Wilridge Vineyard: The Estate

In 2007, after buying grapes from some of the best vineyards in the Northwest for over twenty years, Wilirdge planted its own estate vineyard on Naches Heights in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains West of Yakima.

Wilridge winemaker Paul Beveridge was interviewed about the new vineyard shortly after it was planted in 2007:

TR: There is an old saying that a man will only plant one vineyard in his lifetime. Why did you choose to plant your vineyard on Naches Heights? Isn’t it too high in elevation and too far west to ripen grapes consistently?

Paul: A few years ago, I might have agreed. In the past, I have sought out vineyards in the warmest regions of the state where one is relatively assured that the grapes will ripen every year and will be protected from winter freeze. This search for “heat units” led me to the eastern Yakima Valley, Red Mountain, and Walla Walla. I considered the western end of the Yakima Valley too cool to consistently ripen many of the grape varietals I enjoy. However, about five years ago I started working with Elephant Mountain Vineyard on the western end of the lower Yakima Valley. Although Elephant Mountain was then part of the Yakima Valley appellation (AVA), the grapes were distinctly different than grapes grown on the cool valley floor. Today, Elephant Mountain is part of the Rattlesnake Hills appellation that was recently carved out of the Yakima Valley appellation. The climate in the area is almost as hot as Red Mountain (one of the warmest vineyard areas in Washington), has a long frost free season, and consistently produces excellent, ripe fruit. I was so impressed with the fruit from Elephant Mountain that I began to look for vineyard land in the area. I confess that I also appreciate the fact that Yakima is only two hours from Seattle. No more five hour drives to Walla Walla for me!

At about the same time I was discovering Elephant Mountain Vineyard, I met Phil Cline, a Yakima native who grew up on Naches Heights and teaches viticulture at Central Washington University. Phil had recently planted the first vineyard on Naches Heights and was interested in selling me fruit. In fact, my 2005 Pinot Blanc comes from a vineyard managed by Phil and located only a few miles from our new vineyard. Impressed with his skills (and his fun-loving attitude), I told Phil that if he could find me a good site, I would hire him to manage the vineyard. I had looked at a few properties with Phil, including several near Elephant Mountain, when Phil told me that an old family friend, Carl Jett, was retiring from the apple business and selling his orchards. I went to look at a ten acre parcel that Carl was selling. It was nice, but not exactly what I was looking for. While I was there, Carl and Phil suggested I look at a larger parcel (40 acres) that Carl was also selling. We drove up to the property, I took one look, and I fell in love! I think you will have the same reaction when you see the property. It’s like an oasis in the desert. The vineyard is at the top of the Heights, so while you are there you cannot see anything else but the property, Mount Adams, and the nearby Cowiche Canyon Conservancy. When I arrived, the desert flowers were starting to bloom. Ultimately, I was so smitten that we also bought an adjoining 45 acres from Carl. Out of the total 85 acres, about 35 is suitable for planting grapes. We will preserve the rest in sagebrush steppe -- its natural state.

I have also become concerned that, with global climate change, some areas of Washington State may soon become too hot for growing some of the grape varietals I enjoy, especially white grapes. I know that some vineyards on Red Mountain are now looking at ways to cool their grapes during hot stretches during the summer when it can be over 100 degrees for days in a row. While Naches Heights is cooler than Red Mountain, we have nonetheless installed an innovative irrigation system consisting of micro sprinklers that can be used to cool the vines during spells of extreme hot weather. There are also some north facing slopes at the vineyard which should be excellent for growing cool climate white grapes, maybe even Pinot Noir.

The other thing I love about Naches Heights is the soils. Many vineyards in Washington State are located on a mix of soils; parts of the vineyard may have been deposited by the prehistoric Missoula floods, others from wind and volcanic ash. The soils at our vineyard are 100% wind blown Loess – the finest top soil in the world. I know Loess personally from growing up in the Palouse hills of eastern Washington and northern Idaho where the Loess is sometimes over 400 feet deep. The richest wheatland in the world is in the Palouse because of the amazing Loess topsoil. At out vineyard on Naches Heights, the Loess has filled basins between basalt rock bluffs to create pocket “oases” of incredible soil. The Naches Heights were created one million years ago by a lava flow from the Goat Rocks, just south of Mount Rainier. The lava flowed down the Naches River canyon, dividing the old canyon into the two canyons that remain today: Cowiche Canyon to the south and the modern Naches River canyon to the north. The lava flow stopped just short of the Yakima City limits at an area known as the Indian Painted Rocks (for the ancient petroglyphs painted on the cliffs formed when the lava cooled). Unlike most of the rest of the Columbia Valley, the Naches Heights stayed above the massive Missoula floods which raked the top soil from much of the rest of eastern Washington. Therefore, the Loess on Naches Heights has never been disturbed or eroded by rivers and floods. The one million year old soil remains in the vineyard basin, ready for the roots of the vines. Further, while many worry about soil erosion, our vineyard benefits from soil accretion. Our vineyard is continuing to attract new top soil every time the wind blows, and we still have lots of ash from Mount St. Helens to refresh the soil. An old vigneron once told me that there are many things that can go wrong with a vineyard that you can’t control, so you should carefully control where you pick to plant. With Naches Heights, I think we have picked a perfect place to plant.

