BENTON CITY, Wash. — If not for Larry Pearson, the top of Washington’s famed Red Mountain’s Sunset Road might look similar to the housing development at the bottom.
Fortunately, in 1984, he began to purchase small chunks of property to create Tapteil Vineyard Winery.
“It could have been a manufactured home park or something like that,” Pearson said. “There were some 24 parcels that were all subdivided at that time.”
The next year, the civil engineer from the University of Washington began planting, and three decades later, his holdings span 30 acres of vineyards, sales to some of Washington’s most famous winemakers and his own 850-case winery and tasting room managed by his wife, Jane.
And Friday, he begins serving on the board of the Washington State Wine Commission.
We recently sat down with Larry and Jane Pearson in their Red Mountain home, which is a stone’s throw from Tapteil Vineyard Winery. Here’s the interview:
From camper to farmer
Pearson, who grew up near the Washington coast in the city of Aberdeen, first graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in aeronautical engineering, but with Boeing in the middle of layoffs, he altered his focus and took a job teaching in Australia. He returned with a deeper interest in fine wine, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon, and his work around the world for Parsons Corp., would continue to feed that.
“What drew me to Red Mountain was looking for the ideal site on which to plant Cabernet Sauvignon,” he said. “It was 1982 or 1983, I was living in Seattle and I had the wherewithal to think about buying some property.”
His search began in the Yakima Valley, but research and conversations with industry leaders led him to Sunset Road in the spring of ‘84. And he brought his tent.
“The tent. An iconic photo,” he chuckled. “I got up here, and there was a sign on the property. I called the number and asked if I could camp on the site and maybe the morning we could talk about the property. And that’s just how it happened. The next day, I was signing papers for the first 4 acres.”
Even though he’d been making wine in small amount for private consumption, commercial winemaking was nowhere on his radar, but he knew his path — thanks to research performed by Washington State University and Red Mountain pioneers Jim Holmes of Ciel du Cheval Vineyard, John and Scott Williams of Kiona Vineyard Winery and grower Fred Artz, who died last year.
“They were really the body of knowledge that I went to mostly,” he said. “The others who started their vineyards in 1984 were Tricia and Dave Gelles of Klipsun Vineyard and Mike Moore of Blackwood Canyon. I reached out and asked questions of them, too. And it was very informative also to stop by the WSU agricultural extension in Prosser because of all that wealth of information — the Walter Clore studies. All those things were available. You had to scratch around to find them, but they were a huge help.”
While others planted a wide variety of grapes, Pearson chose clone 8 Cab for his deep layers of wind-blown loess soils. And when he learned that the clone 8 material he was purchasing from a Prosser nursery came via cuttings off Ste. Michelle’s now historic Cold Creek Vineyard, it was another piece that magically fit.
“That was one of the things that led me to Cabernet, too,” he said. “It tasted like a 1979 Cold Creek Vineyard Cabernet, which I thought was wonderful and served as a marker for Washington wine.”
His acreage on Red Mountain is small compared with his neighbors, and while he’s added Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Syrah, Grenache and Mourvédre, it’s Cabernet Sauvignon that has emerged as king of Washington’s smallest American Viticultural Area.
“Only in later years has it been really dominated with Cabernet plantings,” Pearson said. “For Dick Shaw, something like 90 percent-plus of all the acres he’s planting have been Cabernet.”
This year, which marks the 30th anniversary of Tapteil Vineyard, harvest is shaping up to be historic for myriad reasons. Some vineyard managers are predicting grapes for red wine will be coming off Red Mountain in August.
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” he said. “It puts people on notice when you say, ‘August.’ “
Last year, Pearson began picking Sept. 3. In 2013, it was Sept. 4. Each year, he starts by bringing in Merlot, but historically, the average start of harvest was Sept. 10-12.
“It’s already hotter than any year,” Pearson said. “We’re already way up in growing degree days. It makes you a little bit nervous because every day you hear something about the drought in all of these counties. What does that mean late in the summer and further than that?”
Research leads to Library of Congress
Study and research have been passions for Pearson, and he seemingly has made few missteps along the way. Even his name for the vineyard fits the region.
“I was looking for a place name, so I wondered what was going on here historically that could identify this area,” Pearson said. “Could there have been an old tribal settlement along this part of the river? There weren’t any permanent settlements.”
He began planting his vineyard in spring 1985, and that fall led him to Washington, D.C., for an engineering job. It paved the way to hours spent in the Library of Congress.
“During a very long Thanksgiving weekend, I came across the word tapteil, and it rang a bit,” he said. “It meant something, too. It’s a direct reference to the Yakima River, and the translation means “narrow” and refers to the portion of the river as it flows out of the gap. The people who lived in this lower part of the Yakima River were referred to as Tapteilmin.
The Pearsons embraced the Sahaptin language of the Yakama Nation, applying names to their other two vineyards — Alayt (“riverside”) and Spilya (“coyote”).
Beyond that, though, the terroir of Red Mountain fits the style of grapes and wines he creates.
“My palate has always been very robust and deep-flavored with nuance that’s long-lasting and complete — something a Cabernet can really fulfill,” he said.
In the past decade, though, he began to embrace Syrah, Grenache and Mourvédre, which syncs up with consumers’ recent interest in GSM-style blends. At this point, there are no plans for new plantings, but he knows what directions he would take if he did.
“I would like to do some of the Italian varieties like Anglianico, or maybe one of the other southern Rhônes — Counoise or Cinsault, but it’s a space thing. It would be fun to scratch on those, though.”
The influence of Tapteil Vineyard
Pearson quickly found buyers for his Cab.
