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Friday, September 6, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Pacific Northwest Magazine

Crafting for Quality: Taking Washington wines to the next level

An eight-legged green creature, 4 feet long and tall as a Cocker Spaniel, crouches behind a cabernet sauvignon vine in the foothills of the Blue Mountains near Washington's southeast corner. Not far away, 10-inch cuttings poke like sticks from mounds of cocoa-colored dirt. Uphill from the cuttings, signs along cabernet sauvignon vines tell not just the variety but the specific clone.

Here at a new vineyard called Les Collines (lay-co-LEEN, French for "the foothills"), across a dirt road from the wheat fields of Oregon, it's easy to see signs of a phenomenon found throughout the world of Washington wine: Innovation.

Sometimes it means gadgets, like the eight-legged monster, actually a computer-controlled valve system regulating water to eight 5-acre plots. Sometimes it means searching for the perfect grape for a specific location. Or trying new clones of a familiar grape to add one more nuance of flavor to the finished wine.

"I don't think we'll ever find the quote-unquote perfect grape," says Norm McKibben, vineyard manager, "but I don't think we'll ever stop trying."

McKibben, 66, wears several hats in the wine industry. He's the managing partner of a small Walla Walla winery, Pepper Bridge, which makes a $50 cabernet sauvignon and a $45 merlot. He and his partners own 1,000 acres of vineyard, producing grapes used by more than 50 different wineries. And he just completed six years as chairman of the Washington Wine Commission, a nonprofit group promoting the products of the state's vineyards.

After decades of pioneering and experimentation, vast increases in the acres planted, and a determined effort to promote and sustain quality, Washington wines have clearly hit the big time. On a wine commission trip to Dallas, Miami and Washington, D.C., earlier this year, McKibben noticed, "This time, we didn't have to tell people Washington makes wine . . . They know that, and they want to find out more."

Besides the state's designation as "wine region of the year" by Wine Enthusiast magazine, compliments have come with increasing frequency not just from wine-related publications but general-interest magazines and newspapers all over the country. In June, USA Today noted Washington chardonnay helped forge the state's reputation for quality and value, and the red wines now in the spotlight are "some of the tastiest, best-balanced wines in America."

Although Washington soils and climate set the stage for making excellent wine, nothing happens on that stage without the industry's most important asset: its people. To find out what will take Washington wine to the next level, we visited six individuals in a variety of roles in the industry. In addition to McKibben, we tapped:

• Sara Spayd, a Washington State University researcher, whose imaginative techniques include feeding margarita-flavored jelly beans to wine tasters to help train their palates.

• Paul Champoux, who manages 175 acres of prime Washington vineyard, producing grapes for some 25 wineries, including some of the state's most acclaimed red-wine producers.

• Joe Turner, a Hogue Cellars assistant viticulturist and new Washington State University graduate, who tromps through dusty, 104-degree days looking for vineyard invaders such as thrips, leafhoppers and mealy bugs.

• Alex and Paul Golitzin, father-son winemakers at Quilceda Creek in Snohomish, whose wine has helped set the standard for premium Washington cabernet sauvignon.

One certainty for Washington wine is growth. From 19 wineries in 1981, the industry blossomed to more 200 by the start of this year. Production ballooned from 2 million gallons in 1981 to an estimated 13.25 million gallons last year. Growth like that doesn't just happen. It's built upon energy, enthusiasm, commitment and innovation. And behind all that, people.

•   •   •

"THIS IS WHERE the rats live," says Sara Spayd as she swings open the door to a room the size of a walk-in closet. Inside, there aren't any actual rats, just partitions carving the space into three one-person booths, each with a small sink, bottled water, paper towels and a pencil. Spayd's "rats" are volunteer tasters at a WSU extension and research station in Prosser. In these booths, tasters note the flavors and aromas in samples of wine.

Each booth has a square window just large enough to let a glass of wine pass through. And on each counter sits an "aroma wheel," grouping dozens of attributes, good and bad, someone might detect in a wine — everything from licorice to eucalyptus, chocolate to kerosene.

This is Spayd's 23rd year in the station's barn-style "West Building," where the full-time focus is finding ways to strengthen and improve Washington grapes and wine. Although sensitive lab equipment here can detect tiny amounts of various compounds, Spayd likes the way the human palate integrates those components in a finished wine.