TR: Why did you wait twenty years to plant a vineyard?

Paul: When we started Wilridge twenty years ago, the vineyards of Washington State and their viticultural potential were relatively unknown. By purchasing grapes from vineyards around the state, I have been able to locate the best areas in the state to grow grapes and upgrade to better and better sites. Over the years, we have purchased grapes from most of the prime regions in Washington State, including the Yakima Valley, Red Mountain, Mattawa, Rattlesnake Hills and Walla Walla. With such great fruit available, it has taken me twenty years to make up my mind to plant a vineyard.

When we started in 1988 there was a shortage of grapes (more demand than supply) in Washington State and we sometimes had to beg for fruit. Some growers did not seem to care if they grew grapes, apples, onions or asparagus – it was all simply a decision of which crops would bring the most money. Some grape growers didn’t even drink wine! When a grower’s concern is cash and quantity before quality, conflicts between the interests of the winery and the vineyard can ensue. Around the year 2000 the balance of supply and demand switched in Washington and now there are more grapes planted than are needed to supply our wineries. We have a buyer’s market instead of a seller’s market and the difference is evident in the quality of the grapes. Growers who do not put quality first now have difficulty selling their grapes. I like to say that Wilridge works exclusively with “wine growers” not “grape growers.” It’s a big difference in attitude.

TR: If you can buy such great grapes in Washington State from established vineyards, why take the risk of planting your own vineyard?

Paul: I grew up in eastern Washington (actually just over the border in Moscow, Idaho), so I know something about farming and the risks involved. Mostly I know that it’s very hard work that lasts almost all year long. In contrast, most winemaking work occurs during harvest in the fall. One still has time to take a vacation if one is solely a winemaker. Despite my awareness of the risks and hard work involved, I decided to plant our vineyard for several reasons. First, I want to be able to control every aspect of the grape-growing (“wine-growing”) process. I think every winemaker wants his or her own vineyard for the total artistic control it permits. Though I do work with fabulous vineyards run by wine-growers who are totally dedicated to quality, I still like the idea of being completely in control of how the vines are grown. Second, I think owning my own vineyard will help make Wilridge wines more unique and help differentiate Wilridge Winery from other wineries. No one else can make wine from our vineyard and have our “terroir” unless we decide to sell them grapes. The site we have selected is unique in many respects and will transfer unique qualities to the wines that cannot be duplicated elsewhere. Third, I have been thinking lately about leaving a legacy for my two sons. Currently, Wilridge consists of some wine, some tanks, and the “goodwill” of the Wilridge name. Now my sons will inherit (if they want to) a unique operating vineyard and winery.

TR: You are well known for your Red Mountain Cabernet, Merlot, Nebbiolo and Sangiovese. Are you going to keep buying grapes from Red Mountain?

Paul: Absolutely!  We have been working with Red Mountain fruit for over twenty years.  We plan to keep buying fruit from veteran Red Mountain winegrowers Fred Artz and John Williams.  I hope that Wilridge will always make wine from Red Mountain. It’s one of the reasons we picked Naches Heights for our vineyard. I can make my cool climate-style wines from Naches Heights grapes and my hot climate wines from Red Mountain.

 TR: Are you going to keep the Wilridge Winery production facility in Seattle or move it to the vineyard?

 Paul: We will perform some winemaking activities at the vineyard – primarily related to harvest and crush – but most of the winemaking will still take place at the existing winery in the Madrona neighborhood of Seattle. We may move more production to the vineyard in the future, but we love having an “urban winery” in Seattle.

 TR: What grape varieties have you planted?

This spring we planted an eight acre test plot in the center of the 85 acre property to 20 grape varieties. We have divided the plot into four areas: the five red Bordeaux varieties – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot and Malbec – are in the northwest corner together with the white Bordeaux varieties Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc; we planted the Italian varieties of Nebbiolo, Barbera, Pinot Bianco and Pinot Grigio in the southwest corner; five Portuguese Port varieties are planted on a south facing slope on the north of the plot; and the southeast portion has our Rhone varieties including three clones of Syrah, Rousanne and Marsanne; We will evaluate how these grapes thrive over the next few years and then plant the rest of the property.

TR: How about water? Will you have enough if there is a drought?

The vineyard is in the Yakima-Tieton irrigation district, which I understand is the oldest irrigation district in Washington State. Water rights are based on “first in time, first in right,” so I think we are in pretty good shape. We purchased 32 irrigation “units” with the property and Phil tells me that we will only need 12 to start the vineyard and less than that once it’s established. Grapes are one of the least water intensive crops grown in eastern Washington. Right now I am selling the excess water to local orchards. Most other vineyards in eastern Washington obtain their water from the Columbia River where there are issues with drought, hydroelectric power, and salmon recovery. Our water comes from the Cascade Mountains via the Tieton River. Droughts on the Columbia will not affect us and our water is higher quality and better for grapes (it does not have to be treated) than the Columbia irrigation water. Also, if there are ever any problems in the future we can always put in a well.

