Yakima Valley vineyard’s 100-year history

It’s a funny little vineyard that would barely qualify as a footnote in Washington wine history.

But thanks to a friendly nudge from one of Washington’s true wine legends, Harrison Hill Vineyard near the Yakima Valley town of Sunnyside has received the recognition it deserves.

Harrison Hill is owned by the Newhouse family, whose history with these 5.5 acres of vines goes back to the early 1970s. But grapes have been grown here for much, much longer.

Back in 1914, William Bridgman planted wine grapes on Harrison Hill, which now is surrounded by homes and overlooks Interstate 82. Those grapes are now long gone, but in 1962, Bridgman sold the land to Associated Vintners, a group of University of Washington professors who decided to start a winery in Seattle. Associated Vintners planted a number of grapes there, including Cabernet Sauvignon.

A decade later, Al Newhouse began farming the vineyard for Associated Vintners, and later in the 1970s bought it from the company. For the next 15 years, he sold the grapes to Chateau Ste. Michelle, which included them with its large blends.

In 1992, DeLille Cellars began in the east King County community of Woodinville and focused on Bordeaux-style blends. By this time, Associated Vintners had changed its name to Columbia Winery, and David Lake was its winemaker. Lake, who died five years ago, is considered among the greatest winemakers in Washington history.

Around this time, Lake was helping DeLille get started, and on a trip to the Columbia Valley, he told DeLille winemaker Chris Upchurch that he wanted to swing by Harrison Hill, that old vineyard he’d used back in the 1970s.

By then, Al Newhouse’s son Steve was running the operation, and he was perfectly happy to continue selling the grapes to Ste. Michelle. But Upchurch was fascinated by these vines that were then 30 years old.

“One thing all good winemakers have in common is we all seek old vines,” Upchurch said. “They don’t produce much, and they don’t move too fast. The yields are lower, and they mature and ripen slower.”

So Upchurch approached Allen Shoup, then CEO of Ste. Michelle, and asked him if he would mind giving up the use of the vineyard to DeLille. Shoup was happy to let it go to someone who might do something special with it.

In 1994, Upchurch received his first grapes from the vineyard and made a blend simply called “Harrison Hill.” The next year during a tour of Europe, while that first wine was still in barrel, Upchurch was leading a woman through a cellar tasting. She astutely noted that the Harrison Hill was his best wine, and two weeks later, they began dating. Six years after that, they were married. All because of Harrison Hill.

Today, Harrison Hill is one of several wines Upchurch makes — and perhaps the most interesting wine produced at DeLille. Just 300 to 500 cases are made per year, and it’s highly decorated by critics and coveted by collectors.

A century after Bridgman planted vines on the south-facing hillside, his intuition about the potential of the Yakima Valley and the Washington wine industry lives on in each bottle of DeLille’s Harrison Hill.

We recently had the opportunity to taste through a vertical of Harrison Hill. Here is a review of the most recent vintage. Seek it out at a fine wine shop, as it’s already sold out at the winery.

DeLille Cellars 2011 Harrison Hill, Snipes Mountain, $85: This youthful wine is tightly wound at first, but it begins to open up after about 30 minutes. Aromas of sage, dark fruit, dark chocolate and black olive lead to flavors of blackberry, black cherry and plum. Sweet, elegant tannins lead to a lengthy finish. Tuck this wine away in your cellar for a minimum of five years.

Eric Degerman and Andy Perdue run Great Northwest Wine, a news and information company. Listen to their weekly podcast on iTunes or at www.greatnorthwestwine.com.

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