SUNNYSIDE, Wash. – Harrison Hill would barely qualify as a footnote in Washington wine history were it not for a nudge more than 20 years ago from one of Washington’s most famous winemakers to one of its young guns.
But today, this funny little 5-acre vineyard, surrounded by suburbia overlooking Interstate 82, is the site of some of Washington’s oldest Cabernet Sauvignon vines. It’s a vineyard soaked in history and mystery and the source of one of the state’s greatest wines.
In fact, the “grandfather of Washington wine” began his career on this hallowed soil. In 1914, William B. Bridgman planted his first vines here. According to The Wine Project written by Ron Irvine, Bridgman planted Black Prince, Flame Tokay and Ribier.
Black Prince today is known by the name Cinsault, a wine grape from the Southern Rhône Valley of France and now grown in small amounts in Washington. Flame Tokay is grown for both table grapes and wine in California’s Central Valley. And Ribier is a nearly extinct wine grape grown in the south of France.
Three years later in 1917, Bridgman planted more wine grapes on nearby Snipes Mountain, some of which remain today, including Thompson Seedless and Muscat of Alexandria.
Harrison Hill goes to Associated Vintners, Ste. Michelle
In 1962, Harrison Hill was nearly forgotten, and a broke Bridgman sold that land to Associated Vintners, a winery started by a group of University of Washington professors. The Wine Project, which is the definitive history of the Washington wine industry, includes a photo of Associated Vintners partners planting Cabernet Sauvignon in 1962 on Harrison Hill.
A decade later, farmer Al Newhouse bought Upland Vineyards on Snipes Mountain from Bridgman’s family (Bridgman died in 1968) and also began farming Harrison Hill for Associated Vintners.
According to The Wine Project, cuttings from these 1962 Cabernet Sauvignon vines were sold in the early 1970s to Mike Sauer, who planted them at Red Willow Vineyard. Today, they are Sauer’s oldest vines at more than 40 years old – another echo of the Yakima Valley’s rich viticultural history.
By the late 1970s, Newhouse bought the vineyard from Associated Vintners (soon to be known as Columbia Winery) and began selling the grapes to Chateau Ste. Michelle. Most of the folks at Ste. Michelle didn’t even know Harrison Hill existed, as the grapes were harvested along with several other vineyards – including Upland Vineyard.
“Five acres doesn’t even fill the hoses at Ste. Michelle,” said Chris Upchurch, winemaker and partner for DeLille Cellars in Woodinville.
DeLille and Harrison Hill
Upchurch and his partners — father and son Greg and Charles Lill and friend Jay Soloff – launched DeLille Cellars in 1992, and in the early years, Upchurch was mentored by David Lake, a Master of Wine and the longtime head winemaker for Columbia Winery.
“One day, David said, ‘Let’s go by this old vineyard. I’d like to see how it is doing,’ ” Upchurch said. “He kind of poked me and said some little winery could do something special with it.”
What Upchurch discovered – and Ste. Michelle probably didn’t realize – was that among such varieties as Gewürztraminer, Pinot Noir and Riesling were those Cabernet Sauvignon vines planted in 1962. That got Upchurch pretty excited.
“One thing all good winemakers have in common is we all seek old vines,” Upchurch told Great Northwest Wine. “Old vines are like old people: They don’t produce too much, and they don’t move too fast. As far as old vines are concerned, the yields are lower, and it also means they mature and ripen slower, which means the flavors catch up before the sugars get too high.”
Upchurch realized what he’d stumbled upon and called up Steve Newhouse – Al’s son – about getting the grapes.
“At first, they didn’t want anything to do with me because they didn’t know me,” Upchurch said with a chuckle.
So the DeLille partners approached Allen Shoup, then CEO of Chateau Ste. Michelle. Shoup knew his winemakers had no plans to do anything interesting with Harrison Hill and thought it would be a great idea to let the young DeLille team have a go with it.
“They gave it to us,” Upchurch said.
When he called Newhouse back, the grower was more than happy to work with him.
