The Wine Knows: Upchurch hits sweet spot with Cab on Red Mountain

By on April 12, 2022
Washington winemaker Chris Upchurch is from DeLille Cellars in Woodinville.
Chris Upchurch is the founding winemaker and minority owner of DeLille Cellars in Woodinville, Wash. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

If Cabernet Sauvignon were a celebrity, it would be Sylvester Stallone: strong yet supple, ages well, with a purity of fruit like the ringing of a bell and tannins that can knock you out if the match is uneven. 

Cab isn’t a sipping wine — no supporting actor role for this red. This is the main character, the centerpiece of a meal focused on a rich entrée like lasagna or grilled meat.

While Cabernet Sauvignon is the most grown wine grape variety in the world, it’s typically popular in the “romcom” category, where its rugged tannins are softened through significant blending with Merlot, Malbec or Petit Verdot.

The Washington winemakers who master bottling Cab — the action-hero version of 90 or 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon — are similarly strong and confident in their approach with this grape.

Upchurch Vineyard is one of those award-winning producers. With Red Mountain as the stage, Chis Upchurch wrings every drop of quality from the Cabernet Sauvignon he and his wife, Thea, planted in 2007.

 Starting with raw, sagebrush-covered land near Benton City, Upchurch and storied viticulturist Dick Boushey scripted this estate vineyard down to the irrigation, vine orientation and grape clones. 

The resulting Cab is a champion.

As the founding winemaker and a partner at DeLille Cellars since 1992, Chris Upchurch had the early opportunity to work with the best vineyards on this bench on the south end of the Yakima Valley. Now, Upchurch has the advantage of nearly 30 years of experience on Red Mountain and he knows how to finesse the terroir.

One of the challenges that growers across the Red Mountain American Viticultural Area deal with is the lack of water. The appellation gets only about 5 inches of rain per vintage. But Upchurch has two sources of water: the local irrigation district and an on-site well. Combined with a precise irrigation system, Upchurch has the advantage of controlling the delivery of water down to the spoonful whenever it’s needed in the sandy soil.

Just as in a movie, the struggle through adversity is what makes the story — and the wine — great.

Searing summers, chronic winds and freeze-dried winters are among the other plot twists on Red Mountain. The unrelenting sun comes across the bench to its hottest part of the day at about 2 p.m., so Upchurch planted the vineyard in an orientation that provides equal amounts of sunshine on both sides of the plant. This allows for even ripening of grapes that take fullest advantage of Red Mountain’s heat and arid conditions. He uses the Guyot method of pruning, a technique that can protect the vines from Eastern Washington’s notoriously cold winters while also limiting each vine’s annual production to about two pounds of fruit, a level that ensures quality.

And, as an underlying theme, Upchurch is dedicated to sustainability. The vineyard is certified by LIVE (Low Input Viticulture and Enology), a nonprofit organization that supports environmentally and socially responsible winegrowing in the Pacific Northwest through research-based standards. Upchurch also has achieved Salmon-Safe certification from the West Coast nonprofit program that works with agriculture to protect water quality, watersheds and habitats.

All of these elements wrap up into the stunning conclusion in the bottle.

In reviews, Red Mountain Cabernet is known for its flavor profile of dark fruit: ripe blackberries, black cherries, black currants, plum. Those deep flavors are backed by famously high tannins and a surprising amount of acidity. 

Upchurch doesn’t have a preferred yeast to use during fermentation, but he does favor new French oak barrels from the center of France for each wine’s pre-bottling rehearsal.

All of this combines to create widely regarded wines with a remarkable ability to age. He often tastes through older vintages of Red Mountain wines and states he has “no dead soldiers” — no failed bottles — in the cellar. 

With a wink, he claims Red Mountain is the envy of his winemaking friends in Bordeaux. This an area unlike any other in Washington and is why Red Mountain grapes are treasured in wineries across the state, fetching as much as $5,000 per ton.

Wineries such as Betz, Leonetti, Quilceda Creek, Seven Hills and Woodward Canyon have helped put Washington state’s interpretation of this varietal on the world wine map. 

In 2009, Columbia Crest used its 2005 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon — with a retail price of $27 — to achieve the No. 1 ranking in the world by Wine Spectator. A 2003 Cab by Quilceda Creek ($85) placed No. 2 on the magazine’s list in 2006.

Upchurch has about 15 acres of densely planted vines, most of which is Cabernet Sauvignon — now the state’s signature variety. Any grapes he doesn’t use for his label are sold to DeLille Cellars in Woodinville. 

His control of quality in the vineyard and cellar lead to the tasting room, where bottles of red range from $30 to $78 — prices that are in line with the top producers in Washington and are an absolute bargain compared with California’s Napa Valley, which routinely command more than $100 per bottle. Upchurch wines are available in retailers across the state, as well at many top restaurants, but be warned they sell out quickly upon release.

With only 850 cases per vintage on Red Mountain, Upchurch recently disclosed that he is ready to expand. He plans to plant a vineyard at nearby Candy Mountain, one of Washington’s newest appellations. He has worked with vineyards there and knows what to expect from the fruit. This means a sequel to Cabernet Sauvignon is on the horizon.

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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