Strict rules on how humans may be used in lab tests apply. For example, Spayd instructs the tasters to spit out the wine rather than swallow the alcohol, a technique wine professionals use regularly to keep their senses as sharp as possible. Among the current projects, tasters are sampling four batches of riesling, all made by Stimson Lane, parent company of Chateau Ste. Michelle. The only difference is the way each particular vineyard row was irrigated. What might seem like a small detail to the outsider can create a marked difference in the finished wine. Tasters sip from jet-black glasses, to focus their attention on aroma and taste, not color or clarity.

Hanging above the pass-through windows is a reproduction of a 1930s-era sign: "CLOSED: For Violation of the National Prohibition Act." Says Spayd, who brought the sign back from a conference, "We thought this would be a cool place to hang it."

The relationship between this station and the industry is symbiotic. Results from the test will help Chateau Ste. Michelle build a better riesling, but because the university's work is public and published, other winemakers will learn from the results as well.

Spayd, whose father grew grapes in North Carolina, remembers coming here for an interview one month to the day after the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. "My mother said she couldn't believe I'd want to go live somewhere where volcanoes explode. And she was in North Carolina, which had just had six hurricanes in five years."

Researchers work both with wine provided by wineries and wine made at the station in small plastic tubs and glass water-cooler-sized jugs, giving Spayd the unusual distinction of having made Washington wine for more than 20 years without selling a single bottle. "The first ones you could pretty much call 'practice,' '' she acknowledges.

The tasting projects and other work here are parts of an ongoing effort to make the most of what the grapevines can offer, while helping guard them against pests and disease. "It's still frontier days in the vineyards of Washington," she says. "In wine, 25 to 30 years is not a very long track record."

•   •   •

WASHINGTON'S vineyards aren't ancient, but thick, gnarled vines in "Block One," at Champoux Vineyards in south-central Washington almost look the part. Vines in this 7-acre section, planted in 1972, are among the oldest in the state.

Say "shampoo." That's the way Paul Champoux, 52, pronounces it. The first vineyard block he and his wife, Judy, added here in 1990 is called "Baby Poux," and the plates on his Dodge Dakota pickup are just plain "POUX."

The surname may seem unusual, just as this spot in the Horse Heaven Hills 35 miles south of Sunnyside may seem like the middle of nowhere. To those in the wine world, however, both Champoux and his 175-acre vineyard near the Columbia River are known and respected as sources of top-quality cabernet sauvignon grapes.

Unlike many Washington wine-grape growers, who also maintain orchards of apples or cherries, Champoux is a specialist. "These are wine grapes and that's all I do," he said, watching the morning sun bathe his gently sloping vineyard. As the name suggests, Champoux has French blood. His father was a French Canadian who moved to the Toppenish area as a young boy and "flunked the first grade because he couldn't speak English."

Producing wine combines two primary occupations. Viticulture (VIT-ih-culture) is growing wine grapes; while enology (eee-NAW-luh-jee) is making wine from those grapes. Champoux has no interest in adding wine-making to his already full-time-plus occupation. He supplies eight varieties of grapes, principally red, to more than two dozen wineries, including four — Woodward Canyon, Andrew Will, Quilceda Creek and Powers — that are partners in his operation. This area was long known as Mercer Ranch Vineyard, part of the surrounding 6,000 acres of Mercer Ranch row-crop land. Champoux started work in the vineyard in 1989 and purchased it in 1996.

Among the techniques Champoux has adopted, and continues to refine, is spraying nutrients directly onto the leaves rather than putting them on the soil through his irrigation system. The results: a lower level of chemicals in the vineyard, fewer applications and the ability to cut the cost of the applications almost in half.

Champoux's education in grape-growing started at Chateau Ste. Michelle, incubator for many talented players in Washington wine. For decades, the University of California at Davis has seemed to almost hold the franchise on wine education. But Washington is likely to see a boost in home-trained talent, thanks to an increased wine emphasis at WSU, featuring courses beamed by satellite around the state to allow for remote, interactive participation.

"They can concentrate on the weather and the dirt we have here, which are different than anywhere else in the world,'' notes Champoux.

•   •   •

AT 30, JOE TURNER is on the leading edge of the new emphasis at WSU. He graduated last spring after being one of six students in a new advanced-viticulture class. Starting this semester, students may pursue a specific degree option in viticulture and enology, and the first of those degrees likely will be awarded in 2004.

On graduation, Turner landed a job at The Hogue Cellars, where he had spent two summer internships learning to check vineyards for pests and examine various growing techniques. The toughest thing about those internships wasn't long, dusty days in the sun, but leaving for the start of fall classes in Pullman. "After working with the vines all summer, I had to go back to school before harvest. It was like going to a movie and not getting to see the ending."

