Known by many in the Washington state wine community, winemaker Chris Upchurch, founder of Upchurch Vineyard, has been on a fearless pursuit to make high quality wine for the past three decades. By relying heavily on the esteemed Red Mountain AVA of Washington state and his years of gained knowledge while acting as co-founder and winemaker at DeLille Cellars, he has created a consistent portfolio of highly acclaimed wines that continues to grow.
After recently returning from Loire Valley, France, Upchurch spoke with me about his small winery, Upchurch Vineyard. Located in Benton City, this tasting room overlooks a gorgeous view of the Red Mountain AVA, a region in Eastern Washington that Upchurch believes contains the best vineyard sites in all of Washington state. “Red Mountain is the best wine region in the state, particularly for Cab. You’ve got great exposure, the soils are great, and it’s a single AVA,” explained Upchurch.
He has believed that about Red Mountain ever since he began his winemaking journey as a co-founder of DeLille Cellars in the early ’90s. In 1995 he used that theory to change the way the Washington wine industry perceived Bordeaux-style blends. The region of Bordeaux, France, produces famed blends dominantly consisting of cabernet sauvignon and merlot. However, in Washington state, in the ’90s, blends were not as popular as one hundred-percent varietal bottles. But Upchurch could not have cared less, and pursued his mission of making Bordeaux-style blends from grapes grown in the Red Mountain AVA. “We [DeLille Cellars] were the first winery to hang our hats on Bordeaux blends.” Though he was met with doubt, he was committed to doing what he wanted. “People said ‘how are you going to be on the wine lists if you’re not a varietal?’ We said we didn’t care. Anybody that knows anything knows that with Bordeaux blends we can make a wine that’s greater than the sum of its parts. They really can be special wines. And that’s what I wanted to do.”
In 2007, Upchurch still remained firm in his belief about the Red Mountain and purchased vineyard sites for grapes that he would eventually turn into wine for the Upchurch Vineyard label. “It all started with the site,” he says. “Thea [co-owner of Upchurch Vineyard and Upchurch’s wife] just said ‘go get it.’”
Additional support from colleagues also encouraged him, saying “if you think the site’s good, go for it; we’ll plant it and we’ll see what we’ll do with it.” By 2010, Upchurch Vineyard harvested their first vintage, a 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, which received a score of 95 points by Robert Parker. It is now their flagship and club member–only wine.
A good growing site also requires terroir management, a crucial factor for making upstanding wines, according to Upchurch. “You don’t talk about terroir for any other product [than wine]. If we’re going to talk about the terroir then we have to take care of the terroir,” he adds.
Upchurch gained this mindset during his trips to the influential French vineyards of Burgundy. “People asked ‘why take your crew to Burgundy? You don’t make Pinot Noir,’” he recalls. His response was simple. “I’m not teaching them how to make Cabernet, I’m teaching them how to make wine.” He went on to state that visiting Burgundy was about learning the techniques for taking care of the growing region, “what people are thinking, what their terroir is, and what their climate is, and what they have to deal with, and how that relates to us.”
Upchurch’s determination for creating high quality varietals has become part of Upchurch Vineyard’s motto. He will not waste any time making a wine he does not believe is good. He enjoys bottles that combine the vibrancy of new world styles balanced by the complexity of the old world. As he explained, too, what he deems to be a good wine is based on his palate. But looking at the countless accolades that he has received, what he considers high caliber must be so.
Upchurch Vineyard is small in production, and while Upchurch himself is happy with the quality they are producing, he sees the future holding much possibility. This year, the winery will produce about 3,500 cases but, as he states, “we’re looking to grow.” Recently, new plots have been planted in a vineyard site called Candy Mountain, a destination south of the Red Mountain. “We’re planting Merlot and Cab, and we’ll see what it gives us. I’ve tasted some from there so far, and it looks promising.”
As a catalyst in the industry, Upchurch has continued to make outstanding varietals that excite the wine community. His latest endeavor of Upchurch Vineyard is a young establishment, but his years of dedication to high quality growing and winemaking give reason to keep an eye on this winery.