Columbia Winery is the oldest premium winery in Washington and one of its founders David Lake introduced Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Pinot Gris to the region. The present-day winemaker Sean Hails talks about the history of the company in this Columbia Winery interview as well as what grape varieties thrive best in the valley, and what he likes to pair his juicy Washington reds with. He discusses the differences between Red Mountain AVA, Horse Heaven Hills AVA, Wahluke Slope AVA and Yakima.
Transcript for the hearing impaired:
Amanda Barnes: So Sean, we are in the middle of one of your Yakima Valley vineyards, and Columbia is one of the first premium wineries in Washington. Can you give us a little bit about the history here?
Sean Hails: Yeah, I can actually. We are 53 years old, so in 1962 we started. A group of 10 friends actually started as Associated Vintners. I believe 6 of them were professors and they decided, kind of for whatever reason in the 60s a great thing, you know, forward thinking, they decided to get together and, you know, start a winery. So they did, yeah.
AB: Excellent, and part of your legacy is of course that one of your winemakers and founders brought some new varieties to the region. Can you tell me a bit about that?
SH: I can. The person to whom you are speaking is David Lake and he joined the winery in I believe 79 and he was very, he was an MW, and he came to this region and he really had vision and I’m assuming saw stuff that other people didn’t. So we, he, or us – the winery, we were the first to bring grape varieties Syrah, Cab Franc, as well as Pinot Gris to this region and so he got together with Red Willow vineyards and planted these varieties long before anybody else did.
AB: And what is it about Syrah that works really well in the valley?
SH: Well, Syrah is just wonderful. Syrah can be grown in so many different regions, we grow it here in Yakima, we can grow it in Horse Heaven, we can grow it in so many different regions, but what I love about it is that it is versatile, it brings some really, really nice dark fruit to the blends that I put together and a plushness. So it just kind of gives you a mid-palate plushness that is just absolutely wonderful.
AB: Sounds delicious! Many of your icon wines here from Columbia are actually not from Yakima, you have three very distinct appellations that you work with.
SH: Yeah I do actually. So you are speaking of Red Mountain, we do a Cab from Red Mountain, we do a blend we call Element from Wahluke Slope which is north east of here, and then we do a Legacy blend which is a true Bordeaux blend that I’ve put together and it is out of Horse Heaven hills. So yes, those three areas are just – they are warm, they are the three warmest in Washington and they just grow some great fruit. Cab in particularly is really what I am after in two of them, and in Wahluke it is Merlot that really struck my fancy when I moved here in 2012.
AB: And how can you describe the differences between those three regions? And how that might express itself in the actual wine?
SH: I think between Horse Heaven and Wahluke Slope, I think… let’s back up a little bit. In general I think, reds grow really well here, we get some great colour and structure, but from Horse Heaven to Wahluke I think Horse Heaven reds from a tannic perspective are just a little bit more elegant, in Wahluke Slope they are just a little bit (what I call) chunkier, they are just a little bit grainier and bigger. And then Red Mountain is probably on that same tier as Wahluke, it is just bigger, more expressive tannins, but there is something about the dirt there, and there is an earthiness that is also kind of interwoven with the wonderful fruit off of Red Mountain that just makes it so special.
AB: Excellent. And then you also have, one of the wines that we just tried, is your delicious Rhone blend?
SH: Yeah! So that’s out of mainly Horse Heaven, it is Columbia AVA, we tasted the 2013… It is Syrah based, it has got some Mourvedre, I get some wonderful Grenache from Horse Heaven as well that I make a rose from as well red. So that blend, I am trying to just give it an identity of a true Rhone, so 2014 I even moved it to more Grenache and more Mourvedre and less Syrah to try and really drive that Rhone-styling. So it is a really fun wine.
AB: So is Washington mainly a country for red wines?
SH: I think so, I like to think so. We definitely focus on red wine at Columbia. I love the whites, we are standing in a Chardonnay vineyard right now. I love the whites here too, but really it is close to my heart the reds that we do here.
AB: And so what is your favourite local pairing to be drinking with one of your reds?
SH: Favourite local pairing… Ah… It is probably Snake River steak. With a Red Mountain Cab (Cabernet Sauvignon) 2012, 2013 is tasting really great, so that is probably a great pairing. I like a good rib eye with some marbling in my steak. So something like that, a rib eye and Red Mountain Cab probably would be a match made in heaven.
AB: That sounds delicious! Thank you.