Chris Upchurch, Upchurch Vineyards
Interview with Chris Upchurch, Owner and Head Winemaker of Upchurch Vineyard
A winemaker that needs no introduction, Chris Upchurch has achieved a venerable reputation as head winemaker at DeLille Cellars. Before Chris crafting 90 plus point wines at DeLille, he was traveling the world and sampling some of the world’s best wines. Chris completed a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Colorado and the University of Washington and then began working as a wine merchant, which helped him improve his palate through some of the best wines from around the world. Chris then became the founding winemaker and partner of DeLille Cellars. For 23 years Chris has worked as head winemaker at DeLille. There are few Washington winemakers that have received the same level of accolades during that time. For those who have tried the DeLille lineup, you can taste the difference in the glass. Chris crafts some of the best Bordeaux blends and Rhone red and white wines in the state. In fact, my number two wine last year was the 2013 DeLille Cellars ‘Chaleur Estate’ Blanc, a Bordeaux style white wine that DeLille has made famous after being the first in the state to create this style of wine (http://www.washingtonwineblog.com/top-100/#/2015-top-100/). In 2007 Chris started the Upchurch Vineyard on Red Mountain. I recently had the chance to sit down with Chris and talk about his wine, as well as his project at Upchurch Vineyard. Learn more about this impressive winery at https://upchurchvineyard.com/ Here is my interview with Chris Upchurch, head winemaker at DeLille Cellars and Upchurch Vineyard.
WWB: Can you describe some of the changes of being an owner of Upchurch Vineyard, as opposed to your responsibilities at DeLille Cellars?-
CU: That is an advantage and a disadvantage because some winemakers want to just talk about their own product. I am headed to New York tomorrow to represent Upchurch Vineyard. This means the sales end and not only talking about my product. For me going New York and seeing a bottle of my wine on the table -- that makes me feel thrilled. After working 23 years at DeLille I get a kick out of seeing that because I am now going out and meeting a lot of different people in wine. It feels like a full circle thing, now being the owner of Upchurch Vineyards. But sometimes this new process really gets to you, when you are doing a day here, a day there, and sometimes they might not set things up like they should. During my trip to New York I am going to be hitting up some bottle shops and then also visiting some other areas that we can promote Upchurch Vineyards. The general sales aspect tends to be tough but it is part of the show. While I am still an owner for DeLille, most people in wine want to talk to the winemaker. I want to do things in a craftsman like way, which means that you have to go out there and meet people. Connecting with people is a larger part now.
WWB: Can you talk about your experiences being at DeLille for 23 years and seeing the industry change?
CU: At DeLille, we always believed that we didn’t want to do the mainstream types of wines. We wanted to craft the finest wine that we could. We didn’t want to make too much wine and we wanted to educate the people about the wines because we were changing the game a bit. At DeLille our lineup started with Bordeaux blends. Nobody was doing that kind of thing in 1992. DeLille Cellars were the first doing Cab and Cab Franc with Petit Verdot blends. In `95 we made a White Bordeaux which nobody from Washington State was doing at the time. With regards to Chardonnay, I don’t think that Washington’s best varietal is Chardonnay. I think that Chardonnay shouldn’t be grown next to Cabernet in the vineyard. I really liked the fact that Semillon grows so well in Washington. Over time we have learned that Semillon doesn’t grow that well elsewhere in the new world. California has given up growing Semillon, and Australia makes some Semillon but it might be blended with the Chardonnay. We see this is an opportunity for me to make really great and interesting Semillon here in Washington State. Sauvignon Blanc really likes to grow everywhere and knowing that I wanted to create that I could make a white blend that other countries couldn’t do quite as well. The DeLille Chaleur Estate Blanc came out of this idea. We wanted to do something different but that meant that we had to educate people what about what a white Bordeaux is. People say that the Chaleur Estate the best white in Washington State. From there we were excited about our Bordeaux Blanc and we decided to make a Rhone white at DeLille. By making a Rousanne that was a challenge to educate people about how look at that varietal, since Rousanne wasn’t typically made in Washington State at the time. I feel that I can make a Washington Chardonnay as good as anybody in Washington State, but at DeLille Cellars we wanted to make some different wines that we thought we could do better and the wine program has worked well for us.
