Washington’s great vineyards: Elephant Mountain Vineyards

By on August 21, 2013
Elephant Mountain Vineyards is in the northwestern section of the Yakima Valley.

Elephant Mountain Vineyards is in the Rattlesnake Hills area of Washington state’s Yakima Valley. It is owned by Joe Hattrup. (Photo courtesy of Elephant Mountain Vineyards)

ZILLAH, Wash. – It didn’t take Joe Hattrup long to figure out he might have found one of the best sites in Washington state to plant a vineyard.

The fourth-generation farmer spent most of his career working with orchards and cattle.

“I got out of tree fruit to get out of commodity farming,” he told Great Northwest Wine.

He liked the idea of working with small, artisan winemakers, so in 1995 he purchased the land for Elephant Mountain Vineyards high in the Rattlesnake Hills region of the northern Yakima Valley.

“I was always interested in growing grapes but never had the right site until Elephant Mountain,” he said. “It had the opportunity to be a great vineyard.”

Elephant Mountain Vineyards, a high-elevation site, is 90 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Syrah, Sangiovese, Viognier, Petit Verdot, Mourvedre and Riesling – as well as a number of small test plots to see what else might work there. The vineyard starts at 1,340 feet in elevation and goes up to 1,460 – making it the highest-elevation vineyard in the state when he planted it.

In 1998, Hattrup and his brother Tom began planting Elephant Mountain Vineyards. (Tom retired in 2006 and sold his vineyard interests to Joe.) Today, he sells to more than 40 wineries – “a lot of small, discerning customers,” he said.

Because of its high elevation, Elephant Mountain Vineyards rarely gets frost. In fact, it averages 30 more frost-free days than most Columbia Valley vineyards.

“It really helps us retain acids,” he said.

And yet, Hattrup said Elephant Mountain can receive the same heat units as Red Mountain, though it ripens about three weeks later. This helps him especially with Mourvedre.

“It’s the last grape in,” he said.

He said that while Mourvedre – a southern Rhône variety – might only get to 19 to 22 brix at other locations before frost arrives, Hattrup is able to get to at least 24 brix. This happened even in cool years such as 2010 and 2011.

“We didn’t have any issues ripening,” he said.

In fact, Hattrup’s ability to fully ripen Mourvedre has some winemakers pushing him to plant two other Rhône reds: Cinsault and Counoise.

“I’m hesitant,” he said. “They ripen a week to 10 days later than Mourvedre.”

Still, he has a little in some test blocks to see if he might one day make a go of it.

Elephant Mountain Vineyards spawns nearby siblings

Elephant Mountain Vineyards is in Washington state's Rattlesnake Hills AVA.

Elephant Mountain Vineyards is known as a high-elevation, late-ripening site that is able to avoid frost. (Photo courtesy of Elephant Mountain Vineyards)

Now that Elephant Mountain is pretty well planted out, Hattrup is focusing on establishing two more vineyards nearby. One is Sugarloaf, a vineyard he began planting in 2006 and already is gaining acclaim with top wineries and is garnering attention with vineyard-designated wines from the likes of Eleven Winery and Maryhill.

So far, Hattrup has planted 50 acres at Sugarloaf, which is about a mile west of Elephant Mountain. He has 14 acres planted, including Spanish, Italian and Rhône varieties. He will begin filling it in with Cabernet Sauvignon down the road.

Sugarloaf is lower in elevation than Elephant Mountain, starting at about 1,000 feet and reaching to 1,250 feet. He noted Sugarloaf is warmer because of its steeper southwest-facing slopes. The soils also are quite a bit deeper because the top of the Ice Age floods some 15,000 years ago flowed through Sugarloaf, but Elephant Mountain was too high to be flood-affected.

Just a half-mile away from Elephant Mountain in another direction, Hattrup is putting cool-climate grapes on one of his orchard sites with north-facing slopes – and finding great success. He is planting Albariño, Grüner Veltliner and several clones of Riesling.

“I won’t say it’s ‘Willamette-ish,’ ” he said with a chuckle. “But it’s been pretty successful. I’ve been pleased.”

Hattrup has pushed into areas of the vast Columbia Valley that few would venture.

Bob Bertheau, head winemaker at Chateau Ste. Michelle, is a big admirer of Elephant Mountain.

“That’s a pretty special spot,” he told Great Northwest Wine. “He’s above the freeze. It’s warmer because of the exposure and above the cold air. It’s still a reasonably cool site for late ripening.”

Bertheau likes Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah from Elephant Mountain.

“That makes some of the most intensely colored wines outside of Cold Creek,” he said.

About Andy Perdue

Andy Perdue is the editor and publisher of Great Northwest Wine. He is a third-generation journalist who has worked at newspapers since the mid-1980s and has been writing about wine since 1998. He co-founded Wine Press Northwest magazine with Eric Degerman and served as its editor-in-chief for 15 years. He is a frequent judge at international wine competitions. He is the author of "The Northwest Wine Guide: A Buyer's Handbook" (Sasquatch, 2003) and has contributed to four other books. He writes about wine for The Seattle Times. You can find him on Twitter and .