Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Visiting Kelly and Tim Hightower and their Hightower Cellars in Washington State, USA

Christian G.E. Schiller with Tim and Kelly Hightower in the Tasting Room

Hightower Cellars is a small winery in the Red Mountain area of Washington State, owned and managed by the charming husband and wife team Tim and Kelly Hightower. I met Tim and Kelly Hightower for the first time last year, when they poured their wines from Washington State at Calvert and Woodley in Washington DC.

Christian G.E. Schiller with Tim and Kelly Hightower in Washington DC

Now in Washington State during the summer of 2011, they invited me and my wife Annette for a tasting and tour to their winery. We drove that day from Seattle to Walla Walla and also stopped at the Riesling Producer Pacific Rim. The next day, we visited Long Shadows Winery in Walla Walla, where Armin Diel makes his Poet Leap Riesling.

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.

From Seattle to Wall Walla

Hightower Cellars is about 200 miles away from Seattle, on the way from Seattle to Walla Walla. We started the day in Seattle - after a fabulous luncheon with Oyster Guru Jon Rowley the day before - and enjoyed a very nice ride from Seattle at the Pacific coast to Walla Walla in the south eastern corner of Washington State.

Pictures: From Seattle to Walla Walla

The Red Mountain Appellation

The vineyards the Hightowers own are all in the Red Mountain AVA - the land surrounding the Red Mountain – between Benton City and Richland. It is part of the Yakima Valley AVA, which in turn is part of the larger Columbia Valley AVA. The Red Mountain AVA is a small AVA with 600 acres under cultivation of primarily red varietals including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sangiovese, Cabernet Franc and Syrah potentially producing exceptional wines.

Picture: Red Mountain AVA

Many of Washington's cult wines are produced from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes grown in the Red Mouintain AVA including the 2002, 2003 and 2005 Quilceda Creek Vintners Cabernet Sauvignon, which scored the rare 100 point wine rating from Robert Parker's The Wine Advocate.

Hightower Cellars

Tim and Kelly Hightower are a husband and wife owner/winemaker team. In fact, since its inception, Tim and Kelly have shared all of the responsibilities of Hightower Cellars, which include those as a winemaker, but also accountant, marketer, forklift-operator and janitor.

Pictures: Tim and Kelly Hightower

It all started in 1996, when Tim was introduced to a co-worker by the name Kelly. Their infatuation for each other and wine was mutual, and this led to the idea to start their own winery a year later. They began to fulfill their common dream in Woodinville, north of Seatle, by renting a non-descript warehouse space and establishing their winery there, while keeping their day jobs and buying grapes. Months of hands-on cellar rat work and diligent research in their free time paid off with ovations of their inaugural release of a 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon. Case production steadily increased from then on to 1200 cases over the next six years.

In the fall of 2002, the next big step forward happened, when Tim and Kelly moved their home and winery operations from Woodinville to Benton City, after purchasing 15 acres of prime, undeveloped vineyard land.

Picture: The Hightower Winery

In the Vineyards

With the conviction that the finest wines are made from grapes where winemakers have complete authority over its management, Tim and Kelly immediately began plans for retrofitting the existing barn as a working winery and transforming most of the acreage into rows of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, with smaller portions of Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec, leaving 3 acres for their home and retrofitted winery.

Pictures: Vineyards at the Winery

Today, Tim and Kelly, in addition to their Red Mountain estate fruit source fruit from the Horse Heaven Hills and Walla Walla Valley appellations. “We will continue to source grapes from the Horse Heaven Hills and Walla Walla Valley appellations” said Kelly. “We believe that diversity in terroir is essential to maintaining the complexity of our wines. It also gives the winery greater flexibility in production choices during adverse weather conditions that could influence low-lying vineyard sites in Washington State”.

We quickly went through the different sites, where Tim and Kelly source fruit from.

Out of Line – the Estate Vineyard: “We named our estate vineyard on Red Mountain, Out of Line, because our vineyard rows are canted eleven degrees off of north south. This orientation more evenly balances the sun exposure on each side of the vine row, increasing the exposure on the east and decreasing it on the west” said Tim.

Artz and E & E Shaw Vineyards: These vineyards, both located on Red Mountain, provide the backbone to the Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Most of Red Mountain is covered by Worden Silt Loam. This soil type retains very little moisture and contains little organic material, both causing the grapes to struggle tremendously. This struggle, channels the vine's energy where it needs to be -- in the berries. Red Mountain is one of the warmest sites in Washington and receives an average of 6 inches rainfall per year. Artz Vineyard produces dark, intense, minerally, masculine fruit while the grapes from E & E Shaw Vineyard contain more floral and feminine characteristics. Both vineyards lend intense color, concentrated dark fruit and tannin structure to Hightower wines.

Alder Ridge Vineyard: Located in the Horse Heaven Hills of southern Washington State, the vineyard stretches over 814 acres on an astonishing basalt plateau high above the Columbia River. The long growing season, cool nights, dry climate and light soils imbue the grapes with lush, mature flavors and concentrated color. The Hightowers contract first-rate Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot from this impressive site.

Pepper Bridge: One of the most famous and highly relied-upon vineyards in Washington State, is 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.

In the Winery

Tim and Kelly took my wife Annette and me on a little winery tour. Tim explained that the grapes are handpicked into thirty-pound picking lugs, transported to the winery and handsorted before being crushed directly into small open-top fermentors 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 ages in small oak barrels for twenty months. During barrel aging the wine is gravity racked off its lees with a siphon. Separate lots are then blended.