“The two were Kiona — because Scott Williams was the first vineyard manager because I wasn’t living here — and Yakima River Winery and some home winemakers in Canada,” he chuckled. “Really.”
In time, Pearson’s list of customers past and present indicates his success as a grower. There’s Quilceda Creek, Woodward Canyon and Long Shadows, as well as Barrister, Eisenhower, EMVY, Robert Karl and the Boeing Wine Club. In Oregon, it’s been Cana’s Feast, Lady Hill and Pamplin.
“It’s a nice mix,” he said. “I go out and look for cases of wine from our buyers. It really helped being a grower, selling to wineries and seeing what they do.”
By 1998, Pearson decided to hold back some fruit to start his own brand.
“After 15 years, I was looking at a parcel where the winery now sits,” he said. “The beauty of that site is this gorgeous view of the lower part of the Yakima Valley and Red Mountain, so I thought maybe I should take the next step and get a bonded winery.”
That first wine, the Tapteil Vineyard Winery 1998 Merlot, proved to be the most important because of the impression it made on Jane, a longtime friend of Larry’s sister Jacquie. In 2001, the two women made the trip from Aberdeen to Red Mountain for Catch the Crush weekend, and Jane immediately had a crush on Jacquie’s brother.
“For years we called it ‘The Charm Wine,’ ” Jane said. “When I left here the first time, I left with a bottle of it and some grapes. I would eat a grape every day, and whenever the grapes were gone I would have a sip every day of this wine that I would hide from my friends.
“I thought I needed to do that every day until he asked me to marry him — and it worked,” Jane said with a smile. “Now, we give it to all of our single nieces, and it’s worked every time.”
The Pearsons married in 2004, and Larry said that special wine continues to hold up well.
“I still think it exhibits itself as Red Mountain, the way I grow it, and more like a Cabernet,” he said. “It’s not as soft and fruity as some Merlots on the market, but that’s the style that’s tied to Tapteil Vineyard.”
Tapteil began, remains family affair
If not for the Pearson family, Tapteil would not exist, Larry said.
“My mom, my dad, my brother and friends and other family members would help keep this going,” he said.
Pearson traveled extensively during his career as an engineer with an expertise in public works management. He spent three years in Tanzania and three years in Sarajevo after the Bosnian War during his time with Parsons’ transportation group.
By the time he met Jane, Pearson maintained a residence in Olympia because he worked with the Washington State County Road Administration Board.
“The job meant going to all 39 counties of Washington state to implement maintenance management systems,” he said.
On weekends, Larry would meet family and friends at Tapteil, and the work ultimately took on an infectious tone. A year after he married Jane, Jacquie and her husband, Dave Stephens, created Songbird Vineyard — less than a quarter-mile from Tapteil’s site for Riesling.
But Tapteil’s winery business didn’t take off until Jane, who spent years as advertising director for the Daily World in Aberdeen, became part of the picture. Her sales and marketing expertise complemented Larry’s winemaking skills in the business, and the tasting room also became a gallery for her wine-country paintings. She graduated from the University of Idaho with a degree in fine arts.
“It worked out very well,” Larry said. “It was very difficult thing for me to open a winery, but I had friends and family working together.”
A soft spot for dry Riesling
Jane’s first marriage led her to Germany, where she “cut her teeth on Riesling.” On Red Mountain, it doesn’t pencil out as well to raise Riesling, but as the Pearsons began to develop their winery and wine club, they saw the need for a white wine. And it gave them a use for 5 acres of property they acquired along the Yakima River.
“We always wondered what to do with it,” Larry said. “Way back, it was farmland and grazing land, but if I was going to use it for grapes, Riesling would be the grape because of its winter hardiness. And it’s right there down along the river and the cold.”
So they planted 2 acre of Riesling on Alayt Vineyard, and Larry produces it in scintillating style.
“I like dry Riesling, and that is what I’m going to grow and make,” he said. “Sometimes people crop 6 to 8 tons per acre for Riesling. Mine is maybe four. It seems to mature late enough so that it can have that flavor development.”
His chemistry target is 22 Brix, a pH of 3.0 and a total acidity of 8.5 to 9.0 grams per liter. He ferments it essentially to completely dry — 0.07% residual sugar. He also creates 50 cases of a barrel-fermented Riesling.
“It comes in early to mid-October, so it’s usually the last thing that gets picked,” he said. “It’s bumping up against the first frost event, and the vines are bird-netted because it’s right along the river.”
Tapteil Winery grows, matures
The Pearsons now keep 15 percent of their fruit to feed the winery, which has nearly doubled in the past five years.
“We’re in a good place right now at 850 cases,” said Larry, who retired as an engineer a couple of years ago. “Distribution is not something that interests me.”
Wine sales are limited to a couple of Tri-City restaurants, Purple Café and Wine Bar in Bellevue, Tapteil’s tasting room and wine club. The Pearsons also operate two VRBO homes on Red Mountain, and they are preparing for a Rhône River wine lovers’ cruise this fall which they are serving as hosts for.
Meanwhile, Larry will hit the road more often in his new role on the board of the wine commission.
“I’d been approached over the years, but I was traveling so much,” he said.
He would seem to be an ideal fit for his post, which called for a grower with less than 50 acres who also operates a winery.
“The grower positions are selected and recommended by the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers,” he said. “You throw your hat in, write the reasons why you want to be involved and then go through interviews with the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers board. They select their recommendation to the Washington State Department of Agriculture, who actually places the board member on the Washington Wine Commission.”
And thanks to the success of Tapteil and his neighbors, the ride up Red Mountain is considerably smoother for everyone than when the wine-loving engineer first arrived.
“Sunset Road was a very rough gravel road for over two miles to get up here, and it was that way until 2001,” he said.