Her majesty: spunky grape maven
30 - November 5, 2002
of the Mountain
Vineyard's Patricia Gelles makes waves in a man's business.
you're looking for it, Red Mountain makes no impression at all; from Interstate
80, it's just an unassuming bump on the northern horizon, a straw-colored
wedge patched here and there with green. But in the world of wine, Red
Mountain is It, What's Happening, Where It's At. Grapes grown in its vineyards
aren't just grapes; they're sexy, sultry media darlings, and winemakers
compete for their favors like Hollywood agents for the latest spoiled superstar.
But even in this fast company, Klipsun Vineyard's fruit stands out. And
that makes Klipsun's Patricia Gelles the Queen of Red Mountain.
she grew up in monarchic Britain, Gelles wasn't born to a throne. She met
husband David while he was a post-doc in London and came with him to the
wilds of Eastern Washington back in 1974, when he took up a research post
at the Department of Energy-funded Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
well-educated newcomers quickly learned that the Tri-Cities, then as now,
offer little in the way of cultural resources beyond a Barnes & Noble,
a few Starbucks, and the annual Water Follies hydroplane races. But the
Gelleses discovered among their scientific peers a flourishing subculture
of hobbyist and semiprofessional vintners. And already, though the great
Washington wine boom was barely in bud, it was becoming clear that you
couldn't just plant grapes anywhere there was water and hope for good results:
the Tri-Cities, wine buffs were coming to agree that the grapes from the
Williams family's Kiona Vineyard at Red Mountain--particularly the cabernet
sauvignons--were among the best in the state. "So in 1982, we bought land
next door to Kiona," Patricia Gelles recalls. "The next year, we hired
a vineyard manager [Fred Artz, still with the firm]. And in 1984, we planted
our first vines: cabernet."
partners John Williams and Jim Holmes were relatively wealthy men inured
to speculation before they got involved in grape growing. Their friends,
the Gelleses, however, had saved some money but were basically dependent
on David's salary. Managing the vineyard fell to Patricia, and there were
unexpected expenses. E.g., the well: There are no handy water mains at
Red Mountain. "We drilled and we drilled and finally hit water--in the
Priest Rapids Aquifer, 780 feet down. If we'd known what a black hole it
was going to be. . . . It was quite a struggle in the early years. One
year in particular, Stimson-Lane [parent company of the Ste. Michelle brands]
very kindly helped us out by taking 40 tons of fruit for Columbia Crest,
which really saved our butts."
in time, the Gelleses' bet on the site proved a good one. By the terrible
frost year 1996, the Gelleses were selling cabernet, merlot, and sauvignon
blanc grapes to some of the most prestigious winemakers of a newly recognized
wine-making region--Quilceda Creek, DeLille, Andrew Will, Seven Hills,
and many more--while said winemakers began going out of their way to put
the words "Klipsun Vineyards" on the labels of their bottles. Today Klipsun
consistently claims the highest average price per ton of any Washington
"It's partly that Fred Artz has taken very good care of the vineyard,"
says Andrew Will winemaker Chris Camarda, whose '95 merlot was one of the
first to show what Klipsun fruit could do. "Fred keeps the cropping low,
around 3 tons an acre [fewer grapes means more concentrated juice]. But
the main thing is probably the soil of the vineyard: It just produces this
monolithic, deep, powerful kind of wine."
the air or the freeway, Red Mountain looks pretty uniform, but a study
by Washington State profs Larry Meinert and Alan Bussaca showed that its
geology and soil structure are actually very complex, due to the way the
ridge created eddies in its lee during the catastrophic Missoula floods
of 10,000 to 15,000 years ago. For reasons yet unknown, the deep sandy
soils of Klipsun, terraced steeply above the canyon of the little north-flowing
Yakima River to the west, stress grapevines to produce an extreme concentration
of flavor elements.
ascent from promising newcomer to near-cult status peaked earlier this
year when Joshua Greene's wine- insider bible, Wine & Spirits,
promoted the Gelleses' enterprise to the status of one of the "25 Great
Vineyards of the World," in the august company of France's Lafite Rothschild
and Spain's Vega Sicilia.
IS NOT A word you'd use about wines made from Klipsun fruit; but since
big, intense cabs, merlots, and syrahs are the world's most admired, sought-after,
and pricey wines, Patricia Gelles has, in recent years, been able pretty
much to set her own terms and to sell to whom she wishes.
has, predictably, not always set well with people who want her fruit. Most
winemakers these days pay lip service to the formula "You can't make great
wine without great grapes," but good ones are virtuosi, with temperaments
to match, and they still don't like sharing the prestige with mere farmers,
much less mere landowners.
the tension is not eased by the fact that Klipsun's boss is a woman. Not
a sweet, matronly little homebody, either, but a spiky-purple-haired, polychrome-toenailed
Personality, with a drawly English accent and an unabashed sharp wit. Anecdotes
about Gelles' purported high-handedness, toughness, and insensitivity abound
in the industry. But you'll never hear one that doesn't end with the caveat:
"For god's sake, don't tell her I said so."
knows that some people who smile when buying her grapes aren't always so
cheery when her back is turned. She prefers to ignore it. Asked to comment,
she at first flatly refuses, then finally says with a wealth of meaning
in every mellifluously British intonation: "You can just say I'm honored
to be in the same business with so many wonderful people."
person who doesn't need to hide his feelings about Gelles is Steve Burns,
head of the Washington State Wine Commission. "She's strong and opinionated
and decisive and moves forward. People like that are always going to rub
some others the wrong way, but they are also the people who make things
happen. Patricia could just sit quietly making money selling Klipsun fruit,
but she works as hard as anybody to sell the Washington wine industry as
a whole. She will travel anywhere and do anything to get the word out about
Washington first, Red Mountain second, and only then Klipsun. She's a force
of nature. She defies description. I love her."