Pictures: Touring the Winery

Winery Dog

All the time on the tour, Murray was with us. Murray is a member of the family. “Here at Hightower Cellars we believe dogs to be integral to the winemaking operation” said Kelly.

Pictures: Murray

In the Tasting Room

Hightower is the very last winery at the end of a long road where you will see the likes of Hedges and Fidelitas. While it may be a trek to get to the end of the road, it is definitely worth the trip. The tasting room is in a really cool building with an amazing view through a floor-to-ceiling panoramic window. Also, I like that Tim and Kelly used eco-friendly building materials like reclaimed pieces of wine barrels.

Pictures: Tim and Kelly Hightower in the Tasting Room

What Tim and Kelly Poured

"Tim and Kelly Hightower make small amounts of high-quality, handcrafted Cabernet Sauvignon. They focus on grapes from such fine vineyards as Boushey, Artz, Pepper Bridge, and Alder Ridge as they produce the wines from vine to the bottle. Best Bets: Cabernet Sauvignon. Hightower's first wine is a Cab with small amounts of Merlot blended in. The result is a red wine of distinction with wonderful depth, power and grace." Andy Perdue, Northwest Wine Guide, A Buyer's Handbook

Picture: The Wines we Tasted

2008 Murray Red Wine $18

All their heart is in this wine, called after their dog. “Our 2008 Murray Cuvee is exactly what we are looking for in a table wine. It is a heady blend of dark and red fruit aromas mingled with a dusty mineralness and cedar back notes. The texture fills the mouth without being overpowering. It is lighter in body, but still has fine grained tannins to give it some grip and allow it to go with many types of food.”

721 cases; Cabernet Sauvignon 50% ,Cabernet Franc 21%, Merlot 18%, Malbec 11%; Red Mountain 68%, Horse Heaven Hills 32%

2009 Red Mountain Syrah $20

This 2009 Murray Syrah is the third release of the estate vineyard Syrah. It is 100% from grapes grown on Red Mountain; two different clones of Syrah co-fermented with 5% Viognier. “The intensity of the vineyard is starting to show even in this young wine. The Syrah is dark red with a floral and brambly berry nose with a hint of tar and creosote. The palate is pleasingly plush, smooth with a continuation of the brambly berry fruit through the finish.”

253 cases; 95% Syrah; 5% Viognier (co-fermented with the Syrah); 100% Red Mountain AVA

2008 Out of Line Estate Wine $ 25

This wine shows off Red Mountain's character beautifully - it is inky black with an enticing amalgam of dark cherry, blackberry, cassis, cedar and a hint of vanilla on the nose; the palate shows dark fruit flavors built on a structure of fine grained tannins.

308 cases; 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Merlot, 14% Cab Franc, 7% Malbec, 7% Petit Verdot;100% Red Mountain AVA, Hightower Cellars Out of Line Estate Vineyard

2008 Pepper Bridge Walla Walla Valley $28

Tim said: “Our 2008 Pepper Bridge Wine is fresh and fruity with lots of floral and pleasing menthol top notes. The acid and oak tannins are very nicely integrated. There is lots of bold fruit in the mouth. Although is a 100% Merlot without the normal Cab we blend with it to provide structure, it is probably the biggest Pepper Bridge Blend to date.”

227 cases; 100% Merlot Pepper Bridge Vineyard

2007 Merlot $25

Kelly explained: “Our 2007 Merlot is characteristic of Red Mountain Merlots, which are bigger than most Merlots and have a bit darker and more intense fruit character. This wine is fun and serious at the same time – it’s like dark cherry juice dripped over mineral stone and filtered through blackberry bramble. The wine reveals the fruit abundance and structure for which the vintage is becoming famous. In the mouth this wine is full bodied, but is very easy going with a slightly spicy finish from the Cabernet Franc.”

336 cases; 92% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Franc; 76% Red Mountain, 24% Horse Heaven Hills

2007 Cabernet Sauvignon $35

Tim: “Here at Hightower Cellars, we really believe in Washington Cabernet Sauvignons, enough to stake our name on it. Our 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon is a good example of why we love Washington Cabs. It has a very aromatic nose – full of dark fruits, Red Mountain sweet minerality with just a hint of butterscotch. The wine has so much fruit on the nose and on the palate that it is not overwhelmed with the new oak, but rather the wine and the oak really compliment each other. It has Washington’s great acidity that will make it a great food wine or allow it to age and keep all that fruit intact.”

273 cases; 95% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Petit Verdot; 80% Red Mountain, 20% Horse Heaven Hills

2007 Red Mountain Red Wine $50

Kelly: “This wine, the 5th release of our top end Red Mountain appellation wine, is 100% from Red Mountain grapes and almost half from our estate vineyard. Drinking this wine makes us think of a big, succulent Ribeye steak hot off the grill – deep red and juicy and with a hint of charry BBQ goodness – intensely satisfying. On the palate this is a mouth filling burst of dark fruits, blackberry, cassis and plum with round chewy tannins and flavors that linger on and on leaving you savoring the last swallow, but salivating for more. We consider this our reserve wine, our 10 favorite barrels of Red Mountain Wine in the Winery”.

247 cases; 63% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Merlot, 16% Cabernet Franc, 5% Petit Verdot, 5% Malbec; 53% Shaw Vineyard, 47% Out of Line Estate Vineyard

Going Back to their Home

Picture: Tim and Kelly Going back to their House after the Tasting

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