Stacie and Russ Hamilton lived only about 10 miles away from Red Mountain, but the path getting there was long and arduous.
Last year, the Hamiltons fulfilled their dream of owning a Red Mountain winery and vineyard when they planted 9 acres of grapes and opened their tasting room in Washington’s most important viticultural area.
How they got there is a story in itself.
We recently sat down with Stacie Hamilton to talk about Hamilton Cellars. Here’s the interview.
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Hamilton Cellars focuses on Malbec
Stacie and Russ Hamilton didn’t start out thinking about the wine business. She worked in wealth management, and he was an executive for an overseas solar panel company. When they considered getting into Washington’s burgeoning wine industry, they thought about how they could stand out from the crowd.
“We decided we probably wanted a wine that we enjoyed drinking, and Malbec was our absolute favorite variety,” Stacie Hamilton told Great Northwest Wine. “We had tasted the Fidelitas Malbec and fell in love and started looking for Washington Malbecs. There weren’t a lot of them.”
So about 10 years ago, they turned to Charlie Hoppes, former red winemaker for Chateau Ste. Michelle who launched his own Fidelitas Wines in 2000 and also is the consulting winemaker for a number of small producers.
“We decided we would talk to Charlie, and he said, ‘I don’t know of any other winery that specializes or focuses on Malbec, and you might as well give it a shot because everybody focuses on Cab and Merlot.’ So we gave it a try, and it’s been wildly successful.”
For Hamilton, Hoppes makes two Malbecs (one from Champoux Vineyards), a rosé of Malbec and a Malbec-based blend. He also makes a handful of other wines for the label. The Hamilton Cellars Malbecs have drawn acclaim, including finishing atop a Great Northwest Wine blind tasting of Washington vs. Argentina Malbec smackdown.
Hamilton Cellars’ long road to Red Mountain
Once the Hamiltons knew what they wanted to focus on, they had to figure out how to get there. They started out with the idea of creating a wine village, so they purchased 27 acres of land from the city of West Richland, which is near Red Mountain.
“We originally wanted a piece of land in West Richland because it was the only city in the Tri-Cities that allowed wineries at the time. About a week before the excavators came in to do the roadwork, we got a call from the city saying there was a problem,” Stacie Hamilton said. “The Bureau of Land Management had contacted them and said that they didn’t own the land.”
The Hamiltons got their money back, but they had to go to court to get back their development costs.
“Meanwhile, I called the city of Kennewick, and they had changed their zoning, so we bought a piece of land in Southridge and went through the whole design process again,” she said. “Then the bank wouldn’t finalize the construction loan because we were in a lawsuit with West Richland.”
“So I called the city of Richland, and they had just changed their zoning,” she said.
The Hamiltons owned a couple of buildings in south Richland, not far from Bookwalter Winery and Barnard Griffin. After a quick remodel, Hamilton Cellars finally had a home. The Hamiltons also bought a former beer distribution warehouse in Richland, converted it to a winemaking facility and now rent it to Hoppes.
But their dream all along was to be on Red Mountain.
“We tried for six years to buy land on Red Mountain,” she said. “We had approached this gentleman who owned 10 acres above Fidelitas. We approached him about seven times over the years. We asked our Realtor to contact him one more time before we gave up on Red Mountain. He called that afternoon and said our offer was accepted. We ripped down the buildings on this property, ripped out the orchard and planted grapes and built a tasting room and our house.”
So the difficult path, including two failed plans in West Richland and Kennewick, ended up helping them to fulfill their ultimate dream of being on Red Mountain.
Green on Red Mountain
When entering Hamilton Cellars’ 2,500-square-foot tasting room on Sunset Road, one of the first things a visitor might notice is a large monitor that shows statistics on how much energy is being generated by the solar panels on the roof.
“Russ worked in China and Korea for five years as an executive in the solar industry and was really interested in having solar power for our facility,” she said. “So when we built it, we put 121 solar panels on the building. Even with our 25 horsepower pump for irrigation, we plan to be net-zero.”
That makes Hamilton Cellars one of the greenest wineries in Washington. It has a charging station for electric cars in the parking lot, and it’s even been contacted by Tesla Motors and soon will add a Tesla car charging station.
“We try to be as green as possible here,” she said. “We want to be off the grid as much as possible. Washington state has some great incentives for people who have solar power. It made sense for us to do it. The payback is less than five years. We plan to be here for a very long time, and that means we’ll have a lot of free energy generated over our lifetimes.”
Even Washington Gov. Inslee has been in touch.
“He is very interested in solar power, as well as wine, as well as Red Mountain,” she said. “It kind of fits into his plans.”
Other wineries, too, have contacted the Hamiltons to ask about the possibilities of going solar.
“It really makes a lot of sense to look into it.”
Hamilton Cellars’ estate vineyard
A year ago, the Hamiltons planted their 9-acre estate vineyard under the direction of famed Yakima Valley grape grower Dick Boushey. Getting him involved was not easy until he had a chance to look at the land.
“When we bought this piece of property, we asked if he would walk it,” she said. “He was pretty clear at the time: He was really busy. He and I walked the property for a couple of hours, and he did the soil samples.”
A couple of days later, Boushey called.
“Dick called me and said, ‘It’s a perfect piece of property. I can’t not do it because I am so excited about the potential for the fruit off this place.’ ”
So Boushey planted the five main red varieties of Bordeaux, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and, of course, Malbec. The Hamiltons will get a few tons this fall, then a full crop in 2016 – enough to make 2,200 cases.
Converting the property to a winery and vineyard has been a blessing not only for the Hamiltons, but also the rest of the Red Mountain wine community.
“It was an eyesore,” she said. “It had an old milk truck. It had a corral with poor, skinny horses in the front of the property. And it had a big wooden boat that had been sitting out in the front yard of the house for years and years and years. And the house had never been completed. It was really run down. We’ve had several neighbors stop by and thank us for making it look a lot better than it was.”