TR: We hear that you are going to grow the grapes organically and biodynamically. Why did you decide to go with such expensive and time consuming viticultural practices?

We are going to spend a lot of time at the vineyard, we have two young boys, and we have two caretakers on the property who want to start a family, so there was never any question about going organic. Grapes are relatively easy to grow organically compared to some other crops, especially in eastern Washington where there is little mold or mildew pressure due to the wind and dry climate. Our biggest challenge going organic will be controlling weeds in the first two years until the vines and cover crop are well established.

Going biodynamic was another question. The biodynamic movement was started by Rudolf Steiner, a reputedly clairvoyant genius who also founded the Waldorf Schools among many other accomplishments. He was asked by farmers in Germany to apply his spiritual and scientific principles to agriculture. Well before the organic movement was started, Steiner suggested, through a series of lectures on agriculture, that modern farming was out of balance with the natural rhythm of the earth, moon and planets. He eschewed chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides and suggested homeopathic compost treatments and planting schedules to “heal the earth” from the depredations of modern agriculture. I am by nature a rational person and somewhat skeptical of the spiritual claims that underlie biodynamics. However, one cannot argue with the results – some of the best wines in the world come from biodynamic vineyards. And no farmer would argue with the idea that plant growth is influenced by seasonal cycles – it’s the whole basis of the Farmer’s Almanac. I like the biodynamic idea of treating the entire farm/vineyard as a complete unit. All waste products at Wilridge Vineyard will be returned to the soil. We will work to enliven the soil with cover crops, composts, the biodynamic “preparations” and no chemical fertilizers. At a minimum, this intense attention to the needs of the vineyard cannot hurt, at the maximum, I think we may be able to produce some of the finest wines in the world from our vineyard.

TR: It sounds like a great place for a vineyard! Are you going to do anything else with the property?

 Paul: Yes, there is a 100 year old farmhouse on the property that we will use as a tasting room. We just hired Angie and Damian Lagle to live in the farmhouse, operate the tasting room on the first floor, and be caretakers for the property. We plan to be open seven days a week and available for special events.

 We also love the fact that the vineyard borders on the Cowiche Canyon Conservation Area. The views of the Canyon from the vineyard are spectacular. We are talking with the Board of the Conservancy about extending an existing hiking and mountain biking trail from the Canyon into the vineyard. The trail would connect with the William O. Douglas trail and allow one to hike or bike from the vineyard tasting room all the way to the Pacific Crest Trail and Mount Rainier.

TR: It all sounds wonderful! When can we visit?

Paul: Right now! We have received all of our government permits and open for business. Angie and Damian, our caretakers, would love to see you anytime you are near Yakima. We will also have a grand opening celebration over Thanksgiving weekend in conjunction with the Yakima Valley “Thanksgiving in Wine Country” festivities (Nov. 23-25).

TR: Sounds great! How do we get there?

Paul: The vineyard is only five minutes from Yakima (and Starbucks!), but you will feel like you are in the middle of nowhere when you get there. The quickest way is to take the Highway 12 exit off Interstate 82 in Yakima toward the town of Naches. As you leave Yakima, take a left on Ackley Road (you will see the Ackley apple warehouse and the cliffs of Naches Heights and the Indian Painted Rocks to your left). Take an immediate left on Powerhouse Road and an immediate right onto Naches Heights Road. Climb up the grade and enjoy the views from Naches Heights. On the way you will pass the Garretson Mansion and stone tower, several apple and pear orchards, and the largest organic raspberry farm in the world. The vineyard is on the left at 250 Ehler Road, just after you pass Schuller Grade Road. Follow Ehler Road straight south until you see the Wilridge sign to the left of our driveway. Come on up the drive and make yourself at home.

Also, if you have the time, there are two fabulous scenic routes to the vineyard. One takes you through the gorgeous Yakima River Canyon. From Interstate 90 in Ellensburg, take the Canyon Road exit and head south through the canyon to the town of Selah where you can connect to I-82 and the directions above.

If you are coming from Seattle, Tacoma or Olympia, Highways 12 and 410 offer spectacular views of Mount Rainier and the canyons of the Naches and Tieton Rivers. Take time to stop for a hike in Mount Rainier National Park on Cayuse or Chinook Passes. There are no more beautiful roads in the United States. Once you reach the town of Naches, continue on Highway 12 until you cross the Naches River where you will find the Ackley Road turnoff on your right. Note that Highway 410 and the passes are closed in winter.

TR: Congratulations! I hope you will keep us posted as the vineyard develops.

Paul: Will do. Thanks.