In the growing season, Turner makes weekly visits to 20 vineyards managed by independent growers who sell grapes to Hogue. In each section of those vineyards, he makes notes about pests or diseases, the leaf canopy and the size and condition of the grapes. Two basic commandments of his job: "Don't lose your notebook and don't drop your Palm (computer) in the dust." On the hand-held computer, Turner uses programs written by another Hogue staffer to check off boxes and jot down observations. Back in his Prosser office at the end of the day, he inputs the form into another computer, cleans up his notes and quickly produces a report to e-mail or fax to the individual growers.

A basic fact of viticulture, which may seem counterintuitive to outsiders, is that a thick, lush grapevine is not the goal. Vines produce better wine when water is carefully controlled, causing plants to put their energy not into foliage but into their progeny, the grapes.

Turner said college students see wine as a promising field, particularly because some other agricultural businesses, such as growing apples, are in decline. He expects to see more trained grape-growers and winemakers, and more wineries putting money into research. "We'll see ways to improve quality, use water efficiently and reduce the need for chemicals which can kill off some organisms beneficial to the plants." He intends to extend his own education through WSU classes offered at its campus in the Tri-Cities. "I'm somebody who believes you can never quit learning about something."

•   •   •

THE DESIRE to never quit learning and never quit improving also dominates at Quilceda Creek, where the father-son team of Alex and Paul Golitzin continues what Alex, 62, calls "the search for the perfect cabernet." Never mind that the winery's 4,200-case production already sells out quickly to customers in 41 states and 11 foreign countries, that the cabernet sauvignon fetches $75 and a red blend gets just over $30. There's no time to coast in the what-have-you-got-for-me-now world of wine, where new suitors for a customer's palate and pocketbook are as close as the nearest wine shop or restaurant wine list.

"We're changing stuff all the time, in the vineyard and in the winery," says Paul, 32, who took on the title "winemaker" in 1993. Says his father: "I end up listening to him because he's got a better palate." A suggestion Paul made in handling the 1989 vintage markedly improved the wine's quality, his father says. But to this day, neither will spell it out precisely, saying it's proprietary and still a key part of their technique.

Like others in the field, the Golitzins are exploring whether it's possible to plant more vines per acre and still sustain quality, and whether delaying harvest can mean an even deeper-flavored wine.

Boosting Washington's reputation for quality is essential, the senior Golitzin says, especially to compete on the same stage with the top-flight wines of California. It was in the Napa Valley in the 1970s that Alex learned the winemaking art from his uncle, Andre Tchelistcheff, longtime winemaker for Beaulieu Vineyards. But Alex was certain that the soils of top Eastern Washington vineyards could produce wines as good or better than Napa's. He and his wife, Jeannette, started their winery outside Snohomish, with grapes trucked over from the Yakima and Columbia valleys.

Quilceda Creek is very much a family operation. Alex's sons-in-law, Marv Crum and John Ware, are the winery's assistant winemaker and national sales director, respectively.

Paul grew up in the winery, doing odd jobs as a young boy, lugging loads of grapes as a teenager. He traces his enthusiasm for making wine to a lunch in France hosted by a top Bordeaux vintner. Then 15, Paul was allowed to sample the wines, and the impression stuck.

When the Golitzins hit on a perfect cabernet, here's how we'll know: Paul pronounces a prolonged "Ah-hahhhh" when he talks about a truly great wine, while his father utters a sharp "Holy mackerel!" A more empirical measure would be a rare 100-point rating from wine critic Robert Parker or Wine Spectator magazine. Their closest brush so far was an advance rating of 97/98 from Parker's Wine Advocate for barrel samples of the 1999 cabernet sauvignon.

Statewide, the quest for quality will intensify, says McKibben, the former wine-commission chair. To help send that message nationally, the commission created the "Washington Wine Quality Alliance." It's a voluntary organization in which members agree to restrictions such as limiting the use of the word "reserve," and discontinuing use of French place names such as Champagne, Chablis and Burgundy. Once wineries join, they can feature the alliance's round black seal on their bottles.

Perhaps the strongest force for improving state wine quality, McKibben says, will be the nature of humans rather than plants. Top growers and winemakers note what's going on at the winery across the way — or at the other end of the valley — and no one wants to be thought of as sitting still. "We're always watching one another," McKibben says. "That's one reason the bar is always going up."

Jack Broom is a Seattle Times staff reporter.

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