, I can't think of a better way to define a premier cru vineyard.
Dennis Globus is Dennis Globus is a freelance writer
living in Seattle. He can be reached at