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The Great Divide

Vintners in western Washington aren't letting faraway vineyards stop them from crafting fabulous wines
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
Steve Wynn, Jan/Feb 03

(continued from page 2)

Unlike Columbia, which makes a Signature Series of high-end wines retailing for as much as $45, and many hundreds of cases of varietals priced from $9 to $24, DeLille has no pretensions of catering to the masses. Its strategy is to produce a tiny amount of premium wine, charge from $30 to $55 a bottle, and sell it all in a matter of months. "We have very high aspirations," Upchurch says. "We hope that we'll be here longer than Microsoft."

Upchurch was buying wine for a high-end grocery chain in 1992 when the four partners came together. Soloff had a wine brokerage firm. Greg Lill was a wine aficionado working as an insurance salesman, and his father, Charles, was a retired insurance executive who agreed to play banker for the enterprise. They had the chateau built by 1994, just as they were releasing the first wine. "We decided when we got into this that we were never going to answer a question, 'We'd like to do this, but we can't afford it,'" Greg Lill says.

Instead of starting with young vineyards, they were able to buy fruit from older vines right away. "We thought, 'Look, none of us is Robert Mondavi, none of us has a reputation,'" Upchurch says. "If we can go out and get Cabernet from twenty-year-old vines, let's get it, and make our reputation that way."

They have. Today, DeLille's three Bordeaux-style blends, a Syrah and a white Bordeaux-style blend are sold by mailing list, and at a few select wine shops and restaurants around the country. None of the wines are available in large quantities too far away from Seattle, except in stores in markets such as San Francisco and New York. In fact, you're more likely to see a bottle of DeLille's Chaleur Estate on the Upper East Side of Manhattan than you are in eastern Washington, even though the grapes come from there.

Being accessible to the markets is one of the reasons many winemakers like to live near Seattle. "I love having the chance to taste other people's wines," says Andrake, who lives on the outer fringe of the metro area, in Olympia. He makes some of the biggest, most extracted wines in the state, using only free-run juice, meaning no bruising wine presses are employed. Yet he'd have a difficult time selling the wines if he wasn't where the markets are. "I enjoy the people of eastern Washington, and going over there to see them," he says. "But would I live there? No. It isn't worth it. You give up too much."

I knew such a sentiment wouldn't sit well with the eastern Washington producers. So one morning, I flew out to talk with one of them for myself.

Since the 1970s, Gary Figgins has been making wine on his Walla Walla property. First he made it for himself and his family. Then, in 1977, he bonded Leonetti Cellars -- named for his mother's parents -- and started to sell wine commercially the following year. Soon there was a working winery out back, heady reviews, scores in the 90s and brisk sales. Today, Leonetti is arguably Washington's most coveted wine, and its relatively new facilities, boasting stainless steel, new barrels and blond wood, would hold its own with anything of similar size in Napa, or the world.

In the ongoing battle between eastern and western Washington wineries, Leonetti's wines are the strongest salvo. For years, Figgins has sold every bottle he has produced, to select restaurants and off a tightly controlled mailing list, the waiting list for which has been closed for years. Freed from the burden of marketing, he has directed all his energy toward continuing to improve the wines, first in the cellar and, lately, in the vineyards.

When Figgins started making Leonetti, Walla Walla didn't have many grapes. It was apple-growing country, so Figgins bought his grapes from the Columbia Valley and other parts of Washington. Lately, Figgins -- who has ceded some of the winemaking duties to his son, Chris -- has become convinced that the vineyards in the Walla Walla Valley, as young as they are, produce the finest wine grapes in the state. "We used to be about 60 percent Columbia Valley fruit," he says. "With the 2000 vintage, we've gone 85 to 90 percent Walla Walla."

The grapes aren't in his backyard, where the winery is, but they're close enough. "Now we can check them all in a single day," Figgins says. Instead of relying on hired vineyard managers to determine ripeness, he and his son are able to taste the grapes on the vines and know exactly when to pick. "Throughout the world, wineries are located in the wine regions, and it makes sense," Chris says. "You don't see wineries in Paris crushing Bordeaux fruit!"

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