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Hamilton Cellars on fast track with Red Mountain winery, vineyard
A long journey – often an odyssey – has brought one boutique Washington winery home.
A decade ago, Stacie and Russ Hamilton began thinking about owning their own winery. The trail was long, arduous and occasionally litigious. But patience is paying off as they are close to opening Hamilton Cellars on Red Mountain.
“This is the culmination of what we wanted,” Stacie Hamilton told Great Northwest Wine. “It’s the culmination of a dream. If you’d asked us 10 years ago what the perfect situation would be, we would have said 10 acres on Sunset Road.”
And that is where they are ending up.
By next month, their dream home will be completed on their 10-acre property near Hedges Family Estate. In mid-April, they will begin putting vines in the ground. And their 5,000-square-foot winery and tasting room will open to the public by mid-May.
The land nearly was not made available to the Hamiltons. Their real estate agent approached the previous owner several times but to no avail. Just as they were about to refocus their efforts elsewhere, they tried one more time. As luck would have it, the owner had just been hit with some large financial bills and was ready to take their first offer.
“It was a last-ditch effort,” she said. “It was good timing. It was pure luck.”
Indeed, they were approached just days after they bought the land with offers for twice what they paid. After what the Hamiltons have gone through to arrive here, there was no way they were going to let it go.
Hamilton Cellars’ long journey to Red Mountain
In 2007, the Hamiltons began working on building a wine village in West Richland, a community just around the corner from Red Mountain. They purchased land and put forth plans to create a development with several wineries and condominiums.
Everything was in place and construction was nearly ready to begin when they discovered that the land the city had sold them actually was owned by the Bureau of Land Management. West Richland refunded the Hamiltons’ money, though they had to file a lawsuit against the city to recover architecture and development fees, which they also eventually recovered.
Undeterred, they went looking for new land and found a beautiful spot in nearby Kennewick in the burgeoning Southridge area. Just as design work began, the development loan fell through because of their lawsuit with the city of West Richland. So they moved on.
During all of this, the city of Richland changed its zoning laws to allow wineries within its city limits, and the Hamiltons already owned a building next to their wealth management company. So that became Hamilton Cellars’ tasting room, but they never lost sight of what they really wanted: a Red Mountain estate.
Meanwhile, the Hamiltons hired omnipresent winemaker Charlie Hoppes, owner of Fidelitas Wines on Red Mountain, as their winemaker. He began with the 2006 vintage, and by the time they opened their tasting room in early 2011, they had multiple vintages available for patrons.
Additionally, the Hamiltons purchased a former beer distributor warehouse in Richland and converted it to a winemaking facility, then leased it back to Hoppes. There, Hoppes and his team make wines for Hamilton Cellars, Fidelitas, Gamache Vintners, Vinagium, Market Vineyards and others.
Another early decision that has paid off is Hamilton Cellars’ focus on Malbec, an obscure red Bordeaux variety until less than a decade ago. The rich red grape has become the toast of Washington in recent years – and it’s a favorite of Hoppes.
Today, Hamilton Cellars features several Malbecs, including the first from famed Champoux Vineyards in the Horse Heaven Hills. The 2010 vintage – from 3-year-old vines – tied for first in a tasting of eight top Malbecs: four from Washington and four from Argentina.
“I wish I could say we were smart enough to see a niche,” Hamilton said. “Charlie thought there would be a lot of interest in it, and not a lot of people were making it.”
Dick Boushey to manage Hamilton Cellars’ vineyard
Hamilton Cellar’s vineyard manager is Dick Boushey, arguably the top grape grower in Washington. He owns Boushey Vineyard in the Yakima Valley and manages several vineyards on Red Mountain, including Col Solare, Ambassador, Upchurch and Fidelitas. He’s also managing Duckhorn Vineyards’ 20-acre vineyard project on Red Mountain.
Hamilton Cellars will likely be the only vineyard he plants in 2014. He is excited to start putting vines in the ground. The soil is prepped, and installation of the trellis system will begin as early as next week.
“It’s a really nice block,” Boushey said. “It has a wonderful slope.”
From Sunset Road to the bottom of the vineyard toward the Yakima River, the ground drops about 80 feet, so Boushey is confident he won’t need wind machines for frost protection.
The land was used many years as a cherry orchard, producing the earliest cherry crop in the entire state. It also was a horrendous junk pile, which the previous owner mostly cleaned up by hauling many, many trucks filled with garbage.
“It was awful,” she said. “We pulled hundreds of tires that were in the orchard.”
Hamilton said many of her new neighbors have stopped by to thank her for taking over and fixing the longtime eyesore.
By mid-April, Boushey will begin putting grapes in the soil. While the focus will be Malbec, Hamilton also wants about 4 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon – two clones – as well as small amounts of Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc.
During the past six years of working on Red Mountain, Boushey said he’s learned a lot about the bench’s soil types and weather patterns and is pouring that knowledge into the Hamiltons’ vineyard.
“I’ve learned a few things,” he said. “I’ll be dividing the vineyard into three blocks to deal with different soil types and varieties. I’ve learned which clones work well up here after working with Col Solare and Upchurch.”
He’s also installing a high-tech irrigation system. Hamilton said one thing she is not concerned about is water. In fact, her land is on a well and she has more water than she’ll be able to use because orchards tend to use more than twice as much irrigation as drought-friendly grapevines. That means she has precious water rights she doesn’t need and might ultimately sell.
By mid-May, Hamilton hopes to have her new Hamilton Cellars tasting room open to the public. It will be 5,000 square feet, with half dedicated to a hospitality area and half for wine production. Though Hoppes makes her wine at his Wine Boss production warehouse, Hamilton wants to begin dabbling herself. She earned a winemaking certificate from the University of California-Davis and wants to try her hand, producing small amounts for a second label.
“I’ve been interested in winemaking for a long time,” she said. “I’ll make maybe 150 cases, just a side project.”
She is going to work with Thomas Henick-Kling, director of viticulture and enology for Washington State University.
Hamilton Cellars first tasting room to stay open for now
The Hamiltons’ new home also will be on the property, and it should be completed in the next few weeks. While it will be their private residence, they do plan to use it for entertaining and perhaps a bit of case good storage.
Just down the road is Fidelitas, and Hamilton and Boushey are thrilled to have Hoppes so close. Boushey said providing all the Hamilton grapes to one winemaker is ideal.
“It’s what I like to do,” Boushey said. “Working directly with the winemaker and owner, you get immediate feedback about what is and isn’t working. To me, it’s the perfect scenario. Especially with it being Charlie, who I’ve worked with for a long time. When you see the winemaker on a daily or weekly basis and sample the wines all the time, you can talk about specific blocks and how to improve them.
“This is the way it should be.”