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Horse Heaven Hills, WA


July 25, 2012 Blog » Learn About Wine » Horse Heaven Hills, WA

Producing some of the highest rated wines in Washington, Horse Heaven Hills is a small, relatively new AVA. You’ll explore their vineyards, its relative isolation from the public and the amazing potential of its lessor-known grapes. You’ll get the inside scoop on Horse Heaven Hills and try the wines of a region that has only just begun to shine.

Overview of Horse Heaven Hills


Horse Heaven Hills, WA. It’s a small, relatively new AVA that’s part of the much larger Columbia Valley.


Varietals, History and Producers


What grapes do they grow in the region and why? How the AVA was originally founded, where the noteworthy vineyards are and who the predominant winemakers are.


Introductory Tasting


2008 McKinley Springs Bombing Range Red captures the spirit of the region and sets the tone for the following tastings.


Select Tasting


2010 Alexandria Nicole Jet Black Syrah provides the typicity of the region, setting the bar of expectation for wines of the area.


Premiere Tasting



Overview of the Region
Hi, I’m Madeline. You might have heard about Napa and Bordeaux, and how in Napa they have these amazing prestigious red wines. Well, for our first course at Wine Folly we discovered a region that has seriously acclaimed wines but it’s not very well known about. It’s in eastern Washington and the area is called Horse Heaven Hills. It’s a new American viticultural area, an AVA. We’re going to be tasting some of the wines in the tasting courses. And if you’re a member you probably already have these wines in front of you and you can’t wait to open them. I can not wait to open them either. Here at Wine Folly we hand-select these wines for the members, so that you can taste either regions or styles of wines that are worth checking out. Once you get to know the region and the style you like, you can access more wines by checking out additional links that we’ll offer with the courses – so you can still get more of what you love even though it might not be the same bottle. I think this is important because wine is always changing. There is always another bottle of Pinot Noir, there will always be another bottle of Cabernet. So what is the next one, what is it going to taste like? How does it match with what I love already? These are the questions we always ask and answer on the Wine Folly courses and I super encourage you to taste the wines with me. Because that’s where all the fun is.

Varietals, History and Producers
The least likely place I’d expect grapes to be growing. They only get about 6-8 inches of rain a year, that’s about as much as the Gobi Desert. Well, so here we are, Horse Heaven Hills. In eastern Washington on the border of Oregon, Horse Heaven Hills finally landed official recognition as a wine growing region in 2005. It’s windy here and the sun shines for 300 days a year. Horse Heaven Hills is bordered by the Columbia River to the south. The river is how the region affords to grow anything under such dry conditions. This is Oregon right down here, and up here is Washington. Back in the day, Lewis and Clark were the first European descendants to discover the region. They came through the area by boat on the Columbia River in 1805. By the 1850’s the wagon trains moved westward. A man named James Gordon Kinney remarked, ‘the area offers excellent foliage and isolation, this is surely a horse heaven’. 100 years went by and the region became home to a few large ranches. Then along came a rancher with a very different idea of what to grow. In 1972, Don Mercer (he had about 10,000 acres) started planting grapes. He must not have thought it was that important because back then he planted in between the circle crops. Since then, you’ve got Columbia Crest planting in the 80’s, hiring a vineyard manager, Paul Champoux, and planting up the whole region, he was planting about 500 acres a year. This area is big, they are producing tons and tons of grapes. And with an acreage that size you’re taking about oceans of wine. So that’s what Columbia Crest did, they were making oceans and oceans of cheap swill. Maybe not Napa quality, high quality wines, but they definitely had their foot in the door. Fast forward a couple of years. Champoux is hired by the Mercer estates to look after their vineyards in the 80’s and what does he do? He plants it up and he does a great job. And then they decide to fold. I think this bummed him out greatly. He teams up and leases the land from Mercer estates and starts selling the grapes to a few wineries. The wineries team up together with Paul Champoux and end up buying the vineyard in 1996. And then something really big happens. In 2002 one of those wineries that he hooked up with, Quilceda Creek, gets 100 points. That’s a 100 point score from Robert Parker! Suddenly everyone in the world is going, Oh. My. God. What is going on in eastern Washington? How come I haven’t heard about it? Where’s my bottle? What do I need to buy? What is a good alternative to Quilceda creek? Because you can’t buy any of it. Once it gets a 100 point score, it’s GONE. Like you just can’t get that wine. You know this area right here is 570,000 acres. That’s, that’s like 2/3rds the size of New Hampshire. The whole state. You’ve got a lot of area to work with. Still, at this moment there is only, you know 10,000 acres planted of grapes. You’ve got people, big, big vineyards in the area looking at it and planting more every year. Long Shadow’s vineyards purchased the benches, this is a very important vineyard in the area that might end up getting a vineyard designation in the future. At the moment it doesn’t have one yet because it just changed hands and it’s kind of, you know, up in the air. You’ve got Columbia Crest, these guys in 2009, Wine Spectator gave them a Wine of the Year. Then you’ve got Mercer Estates, and he’s going ‘oh man, I really got get my hands back in the game’. It turns out he didn’t get rid of all his vineyards to Champoux, he just sold that one original lot. It seems kinda crazy, that a region such as this that gets super high wind and is dry as the gobi desert is going to make wine with such amazing accolades in the media with so much potential. I think that’s the thing that makes Horse Heaven Hills so special, is that you got a few ranchers in the area that are really committed to quality now. What’s going to make Horse Heaven Hills better? What’s going to make Washington better? Honestly? I want to see more wines being made from Washington that leave the state. You’d be surprised how like, proud Washingtonians are. They collect their wine, they drink their wine, they absorb almost all of the entire production of Washington State. Let’s get it out there, let’s push some wines in maybe California, New York, Chicago.


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By Justin Hammack
When I'm not drinking wine, I'm also.. a rails developer, vegetarian foodie, coffee addict, casual gamer, lover of cult movies, driver of insane turbo-2.0L ... in Seattle.