RICHLAND, Wash. — Seth Kitzke spent the summers of his youth pruning vines at his family’s vineyard on Washington state’s Candy Mountain.
While managing orchards north of the Sagemoor vineyards — Bacchus and Dionysus — Seth’s father, Paul, was inspired by the daily drives through the vines to plant some grapes of his own on their property.
“It’s all caliche and granite, honestly if I could pick one spot on Candy Mountain to have a vineyard, I’d pick there,” Seth says. “And they just got lucky, you know? They just got super lucky.
“I worked a lot in the summertime, and I could save all that money for snowboarding.”
Prior to committing to wine full-time, Seth was a semi-professional snowboarder, spending much of his year saving up for his winter seasons. “It’s what drove me to be OK working when it’s 95 degrees in the vineyard.”
Initially, the idea was just to sell grapes, but best-laid plans tend to go awry. “Long story short, one year they couldn’t sell them, so they had someone make some of the grapes into wine. And once you’re stuck with two barrels of wine…”
The inaugural vintage was a 2005 Cabernet Franc, a heralded year for many in Washington wine. Seth eventually studied at the Northwest Wine Academy in Seattle, working for K Vintners and Brian Carter Cellars before heading back to Eastern Washington to help out with the family business.
Richland winemaker returned home for 2015 vintage
Kitzke Cellars now produces 600 cases of wine annually, all from Candy Mountain — something that is important to Seth and his family. Beholden to its own plot of land, it has reached its max production, thus Upsidedown Wine picks up where Kitzke leaves off.
Upsidedown Wine, created by Seth and his wife Audrey (who, Seth is quick to point out, is the integral piece to the entire operation, though he gets much of the press), is not a winery intermeshed with its own vineyard, but rather one that follows the lead of its ownership and the wine styles they hold dear.
“I always respect people who stick to their own influences and create what they think is an enjoyable representation of them,” he says.
“What they teach you in school is control over the fermentation, how you mitigate flaws. Do’s and don’ts, which is great. And then in winemaking, when you want to make compelling wines, usually, you take that with a grain of salt, you push the edge of it — a little.”
Seth holds firm to keep their program low-intervention, with meticulous care both in the vineyard and later in the cellar.
“The coolest part about wine is that you can take a bottle anywhere in the world and share it with someone; it’s a representation of a plot of land that you farmed for a year.
“So as soon as you’re changing that by adjusting pH, adding acid or sugar, it loses a little bit of what it was truly trying to give you,” he adds. “So I think, because I’m a farmer first, I take that as more of a responsibility. Whereas, if I was a chemist or scientist first, maybe I wouldn’t.”
With tasting rooms for Upsidedown Wine in Hood River and Cle Elum as well as the original Kitzke Cellars in Richland, it seems natural that the big picture involves an increase in case production.
“I’m trying to really focus on getting better and spending more time farming,” he says. “I have no desire to grow outside of our demand. And I’m kind of OCD with what vineyard to work with, how we’re growing, how we’re farming. So growing past that level of control and then giving other people trust, it’s hard to do.
“Kitzke will never really grow, and Upsidedown, I don’t want to say never, but I love having a qualitative standpoint be No. 1,” he adds. “As soon as you grow, it becomes such a numbers game.”
Curating and refining a wine program can be a daunting task, but a clear focus helps. “If there’s a style of wine that we want to make, we’re not just making it from somewhere just so it can exist — we’re looking for the right place to make that style.”
Seth sources Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier from Konnowac Vineyard, a site at 1,300 feet elevation in the northwest portion of the Yakima Valley. He uses that fruit to create textural Rhône whites that flourish through malolactic fermentation and sans filtering.
“It’s not your typical Grenache. It’s polarizing, because it’s not big, sweet fruit,” he says, “it has a more Pinot-like elegance to it. The aromatic side, I really appreciate, I like smelling a wine just as much as I like drinking.”
Rhône wines are peppered throughout the Upsidedown Wine list, something that might be a winemaker’s version of art imitating life. On a trip to France, Seth was faced with wines that changed his perspective and showed him there was a different way to do things. Those include a Pierre Ganon Saint-Joseph Syrah that was elegant, perfumed and refined — a departure from many Syrahs he’d had prior.
“Anytime you get to taste a wine on the soil where it’s grown, you get this overwhelming sense of understanding,” he says. “In Saint-Joseph, you feel a tension, and the granite you can literally see, and you’re like, ‘How does this grow here?’ ”
While traveling in southern Rhône, Seth tried a wine that revised what he knew a white wine to be; the Château de Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape Roussanne Vieilles Vignes.
“You think of white wine as refreshing and this one, you want to just sip on it on a cold winter day,” he explains. “They make 500 cases of it every year. It’s almost all Roussanne; it has 50% new oak, it’s higher in alcohol, and its texture is insane.
“I’d never had a white like that,” he continues, “there’s so much flavor and density — an overwhelming power.”
Château de Beaucastel itself dates back to the 16th century and remains an integral part of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation.
Creating something near-everlasting, that can go on for decades while the fruit it hails from lasts only moments, it’s practically magic. And Seth believes seeing and feeling the soil that ushered the grapes into such suspended animation is an integral part to the whole experience.
“When you don’t have that, I think there’s a disconnect. It’s just a good bottle,” he says. “But when you’re standing right there, looking at where it’s from, that’s when the fireworks go off.”