HOOD RIVER, Ore. — On the same day Karl and Coco Umiker dropped bins at Crawford Vineyard in the Yakima Valley, their Clearwater Canyon Cellars 2021 Crawford Vineyard Albariño earned a double gold medal and best of class at the 10th annual Great Northwest Invitational Wine Competition.
The next day, Oct. 6, 2022, their Albariño emerged from the sweepstakes as the judging’s Best White Wine before laying claim to Best of Show. The Invite recruits a number of the West Coast’s most influential wine buyers to nominate entries throughout the summer and then gather to judge them at the historic Columbia Gorge Hotel in Hood River, Ore.
“From my experience judging competitions, a lot of times a wine that’s refreshing will really stand out to you,” Coco said. “I remember a Pinot Gris from Wild Goose (in British Columbia) won something like two years in a row. Those aromatic whites or rosé can be just so much fun to drink.”
At the end of October, that Crawford Vineyard Albariño matched the Reustle – Prayer Rock Vineyards 2021 Estate Selection Sauvignon Blanc as the top white wines of the 23rd Platinum Awards on the Columbia River’s Clover Island Inn.
For a decade, Umiker has been seen as one of the Pacific Northwest’s top talents with red juice — no woman winemaker has won more Platinum Awards (41) from Great Northwest Wine panels. That form held true again in October. First, five of her entries achieved a gold medal or better at The Invite. Then, she racked up seven Platinums.
The Umikers are quick to credit the vineyard work by Charlie and Connie Crawford for Clearwater Canyon’s acclaimed Albariño program, which begins with the fascinating canopy provided by the Geneva Double Curtain trellising system often associated with growing Concord juice grapes.
“I’ve never seen a husband and wife so equally invested with sweat equity in a vineyard as Connie and Charlie,” Coco says. “And they are awesome humans, which is very important to us.”
That diligence explains why the Crawfords have a growing demand for the Spanish variety, a list of more than a dozen winemakers throughout the Northwest. Their customers produced several of the top wines in Great Northwest Wine’s comparative tasting of Albarino last summer.
“We had been looking at a new white wine for our portfolio and did a lot of research, and every time we tasted an Albariño we were impressed,” Coco said. “There are so many great ones — Palencia, Coyote Canyon and Pend d’Oreille in Sandpoint — so we began watching closely some of those we liked the best and a number of them were coming from Crawford, including Barnard Griffin and Pend d’Oreille. We got in touch with them in 2018, asking, ‘Do you have any to sell?’ And each year, we try to weasel a little bit more out of them.”
Thanks to working closely with the Crawfords, Umiker keeps her Albariño crisp.
“I shoot for a pH around 3.0, and that’s probably the most important thing for Albariño,” she says. “And I’m hoping for the sugars to be around 22 Brix. This year (2022), I think we were the first people to pick, and I don’t think that’s uncommon for us. The grapes look like little jewels, just hanging under that Geneva Double Curtain.”
The Umikers made 277 cases of the 2021 Crawford Vineyard Albariño and sold through their entire production — Albariño and everything — prior to summer. In fact, Wine Press Northwest magazine’s 2020 Pacific Northwest of the Year had no bottles of anything to sell until its fall release in November. The Umikers plan to make about 375 cases of the 2022 Albariño and increase their overall wine production via this year’s harvest.
“In 2024, we’re on target to be right at 5,000 cases, and that’s where we want to hold,” she said.
That year will mark the 20th anniversary of Clearwater Canyon Cellars, which the Umikers launched when they were on college campuses as researchers and competitive cyclists while entering the world of wine production. They made a couple hundred cases and took on a handful of business partners, who they would buy out within the next few years. (Some remain as wine club members.)
The Umikers spent much of their winemaking history at a Port of Lewiston facility that wasn’t intended for winemaking or wine touring. In spite of that, they developed a loyal following who appreciated the Umikers’s work with Carménère and Malbec and wines from prized sites in Washington such as Phinny Hill, Verhey and Crawford, as well as their estate vineyard on their Century Farm in the Lewiston Orchards.
They first planted it in 2003 and built their estate winery next to those vines in 2016. One of the key attributes of the new vinification facility was it gave Umiker the availability to use refrigerated tanks, critical to white wine production. And in the spring of 2016, she judged the Cascadia International Wine Competition, where Victor Palencia won best of show with an Albariño from the Ancient Lakes of Columbia Valley.
“Wow — to win a best of show and be sold out at the same time,” Coco said. “There are certainly times in our history when winning a competition such as The Invite would have been more helpful to us. But to do something like this now among the likes of L’Ecole, Long Shadows and Gehringer Brothers, I’m very proud to have our wines do that well.”
Still, the 2021 growing season will be best remembered for more than stellar grapes from the Crawfords. It is when the Umikers became parents of their newborn daughter.
“That was the first vintage that Stella helped us make,” Coco says. “I think you make better wine when you are happy, and Stella has brought so much joy to me and Karl. Many people have asked if it is difficult to find time to do what I do as a winemaker and have time for her, but you create space and say ‘No’ to stuff that’s not important.”