The American Bordeaux
Until the early Nineties, nobody had ever heard of DeLille Cellars. Christopher Upchurch and his three partners in the Washington State winery, Charles Lill, Greg Lill and Jay Soloff, set out to create world-class wines in the Bordeaux style, and in 1992 their inaugural vintage of Chaleur Estate attracted superlatives by the barrel--including a rating of 91+ out of a possible 100 in Robert M. Parker, Jr.'s The Wine Advocate newsletter. The next three vintages proved that the first one hadn't been a fluke. And as the high ratings from the wine press continue to roll in, Upchurch says he's just getting started. In the land of seafood and software, using grapes from the northernmost vineyards in the United States and knowledge gleaned from years of studying French masters, he is working on the frontier of American winemaking.
"We have a very special area up here," Upchurch said recently, standing on the second-floor deck of the winery, a new French-style château just outside Seattle, and surveying the surrounding land. The day was luminous and warm, snowmelt from the Cascade Range coursing through the Sammamish River in the valley below, the gardens on the 10-acre grounds histrionic with salmon- colored lilies. "You travel the vineyards and châteaus of Europe and then you look at this area and you can see where it's going to be in 50 or 100 years."
Of course, great or near-great things have been emerging from Pacific Northwest vineyards for years. Three grapes in particular have settled in. Pinot Noir has taken to Oregon's Willamette Valley as if it were at home in Burgundy. There are waiting lists just to get on the waiting lists for the masterful Merlots from such southeastern Washington producers as Leonetti Cellar. And top-flight Cabernet Sauvignon has made minor celebrities of a handful of Washington vintners at such wineries as Quilceda Creek Vintners.
Now comes the latest entry: meritage, a blending of grapes in the Bordeaux style, made with select fruit grown in the near-desert Yakima Valley east of the Cascade Range. But the true magic happens in the winemaking process. "A really good wine starts in the vineyard," Upchurch says. "But it becomes great in the cellar."
On this particular day Upchurch was meeting, as he frequently does, with several fellow Washington winemakers to taste and discuss works- in-progress. The winemakers--Alex Golitzin of Quilceda Creek, Chris Camarda of Andrew Will Winery, David Lake of Columbia Winery and Mike Januik of Chateau Ste. Michelle--are a decidedly uncompetitive group, linked by the comradeship of the Northwest grape.
"This is entirely Chris Upchurch's vision--a Bordeaux style from America," David Lake said. Although Lake--the only active winemaker in the nation designated a Master of Wine by the Institute of Masters of Wine in London--is frequently given to understatement, he has nothing but praise for Upchurch. "He's gone a very great distance in quite a short time," Lake said. "And the potential is still quite large." Upchurch, in turn, is openly grateful for the guidance Lake has given him along the way, but Lake claims his input has been minimal: "Chris has a great palate. He knew what he wanted."
Each of the winemakers in the group has achieved extraordinary acclaim, but they aren't relaxing yet. A hard freeze hit the Columbia Valley in the winter of 1996, prompting a scramble for grapes and worries about the quality that would result. But now, nearly two years into the barrel-aging of the reds, the early word is good. "I'm very happy with the '96, even though my volume will be way down," says Golitzin, whose Quilceda Creek red many consider the best Cabernet Sauvignon in Washington. "We're in good shape," Camarda agrees. All of the winemakers expressed their appreciation to Januik for the grapes Ste. Michelle had made available to smaller wineries that suffered from shortages.
That day the group was gathered to taste some of the better reds in Washington State, accompanied by a sampling of hors d'oeuvres from Theodora van den Beld, the owner of Theoz Restaurant & Bar, a new Seattle restaurant that serves seasonal Northwest dishes with French touches, and of Theoz/Baci Catering. She is also Chris Upchurch's romantic partner, and she often pairs her food with DeLille wines at informal summer dinners.
Upchurch began his career as a wine buyer for a number of fledgling Seattle restaurants. "In order to truly understand wine," he says, "I felt I had to learn about winemaking." This he accomplished on buying trips to France, where he also developed his palate. ("How can you make a world-class wine if you don't know what a world-class wine tastes like?") Off and on through the 1970s and 1980s he made small batches of wine with friends. And he discovered the vineyards east of the Cascades, where he learned about the drier microclimates of the Northwest. The area lies on the same latitude--from the 45th to the 47th parallel--as Burgundy and Bordeaux.
Serendipity led Upchurch to the Lills, who owned a farm east of Seattle as a sideline. Charles Lill, who had been successful in insurance and real estate, offered to put up the money for a winery. They named it DeLille Cellars, in honor of the family's Huguenot ancestors, who had fled the French city of Lille four centuries earlier to escape religious persecution. "From the very start, we wanted to do whatever it takes to make the best wine," says Greg Lill, Charles's son and a partner in the wine-making venture. "Still, I had my doubts at first. I was thinking, 'Oh, this is a real good way to blow my inheritance.'"
DeLille makes only four wines--a mere 3,100 cases annually. All four are aged in expensive 100-percent-new French oak barrels. (Used oak, Upchurch explains, is like a tea bag on its second cup.) The premier effort, Chaleur Estate, is a marriage of Cabernet Sauvingon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. DeLille's one white--a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon--is also called Chaleur Estate. D2, a second red made from the Chaleur blend but with more Merlot, is softer; its name comes from the main wine road, the Route du Vin, running through the Médoc in Bordeaux. The fourth wine, Harrison Hill, is a blend of mostly Cabernet Sauvignon from 36-year-old vines in the Yakima Valley.
"The winemaker has 1,000 different decisions to make," Upchurch says. "About 50 of those are crucial. But the other 950 are not life and death. So you experiment--you tweak." For a six-year-old boutique winery, DeLille has generated an extraordinary amount of buzz. Not since 1987, when Joseph Drouhin of the famed Burgundian wine family purchased 100 acres in Oregon and began making American Pinot Noir, has anyone with such an obvious affinity for France made this kind of splash on the Northwest wine scene.
"I don't want to mimic," Upchurch says, "but Bordeaux is truly the model. Washington State could be the American Bordeaux."
note Seattle restaurateur and caterer Theodora van den Beld pairs these hors d'oeuvres with wines from DeLille Cellars.
TIMOTHY EGAN is the West Coast bureau chief for The New York Times and the author of Lasso the Wind: Away to the New West, just published by Knopf.