Yakima Valley wine isn't what it used to be, and that's good. In my 30 years of tasting Washington wine, I have often liked the bright fruit character and often zingy acidity Yakima can produce, but there's also a telltale vegetal character that crept into many of its red wines. Not all of them, however, as recent developments prove.
Yakima Valley is one of several American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) that are subappellations of the sprawling Columbia Valley, which encompasses virtually all of the vineyard land east of the Cascade Mountains. It's a bit cooler in Yakima than elsewhere in Columbia Valley, and growers need to work harder to get the Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes fully ripe.
Some wineries have given up on Yakima Valley for reds. Mike Hogue, who is partners in the new Mercer Estate winery, told me he's planning to use only white grapes from the Yakima Valley vineyards he still owns after he and his brother Gary sold Hogue winery in 2001. "We tried everything to get the reds ripe in our Yakima vineyards," he told me. "It can be done but it's just better in Horse Heaven Hills," which is where his partner's vineyards are.
And yet, some of my highest-rated Washington wines come from Yakima Valley. The trick is to find the right spots. Boushey Vineyard grows stellar Syrah. Sheridan Vineyard does well across the board. DeLille uses grapes from Boushey and Harrison Hill vineyards in some of its best wines (especially Doyenne), and Columbia's wines from Red Willow Vineyard were revolutionary in their time. These vineyards tend to be on higher slopes.
But the stars are from DuBrul Vineyard, made by Owen Roe and winemaker David O'Reilly. The Cabernet Sauvignons, Merlots and Syrahs routinely rate in the low- to mid-90s. There's nothing vegetal about them. The wines often zing with juicy acidity, but the flavors center on pure fruit.
I spent an afternoon with the owners of DuBrul, Hugh and Kathy Shiels, and O'Reilly, whose Outlook Vineyard is nearby, getting a crash course on Yakima Valley winegrowing. They showed me cutaways of the land that display the rocky layers of soil, which you can see in the video, and walked me through the rolling slopes of the hilly DuBrul vineyard, all of which lies above the Rosa Canal. The canal winds along the contour at 1,000 feet on the north side of the valley. The steeper south-facing slopes above it have more rock in them, so the vines naturally yield less. Cold air drains, preventing frost and allowing the grapes to get more warmth and sun.
"The canal is the dividing line between good vineyards and the others," O'Reilly asserted. "But that's not enough. You have to keep the yields low enough to get the grapes ripe before the weather gets too cold."
That's the difference between Yakima Valley before and Yakima Valley now. The success of Owen Roe's DuBrul Vineyard bottlings, and others from small producers, have shown just how good the wines can be if you keep yields down. Before, it didn't make economic sense for the growers to lower yields, in O'Reilly's view, because big wineries, notably the biggest of them all, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, needed higher tonnage to make economic sense on their scale. Indeed, in recent years Ste. Michelle has focused more on warmer areas, such as Horse Heaven Hills and Wahluke Slope.
"Growers couldn't get Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon ripe in the 5- to 7-ton range," O'Reilly said. "Now that the growers have to work harder to sell the grapes, they're getting the idea. And the wines are getting better."
DuBrul keeps yields around 2 to 3 tons per acre for the grapes it sells to O'Reilly and other smaller wineries, and for its own wines, which it bottles under the Côte Bonneville and Carriage House labels for local distribution.
They are showing the way for all the growers in Yakima Valley. I wouldn't be surprised if, 20 years from now, the only red grapes in Yakima are above the canal. And if they are farmed like DuBrul's, they should be special.