The vineyard was not in great shape – at least for producing world-class wines. The vines were trained in a double bilateral cordon, which produces a lot of grapes, and they were watered with overhead sprinklers.
For Upchurch, the Newhouses retrained the old vines to produce fewer grapes and installed drip irrigation. Then they pulled out everything except the acre of 1962 Cabernet Sauvignon and replanted with more Cab, as well as Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Today, those vines are more than 20 years old.
Also in the years since Associated Vintners planted those grapes in the early 1960s, a neighborhood had sprung up around the vineyard. Today, homes surround Harrison Hill on three sides, which also means telephone wires where birds sit and wait for grapes to ripen. In early August, the Newhouses must drape nets over these old vines or risk losing their fruit to the birds.
“They’d take this whole thing,” Steve Newhouse said, waving his hand across the vineyard.
In 2009, the federal government approved the Snipes Mountain American Viticultural Area. While the majority of the state’s second-smallest AVA is Snipes Mountain, Harrison Hill is part of the same landform and is included.
Harrison Hill: a love story
In 1994, Upchurch got his first grapes from Harrison Hill. The resulting wine was so different, he decided to create a separate bottling, simply called “Harrison Hill.” The Newhouses were thrilled because it was the first vineyard-designated bottling from their grapes.
It also led to a life-changing opportunity for Upchurch.
His wife, Thea, is from Holland and has a background in running restaurants. When they met in 1995, Upchurch put on what he called his “best winemaker mojo” for her. He led her to the cellar, where they tasted through barrels of young DeLille wines.
“She said, ‘Harrison is your best wine,'” Upchurch said. “It wasn’t even released yet. Nobody even knew it existed. I started to fall in love with her at that moment.”
Two weeks later, they began dating, and six years later, they were married.
Today, the Harrison Hill from DeLille is a blend that typically is 65 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 25 percent Merlot and 10 percent Cabernet Franc – similar to the winery’s flagship Chaleur Estate, but the resulting wine is remarkably different. Instead of the power that Upchurch gets from Red Mountain grapes, Harrison Hill shows distinctiveness and elegance.
Upchurch believes it comes from the ancient soils beneath the vines. Scattered throughout the vineyard are smooth, round rocks the shape of sweet potatoes. How they got here, a few hundred feet above the valley floor, is no mystery to Todd Newhouse, fourth-generation grape grower and Steve’s son.
He explained that before the Earth’s crust wrinkled and caused the upthrusts in the valley that include Harrison Hill and Snipes Mountain, the ancient Yakima River ran through here.
“It’s old soil,” Newhouse said.
The soil and relatively cool site turn Harrison Hill into something special for Upchurch.
“I believe Harrison Hill – out of all our wines – has the most terroir. It really is different from our other sites,” Upchurch said. “Terroir is a special thing. A lot of vineyards taste the same. In order to have terroir, you have to stand out among other wines.”
Today, Upchurch produces 300 to 500 cases of Harrison Hill per year. It retails for $85 per bottle and sells out nearly as soon as it is released because it is so highly collectible.
This week, Todd Newhouse’s crew will harvest the 1962 Cabernet Sauvignon. The clusters have ripened to perfection, and they will be the last fruit from the warm 2014 vintage to enter Upchurch’s cellar in Woodinville.
It’s a wine that has been 100 years in the making.
A Harrison Hill mystery
Perhaps 20 feet from the 1962 block of Cabernet Sauvignon are some grape vines. They’re growing wild along a fence that separates the vineyard from a nearby home.
“They were here when we started farming here in 1972,” Steve Newhouse said. “I don’t know what they are.”
They aren’t Thompson Seedless because the grapes are dark. Could they possibly be Black Prince or Ribier, century-old survivors from when William Bridgman stood here, dug into the ground and planted his first grapes?
Via an email, Wine Project author Ron Irvine told Great Northwest Wine that he doesn’t know if these could be from Bridgman’s original plantings.
It’s a mystery that is unlikely to ever be solved.