New plantings change face of Red Mountain

By on May 27, 2015
Red Mountain planting at Fidelitas Wines.

A crew quickly and efficiently plants Cabernet Sauvignon last week at Fidelitas’ estate vineyard on Red Mountain. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

Nowhere in Washington is wine grape planting heavier or more interesting than Red Mountain.

Last week, famed grape grower Dick Boushey was installing 9 acres of red Bordeaux grapes in front of Fidelitas Wines, bringing owner Charlie Hoppes’ estate vineyard on Sunset Road to 12 acres.

fidelitas-wines-cabernet-sauvignon-red-mountain-nv-bottleElsewhere on the mountain, the Aquilini family, which owns the National Hockey League’s Vancouver Canucks in British Columbia, is reportedly putting 500 acres of grapes in the ground at a frenetic pace.

When summer comes around in a few weeks, the total on Red Mountain could top 2,000 total acres – and be pretty close to being fully planted.

Red Mountain is Washington’s smallest American Viticultural Area at 4,040 acres. It’s also the state’s most-prized ground, with winemakers willing to pay top dollar for this land’s ripe clusters.

Hoppes, who has been making Washington wine since the 1980s, has focused most of his effort on Red Mountain, where Cabernet Sauvignon is king. When his vineyard is fully producing, he’ll have 8 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, followed by small amounts of Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec.

Hoppes owns 15 acres up the road from Kiona Vineyards & Winery (where grapes were first planted 40 years ago), and across from Red Mountain Vineyard. It’s part of a 20-acre block that was purchased years ago by Stan Clarke, a longtime winemaker, grape grower, wine writer and educator who died in late 2007. Hoppes bought the first 5 acres from Stan and the other 10 from his widow.

The other 5 acres that Clarke owned were sold to Roger Gamache, who owns Gamache Vineyards about 50 miles north near the town of Basin City. Hoppes makes the award-winning wines for Gamache, who has a tasting room about a half-hour west of Red Mountain in Prosser.

Cost of doing business on Red Mountain

Charlie Hoppes and Dick Boushey at Fidelitas vineyard on Red Mountain.

Charlie Hoppes, left, and Dick Boushey teamed up to plant the Fidelitas estate vineyard on Sunset Road. With last week’s planting, Hoppes will have 12 acres of vineyards – mostly Cabernet Sauvignon. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

Growing grapes on Red Mountain is not cheap – nor is making wine from these grapes.

In 2011, Hoppes paid $35,000 per acre for the 10 acres he added to his estate. Today, his ground would run $50,000 minimum. This is for undeveloped land with water rights.

On top of that, Hoppes and Boushey have budgeted $18,000 an acre to put the grapes in the ground, which covers wooden and metal posts, wires, irrigation hoses and plants. Fortunately for Hoppes and Boushey, Clarke had prepped the land in anticipation of one day planting.

“If you have to move a lot of dirt, you can spend $20,000 an acre easily,” Boushey said.

On the other end of the equation, wineries will pay anywhere from $3,200 to $4,500 per ton for Red Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon. On average, this is the highest in Washington and begins to approach the average for grapes in California’s Napa Valley.

“There’s a strong demand for Red Mountain wine grapes,” Boushey said.

After an epic land auction in November 2013 that put more than 500 acres of Red Mountain land (plus another 160 acres adjacent to the AVA) in the hands of the Aquilini family, the face of Red Mountain is rapidly changing. What it will end up looking like in five years is anyone’s guess.

One thing everybody knows, however, is grapes are scarce because of the heavy planting here on Red Mountain, as well as 50 miles south in the Horse Heaven Hills.

Boushey the ‘Prince of Red Mountain’

Dick Boushey on Red Mountain at Fidelitas Vineyard.

Grape grower Dick Boushey carries greenhouse grape vines to be planted at Fidelitas on Red Mountain. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

For years, Boushey built his reputation as one of the top Yakima Valley wine grape growers for his 165 acres north of the Yakima Valley town of Grandview. But a few years ago, he was lured to Red Mountain to be a vineyard manager for a number of prestigious vineyards. His client list now includes:

That adds up to about 200 acres he’s managing on Red Mountain with a crew separate from his Grandview operation. And he’s far from being No. 1. Growers such as Dick Shaw and Michael Corliss have much more acreage and are growing at a fast clip. And here come the Aquilinis.

At his place in Grandview, Boushey is a diversified farmer. On top of his wine grapes, he also grows 85 acres of Concords for juice and 5 acres of cherries. After 38 years, he’s finally pulled out his apple orchards – the crop that got him started in agriculture.

Send in the clones

Dick Boushey checks Cabernet Sauvignon planted at Fidelitas on Red Mountain.

Grape grower Dick Boushey checks a Cabernet Sauvignon vine as it is planted by his crew at Fidelitas’ estate vineyard on Red Mountain. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

It could be said that Hoppes is fascinated by the clonal selections of Cabernet Sauvignon – or at the very least intrigued.

In his first block of 3 acres, planted in 2008, he put in all Cabernet Sauvignon. His first estate wine – from the stellar 2012 vintage – will be released this year. In his new plantings, he and Boushey are adding five clones of Cab, which go by numbers rather than names: 2, 6, 169, 191 and 412. He already has clone 8 planted in his original block.

Some of these are known as “Entav” clones, which were developed and are controlled by the French. Clone 169, for example, ripens earlier than clone 8 and naturally carries less fruit.

For interested guests, Hoppes and Boushey are planting a demonstration vineyard near the Fidelitas tasting room that will include all the Cab clones planted here. As harvest approaches, visitors will be able to see how they differ.

“When people ask about them, we can bring them here,” Hoppes said. “Especially during the growing season, they can look at the differences in the canopy and the cluster shapes and sizes.”

With all the activity, Boushey is pleased to have the plants to put in this valuable soil.

“We’re paying a little more for these greenhouse potted plants, but that’s the only way we could have gotten them in the ground this year,” he said. “We’re happy we’re able to source all the clones.”

The first time Hoppes drove up Sunset Road, it was in the 1980s – before he went to work for Chateau Ste. Michelle, where he was the red winemaker. Back then, he was working for Snoqualmie Winery (before Ste. Michelle purchased it), and the only vineyards on Red Mountain were Kiona, Ciel du Cheval, Klipsun, Tapteil, Blackwood and Red Mountain Vineyard. It was a few acres of grapes and wide swaths of old-growth sagebrush – and none of the grapes were available to Hoppes.

Today, most of Red Mountain is green – with vines and money.

About Andy Perdue

Andy Perdue is founding partner of Great Northwest Wine LLC and a longtime wine columnist. 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 the author of "The Northwest Wine Guide: A Buyer's Handbook" (Sasquatch, 2003) and has contributed to four other books.

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