Why 30-Year-Old Wines are the New Rock Stars

Washington vineyards in their early 30s make their names with vineyard-designated wines.
Outstanding in his field: Dick Boushay is a Washington Syrah-growing pioneer

Washington winemakers are used to the spotlight; their industry’s spectacular growth over the past 30 years has gained them plenty of fame. But these days, you may be just as likely to hear the term “rock star” connected to the people who grow the grapes. Dick Boushey is one such rock star, an unassuming farmer turned viticulturist whose Yakima Valley vineyards are gaining star status. As more vineyard designations make their way onto wine labels, the Boushey Vineyard’s stock is rising, joining the likes of Klipsun, Ciel du Cheval, Pepper Bridge and other top Washington vineyards. In the right winemaker’s hands, the grapes from these vineyards create as great a wine as Washington can produce, and one thing these superb vineyards all have in common is their age. All are coming into their 30s, having been planted in the 1980s.

The state’s first vineyard-designated wine was a 1980 Chateau Ste. Michelle Cabernet Sauvignon from Cold Creek Vineyard. The next year, the late Columbia Winery winemaker David Lake introduced the first series of vineyard-designated wines: a trio of Cabernet Sauvignons from Otis, Red Willow and Sagemoor vineyards. So, highlighting their superb vineyards is nothing new for the state’s wine giants, but growers like Boushey who are interested in following their grapes from the field to the glass take it a step further, consulting with wineries such as McCrea Cellars, Long Shadows, Betz Family Winery, Chinook Wines, Fidélitas Wines, DeLille Cellars, Chateau Ste. Michelle, Three Rivers Winery, Forgeron Cellars and Ross Andrew Winery about how to make the best choices in the vineyard for the best result in the glass.

In the right winemaker’s hands, the grapes from these vineyards create as great a wine as Washington can produce, and one thing these superb vineyards all have in common is their age.

Boushey’s 80-acre vineyard, near Grandview in the Yakima Valley, is a cooler site than Red Mountain and the Wahluke Slope, and therefore he can pick his fruit later than the warmer areas, letting the fruit ripen slowly, retaining acidity and developing sugars. Although his first grapes were Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, now he is known for being a pioneer in Syrah, first planting it in 1994 at the urging of winemaker Doug McCrea of McCrea Cellars, who wanted to make Rhône-style wines. Boushey has also experimented with other Rhône varieties, such as Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne and Picpoul, which create complex, interesting and refreshing white wine.

Probably the first “rock star” vineyard was Patricia “Trish” and David Gelles’ Klipsun Vineyard, planted in 1984 on the hot, dry slopes of Red Mountain. Trish, whose bigger-than-life personality and wine-purple hair have brought attention to Red Mountain’s bold Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc blends, is an evangelist for Red Mountain and for Washington wine. Top wineries that use Klipsun fruit, such as Quilceda Creek and Leonetti, have developed cult followings of wine lovers who revel in the big fruit, minerality and intense structure of their wines. In 2003, Klipsun was named one of the top 25 vineyards in the world by Wine & Spirits magazine, and some of its grapes now command $3,000 per ton, rising to the pricing level of top Napa Cabernets.

Other “30-something” vineyards planted in the new wave of the 1980s are Seven Hills Vineyard, Pepper Bridge Vineyard, Gordon Estate’s vineyard and new plantings at many vineyards, such as Red Willow Vineyard, whose owner, Mike Sauer, planted the first Syrah in the state in 1986. Seven Hills was planted in 1981, in a warmer site south of Walla Walla, when it was one of the only properties in development in the area. Now the vineyard covers more than 200 acres, growing Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carménère, Grenache, Malbec, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Sangiovese, Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon and Syrah. Pepper Bridge was planted in 1989, and is now surrounded by other vineyards and wineries, bed-and-breakfasts and tasting rooms. Owner Norm McKibben was a pioneer in the Walla Walla area, and has been planting vineyards ever since. Pepper Bridge keeps it simple; winemaker Jean-François Pellet makes just three wines: a Cabernet Sauvignon, a Merlot and Trine, a Bordeaux-style blend.

Both the Seven Hills and Pepper Bridge vineyard names show up on labels of some of the state’s best wines. Having so many single-vineyard-designated wines reflects the value of these sites for making great wine—and for creating name and brand recognition. These “Generation Next” vineyards are growing up and making a name for themselves in the world of wine—in Washington, and beyond.

Get Shannon's Picks this month: 5 wines that reflect the best of 30-something vineyards. For a detailed map of many of Washington’s vineyards, curated by online wine retailer Paul Zitarelli (fullpullwines.com), read the first article in this three-part series.