Outstanding origins: Red Mountain's Klipsun Vineyards

From the Fall 1999 issue

By Elizabeth Parks
Wine Press Northwest

At one of Washington's premier wine-producing regions resides, arguably, the best vineyard and most coveted grapes in the Northwest.

In the early '80s, some engineers at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in the Eastern Washington desert began experimenting with growing grapes on nearby Red Mountain. David Gelles was part of that group, and initial successes encouraged him and his wife, Patricia, to buy land and plant a vineyard. Klipsun Vineyards' first rows went into the ground in 1984, and today, there are 120 acres: 80 producing fruit and 40 recently planted.

And each row is spoken for.

To understand why, taste the wines of Hedges Cellars, Foris Vineyards, Waterbrook Winery, Quilceda Creek, Andrew Will and others.

Winemakers and connoisseurs worldwide know the importance of a grape's origin for winemaking. Terroir (tehr-WAH), a French term, is used to describe the unique qualities of the site, climate and soil at a vineyard. Klipsun has established a reputation for producing grapes that make premium wines. At the London Trade Show this year, Marty Clubb, owner and winemaker at L'Ecole No. 41 in Lowden, Wash., said, "Internationally, it's the individual vineyards like Klipsun that represent Washington wines, and it was clear that, internationally, people who were familiar with Washington wines knew Klipsun."

Managing the vineyard for the Gelleses since 1984, Fred Artz uses his experience to make it look easy. Yet, as several winemakers point out, managing a vineyard so it produces desirable fruit is difficult. Those at the helm must strive for excellence and thrive on doing everything necessary to achieve quality fruit.

Klipsun Vineyards, on the western slope of Red Mountain, is hot and windy. Standing in the vineyard and looking west is like standing at the bottom of a geological cone. To the right, Rattlesnake Mountain gently climbs out of the Yakima Valley, and to the left, the Horse Heaven Hills loom. Below, the Yakima Valley spreads out toward the foothills of the Cascades. Cool air from Canada follows the Columbia River down through the Columbia Valley, and a gap between the Rattlesnake Mountains and Red Mountain catches the cool air.

The western-exposed vineyard ensures the fruit receives the peak heat and light later in the day. Moreover, because it's a warm site, even in cooler vintages such as '93 and '95, winemakers can depend on the vineyard to produce superior fruit. In addition, Artz says the cool wind contributes to Klipsun Vineyards grapes being some of the first harvested each year in Washington. He believes the cool air signals the grapes to ripen toward the end of the growing season. The wind also helps control bunch rot and mildew by creating an environment unfriendly for them to settle in. "The hot, dry wind just blows them out of the vineyard," Artz says.

Klipsun receives 6 inches of rain a year but requires about 20 inches. So Artz has to supplement the vineyard with water from a 720-foot well to a drip-irrigation system. Watering is held off as long as possible; it may not begin until June.

"The vines don't need water early," Artz says. "Early watering encourages a tremendous vegetative canopy that will need to be supported with water throughout the growing season." At Klipsun, watering techniques allow a moderate canopy to develop, which limits the crop on the vine and creates intensely flavored fruit - something winemakers will pay dearly for. Limited watering also keeps weeds from flourishing, limiting herbicides and insecticides. Weed control is just one of Artz's strategies to keep Klipsun clean. Grass grown between rows is mowed regularly, and clippings are removed. Winemakers who buy Klipsun fruit want their grapes harvested by hand, and keeping the vineyard clean makes this easier to accomplish.

The results can be spectacular.

Klipsun fruit often is bottled as a vineyard-designated wine, meaning it says "Klipsun Vineyards" on the label in addition to the winery name. Bottling a vineyard-designated wine can be risky and rewarding. If the harvest is small, the winemaker may not receive the quantity of fruit he or she has been counting on to provide inventory for his winery in the future. And the winemaker must have confidence and knowledge to bottle one varietal from a single site because he or she cannot use grapes from other vineyards. But a vineyard-designated wine also can showcase a vineyard's terroir, and a consumer will literally be able to taste the uniqueness of the soil, climate and growing season.

Laurent Montalieu, winemaker at WillaKenzie Estate in Oregon's Yamhill County, uses Klipsun fruit in his own project, La Merleausine. Since 1993 (except 1996, when a terrible freeze caused severe fruit losses at Klipsun), he has bottled a cabernet sauvignon made from 100 percent Klipsun Vineyards grapes. "Klipsun fruit expresses a particular quality of taste. The grapes produce big wines with heavy structure that take awhile to mature," Montalieu says.

Casey McClellum, owner and winemaker of Seven Hills Winery, is committed to single-vineyard bottlings and since 1991 has been working with Klipsun fruit. "By focusing on one vineyard, I am continually learning about the fruit. Single-vineyard bottlings also give my customers a unique opportunity to follow the growth of the vineyard." Klipsun's premium fruit allows McClellum to bottle a cabernet sauvignon that has an intense fruit profile with a strong structure underneath that should make it a long cellaring wine. "Although the jury is still out, it's a reasonable theory that Klipsun fruit produces wines that can be cellared for 20 years," McClellum says.

L'Ecole's Clubb, who blends the fruit he receives from Klipsun, points out that "most consumers buy wine based on the vintage rather than the site. While winemakers are always sourcing the best fruit possible from which to make their wines, vineyard-designated wines are crafted more for connoisseurs who have developed a taste for finely made wines and who have the pocketbook - vineyard-designated wines start at about $25 a bottle."

Elizabeth Parks, a Washington native and free-lance writer, lives in Walla Walla.

Photo by Jackie Johnston