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
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.