In a sign of Washington state's growing appeal as a wine region, the owner of Napa's Pine Ridge is establishing a new winery in the eastern part of the state. Crimson Wine Group will produce Cabernet Sauvignon blends in the Horse Heaven Hills AVA under the label Double Canyon Vineyards, the company's chief executive said.
Horse Heaven Hills has attracted other notable winemakers recently, including a group headed by former Chateau Ste. Michelle CEO Allen Shoup; Pacific Rim Winemakers, led by Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon fame; and Mercer Estates, headed by Mike Hogue, formerly of Hogue winery, and Bud Mercer, former owner of what is now known as Champoux Vineyard. Insiders say other prominent winemakers and investor groups are scouting for properties.
Double Canyon will be run by winemaker Ned Morris, formerly of àMaurice and Abeja in Walla Walla, and will release two 2007 vintage Cabernet Sauvignon blends in the latter part of 2009, said Crimson president and CEO Erle Martin. Morris, who credits John Abbott of Abeja in Walla Walla as his chief mentor, said Double Canyon will showcase what's unique about Washington fruit. "It's different from Napa," he said. "My style is still very full-bodied, dark-colored and heavy, but with more elegance and smoother tannins."
Grapes for those first wines were sourced from several Horse Heaven Hills growers, including the acclaimed Champoux Vineyards, which lies adjacent to Crimson's 600-acre property. One of Double Canyon's two wines is a single-vineyard Cabernet blend from Champoux fruit. The winery will probably make its first estate wines in the 2010 vintage, and will initially produce about 1,500 cases and eventually expand to 20,000. Double Canyon is finalizing a deal to custom crush but plans long-term to build its own winery.
Crimson, which also owns Archery Summit in the Willamette Valley and is part of the Leucadia National Corp., bought 450 acres in Horse Heaven Hills in 2005 and 2006 for an undisclosed price. The company has planted 85 acres so far. Paul Champoux, of Champoux Vineyards, who also grows grapes for cult Cabernet producer Quilceda Creek, is consulting with Double Canyon on its high-density planting: 1,800 vines per acre.
Martin noted the praise that Quilceda Creek and other Horse Heaven Hills-sourced wines have won. "I think Washington will come to be recognized as one of the great winegrowing regions of the U.S.," he said. And, he added, the land costs "a fraction" of what prime acreage in California, Oregon and Bordeaux costs.
Martin believes the appellation will be ideal for Double Canyon: The vines are all planted on their own roots with no threat of phylloxera, there's 6 to 9 inches of rain annually, 17 hours of sunshine during the growing season and cool nights. "This leads to Cabs that are ripe and concentrated without being too fat," he said.
Other winemakers have noticed the area's potential. An investor group led by Shoup of Long Shadows Vintners in Walla Walla, which partners to produce wine with star winemakers such as Michel Rolland and Philippe Melka, just purchased the Wallula Vineyards and has 650 acres planted. Shoup said his group paid less than $50,000 an acre.
Of that land, 140 acres is leased to Pacific Rim for biodynamic farming, mostly of Riesling grapes. Grahm opened Pacific Rim's winery last year and released his first exclusively Washington-sourced Rieslings earlier this year.
"If you want to build a winery that has scale, where there's existing infrastructure, and where you don't have to sell wine for an arm and a leg, Washington state is your best bet in the country today," said Nicolas Quille, Pacific Rim's general manager and winemaker.
Paul Golitzin, the winemaker at his family's Quilceda Creek Vintners, which owns 21 percent of Champoux, said Quilceda is buying another 30 acres in Horse Heaven Hills. He takes it as a compliment that Crimson is "trying to get as close as possible to Champoux, which has produced some really great wines. That's a very good strategy."
Shoup, whose group is considering building several wineries and even a fancy dude ranch on its new estate, said once California winemakers realize the average yield per acre in Washington is higher than in Napa and that the winter risk is minimal, "they'll be coming here rapidly."