A vast plateau covered in native grass that stretches between the Columbia and Yakima rivers sounds surely like a ‘horse heaven.’ And so it was that one of the early settlers of Washington State’s Horse Heaven Hills (“HHH”) coined the phrase that would become the name of one of Washington’s most important AVAs. And while the horses may certainly love it there, the wine grapes share a similar affinity. We often wax poetic about rock star winemakers, but we forget that there cannot truly be great wine without great fruit. And that great fruit begins with the farmers that put their all into farming the grapes.
If ever there was a place of rock star winegrowers (as opposed to winemakers), it is Horse Heaven Hills. Names like Mercer, Andrews, and Champoux represent growers that have been responsible for growing the fruit that has led to the numerous accolades, scores, and medals that stretch over decades from the many vineyards and wineries in the Horse Heaven Hills. These families saw the region’s potential early on and created the foundation for what it has become today.
With 25 percent of the state’s planted vineyards within its boundaries, the silent giant that is Horse Heaven Hills may be the state’s best-kept winegrowing secret to consumers. Ironically, it is a secret that is quite visible if we take the time to look. Part of the mystery stems from the fact that Horse Heaven Hills is in the middle of nowhere. There’s not much going on in the area – except for all that great fruit being grown: a few families, a few wineries, but a whole lot of grapes.
The Mercer Family
Long before the wine grapes, farmers were trying their hand at getting the best out of the Horse Heaven Hills. The Mercer family arrived in the 1880s and have tended to the land as ranchers and farmers through four generations. In fact, Don Mercer, at the urging of Dr. Walter Clore (the ‘Father of Washington Wine’), planted the first vinifera in Horse Heaven Hills in 1972. Dr. Clore was a Washington State University researcher with a degree in horticulture who saw the region’s potential and talked to the area’s ranchers and farmers, including Don Mercer, into planting vinifera grapes in the early 1970s. “Dr. Clore saw the many similarities between Horse Heaven Hills and Bordeaux, including similar latitudes, and amazingly similar average temperatures, particularly in the months past veraison,” shares pioneer grower and winemaker Rob Mercer, nephew of Don Mercer. In response, Don Mercer planted his original vineyard with Cabernet Sauvignon. Today it is one of the region’s and the state’s most famous vineyards. In addition to being one of the state’s most respected wine growers, the Mercer family, under Rob Mercer’s leadership, also continues to expand upon the family’s farming operations and grows a multitude of crops.
The Andrews Family
Like the Mercer family, the Andrews family has had a long ranching and farming presence in the Horse Heaven Hills. In the early 1950s, Bob Andrews found himself trying to farm in one of the state’s driest parts known to be the worst farmland around (even local farmers told him he would never have a successful farm). But he knew that water would be the key to the farm’s future, so he set out to drill a well, and as luck would have it, hit artesian water. This “liquid gold” was more than enough to plant irrigated pasture, and with a great deal of foresight, he applied for water rights. Even today, this water is the source of irrigation for the family’s vineyards.
After his lucky water discovery, Bob was able to run a successful cattle business and farm a wide variety of crops. But in the late 1970s, the cattle business fell on hard times. By this time, his children were grown, and the family found themselves having to decide on the land’s future. The land ended up being split, with Bob and all children, except one—Mike Andrews—throwing in the towel on the cattle business and turning their sights to planting vineyards. It was Don Mercer that convinced the Andrews family (his closest neighbors) to plant more than 2,000 acres of wine grapes. However, unlike the rest of the family, Mike Andrews wasn’t ready to give up on the cattle just yet and continued in the business for several years with this land. But after seeing his dad and brother’s success, Mike eventually planted his own vineyard in 1994. He later partnered with his father, and together, they became one of the most successful growers in the state. Today, Mike’s son Jeff is at the helm of the family growing operation and is poised to take it into the future.
It’s impossible to talk about Washington wine without mentioning Paul Champoux. Paul grew up in the hop yards of Yakima Valley on the family farm and always had his hands in the soil. His wine career began in 1979 at Chateau Ste. Michelle as a manager, and he was instrumental in planting the winery’s historic 2,200-acre Patterson Vineyard. That was a lot of grapes back then! Like Don Mercer, Dr. Clore served as a mentor to Paul and profoundly impacted his career. He spent years working in the vineyards for others until 1996 when he and his wife decided to purchase Don Mercer’s original Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard, and renamed it Champoux Vineyard. Paul Champoux was the force that turned Champoux Vineyards into one of the most highly acclaimed vineyards in the world and is the vineyard that is greatly responsible for Washington’s first-ever, three, 100-point (perfect score) wines. Two later wines from the vineyard would also garner the elusive perfect score. Yes, some people love to hate the 100-point wine scale, but it undoubtedly drew well-deserved attention to Washington wine and the hard work that the growers put in. While he’s now retired from the vineyard, Paul continues to be an active leader in the Washington wine industry. After spending nine years on the Washington Wine Growers Association board of directors and serving on the Washington Wine Industry Foundation Board since its inception, Paul currently serves as the current Chairman of the Horse Heaven Hills Wine Growers.
Even with success to date, the region’s growers are not resting on their laurels. After decades spent in the business, Mike Andrews was named ‘Grower of the Year” by the Washington Wine Growers Association in 2017. And with an eye towards the generations to come, Jeff Andrews is focused on ways the region can innovate more. “As a fourth-generation farmer on our property, I want to make sure I’m preserving our land for my kids and for the generations that follow. When we go to work in our vineyards, we always farm with the idea that the next generation is coming back.”
For Jeff, a vital component of that innovation is sustainability, including a commitment to water conservation and the reduction or elimination of the use of herbicides and pesticides. He has already successfully eliminated herbicides on some of his family’s blocks and is looking to scale that success.
As a relatively young region, the future certainly looks bright for Horse Heaven Hills. With Bordeaux and Napa Valley as its past-and-present inspiration, it truly represents the best of both worlds.