Richland winery betting on Malbec as a winning wine

After a couple of false starts, Hamilton Cellars in Richland, got rolling a year ago — and already is releasing some startlingly superb wines.

Russ and Stacie Hamilton began thinking about opening their namesake winery a half-decade ago and worked at creating a wine village in the heart of Washington wine country.

They purchased land for their idea, and that’s where the problems began. The city of West Richland sold land to the Hamiltons, who began to move forward with their concept. Unfortunately, the city didn’t own the land — the Bureau of Land Management did, and BLM wasn’t selling.

The Hamiltons found land in nearby Kennewick, but the bank wouldn’t loan them money because of pending litigation over the first piece of land.

In the meantime, the city of Richland changed some zoning laws to allow tasting rooms inside city limits, so the Hamiltons used a building they already owned that wasn’t far from three other wineries. And in January 2011, Hamilton Cellars opened.

The Hamiltons are savvy business people, with Russ the chief technology officer for the world’s largest solar company in China and Stacie running a wealth-management firm. But it took them several months to get a handle on the wine industry.

“The first year has been a real learning experience,” Stacie said. “Until you’re actually in it, you can’t know. It’s been a busy, interesting year.”

Hamilton started on the right foot by hiring Charlie Hoppes as its winemaker. Hoppes was the red winemaker for Chateau Ste. Michelle before moving on to Three Rivers Winery in 1999 and later his own Fidelitas Wines on Red Mountain.

Because Fidelitas is focused heavily on Cabernet Sauvignon, the Hamiltons decided to look for a different niche, and they chose wisely with Malbec, which has recently become one of the hottest “new” wine varieties in Washington.

“We loved Malbec from the first one we tried,” Stacie said.

Under the Hamilton label, Hoppes makes a straight Malbec, a rosé of Malbec and a Malbec-based blend. Additionally, he crafts Cab, Merlot and a Semillon-Viognier blend for the Hamiltons.

Hamilton Cellars has grown to about 2,000 cases already, and Stacie sees it topping out at around 10,000 in the future — if and when Russ ever retires. He spends about six months of the year in China, which leaves Stacie in charge of the winery.

“It’s my baby,” she said. “He was supposed to have retired by now, but we Skype and text every day to discuss major decisions about the winery.”

Such is life in this era of technology and global flattening.

Earlier this year, Hamilton began to distribute its wines in the Seattle area, so check with your favorite merchant or call the winery directly at 509-628-8227 for these wines:

Hamilton Cellars 2008 Malbec, Columbia Valley, $30. This opens with aromas of ripe Bing cherries, blackberries, black olives and black pepper, followed by a rich palate loaded with mint, vanilla, black licorice, olives, white pepper, milk chocolate, plums and cherries. Its flavors are sprinkled with exotic spices. The tannins are a bit large and in charge at the moment, exactly what one would expect from a youthful and exuberant Malbec.

Hamilton Cellars 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley, $28. Opens with aromas of wintergreen, baked cherries, lavender, huckleberries, black tea and mint, followed by balanced flavors of dark strawberries, plums and dark chocolate. Everything is in harmony here, from the moderate oak to the refined tannins to the bright, ripe fruit.

Hamilton Cellars 2008 Merlot, Columbia Valley, $28. This is bursting with aromas of blueberries, black currants, crushed walnuts, dark cherries, mint, vanilla bean and Baker’s chocolate. On the palate, it shows off flavors of cherries, boysenberries, chocolate and sweet herbs. The tannins arrive late, providing all the backbone needed for this plush red.

Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman are the editors of Wine Press Northwest magazine. For the freshest reviews, go to www.winepressnw.com/freshpress.

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