Picture: Christian G.E. Schiller and Kelly and Tim Hightower
I joined Tim and Kelly Hightower, the winemakers at Hightower Cellars, as they poured their Hightower Pepper Bridge Red 2008 at Calvert and Woodley in Washington DC. The Hightower Cellars is a small winery, about 210 miles from Seattle in the Red Mountain area of Washington State.
About half a century ago, there was basically no wine industry in Washington State. And if wine was made, it was not with the noble European vinifera grapes. But the American wine boom that had its origin in California moved to the north, first to Oregon and then it also reached Washington State.
Picture: Map of Washington State
In 1980, four years after Californian wines had out shined the French wines at the famous tasting in Paris, there were about 20 wineries in Washington State that were producing high-quality wines with European vinifera grapes. Today, there are more that 650 wineries. Valued at about $3 billion annually, Washington's wine industry ranks second behind California, which, however, has more than 10-times the acreage and four-times the number of wineries. Few Washington wineries are widely recognized by average consumers outside the region. More than half of the wine produced in Washington comes from wineries owned by Chateau Ste. Michelle.
In 1996, Tim was introduced to co-worker Kelly Coughlin. Their infatuation for each other and wine was mutual, and this led to the idea to start their own winery a year later. Since its inception, Tim and Kelly have shared all of the responsibilities of Hightower Cellars, which include those as a winemaker, accountant, marketer, forklift-operator and janitor. They started out by renting warehouse space and establishing their winery there, while keeping their day jobs and buying grapes. Their inaugural release was a1997 Cabernet Sauvignon.
In 2002, the Hightowers moved their home and winery operations to Benton City - home of the Red Mountain appellation - after purchasing 15 acres of prime, undeveloped vineyard land. Since their inaugural 1997 vintage, the Hightowers have been sourcing fruit from Red Mountain. Red Mountain became an appellation in 2001 and is also one of North America's smallest appellations. In 2004, the Hightowers began planting 10 acres primarily with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, with smaller portions of Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec, leaving the remaining 3 acres for their home and retrofitted winery. Hightower Cellars continues to source grapes from the Horse Heaven Hills and Walla Walla Valley appellations even as their own vineyard begins providing estate fruit.
The Seattle Wine Blog has just released its fourth unofficial ranking of the top Washington State Wineries, following the example of the Bordeaux Classification of 1855 with 5 groupings. In the top grouping - First Growth – you find three wineries (Cayuse, Leonetti, Quilceda Creek); in the second grouping – Second Growth - there are 8 wineries (Andrew Will, Betz, Cadence, DeLille, Januik, Long Shadow, Pepper Bridge); in the third grouping – Third Growth – you find Hightowera with about twenty other wineries. The Fourth and Fifth Growth groupings contain another 70 wineries. See here.
What they Poured
2006 Pepper Bridge Vineyard Walla Walla Valley Red Wine
Pepper Bridge is one of the most famous vineyards in Washington State, located in the Walla Walla Valley Appellation. Trained on the Scott Henry and Smart-Dyson trellising systems, the vineyard uses revolutionary technology for its weather-tracking and irrigation systems. Pepper Bridge is made up of Walla Walla Silt Loam - wind-blown glacial Loess with about 1/3 sand content. This vineyard produces grapes with bright cherry flavors and contributes voluptuous nuances to the Hightower Merlot.
The grapes for this wine were handpicked and handsorted. The fruit was fermented in small open-top containers no taller than they are wide to extract greater flavor and color by having more juice in contact with the grape skins. After gently pressing the wine from the skins the wine aged in small oak barrels for twenty months. During barrel aging the wine was gravity racked off its lees with a siphon. Separate lots were blended and bottled in the summer of 2008. 196 cases.
88% Merlot Pepper Bridge Vineyard; 12% Cabernet Sauvignon Pepper Bridge Vineyard
Tasting notes: Ruby-red in the glass, the nose evokes fig and smoked cherries with an overlay of minerality, a smooth palate with a burst of bright fruit on the finish, a wine combining Bourgogne finesse and American lushness.
Hightower Cellars, Washington State, US
Calvert and Woodley, Washington DC
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