WWB: I was hugely impressed with your 2013 DeLille Cellars Chaleur Estate Blanc (Washington Wine Blog, 95 points). Can you talk about the Washington Wine Blog #2 wine of 2015, the 2013 Chaleur Estate Blanc? How were you able to get that level of structure in 2013, a hotter vintage?-
CU: At DeLille have many different vineyard sites for this wine. One of the sites is really cool, the Bouchey vineyard, and even in a hotter years the clusters from Bouchey make it to the third week of September for harvest. Bouchey is not a hot site and that is always helpful in a hot year. We also source Sauvignon Blanc from Sagemoor vineyards which is some of the oldest vines in the state for Sav Blanc. Winemakers like to seek out older vines. These vines of Sav Blanc at Sagemoor vineyards are over 30 years old and the sugar doesn’t tend to move as fast during the ripening process and the acidity is there in the grapes. The structure from those components can be seen in the wines. It is important to consider blending with grapes that are capable of obtaining a good deal of structure in a warmer year.
Then we have the Klipsun vineyard site which tends to be warmer each year. That site will help us out in cooler years, like 2010 and 2011. The cooler years typically mean that we will need ripeness from the hotter vineyard sites. The main thing in the hot year that you have to be careful that the sugars in the grapes don’t outrun the flavors and structure of the wine. The flavors are really important and because of that we are usually waiting for the flavors to come on and we always need to watch the sugar level. In terms of vineyard management, there are also ways to slow down the vineyard. It is always helpful if you can build your own vineyard from the ground up and that is like what we are doing at Upchurch Vineyard. We try to produce very concentrated berries but also have the ability to slow things down in terms of ripening. We do the same kind of things, although I can’t change clones too much in older vines. But I can manipulate the canopies, depending on heat during the growing season.
WWB: How did you decide to purchase the site for the Upchurch Vineyard?-
CU: The plot of land became available to me and I offered it to DeLille. For many years I have been interested in having my own vineyard. I had some money for this set aside and I decided to buy this vineyard myself. This worked well thinking that I would maintain my position at DeLille and have most of the grapes go to DeLille for their wines. I have been really happy being at DeLille over the years. DeLille has been my career and I am one of the owners there. But I have a number of business partners there, and many partners mean that Upchurch Vineyards was never was going to be generational. But now that I have purchased the vineyard, it will be. I have my daughter working on the books and management and Upchurch Vineyard will be a generational thing.
WWB: The 2013 Upchurch Vineyard Cabernet (Washington Wine Blog, 94 points) was an outstanding release with rich fruit flavors and structure. Can you talk about the wine?-
CU: With the Upchurch vineyard we like to see it as is one plot, one family, and one wine. The quantum leap is in the vineyard. In the cellar, you can do a lot of things like different yeasts or different barrels. You can do all of things in the cellar but the vineyard is the most important. Once you have the grapes in the cellar you can tweak things but you are not able to truly change the design of the wine. In Red Mountain some of the older vines are dealing with issues. Bottom line is that you can do so many special things when you start from the ground up. That is what we thought and we started with the premise that you plant Cabernet in Red Mountain you probably are going to like the wine produced from that region. We had the idea that we wanted to make exceptional wines from this special place. We operate from trying to produce small yields. When you have lower yields you want to concentrate the fruit. You can have the problem with the sugars coming on too fast, so you have to slow it down the sugar in the wine. When you slow down the vine and get it right, that means October ripening which is what we look for, the later ripening with dense fruit. At Upchurch Vineyard we selected clones that are well-known in the area. We discovered that Red Mountain Clone 2 is slightly slower with the ripening, which leads to fantastic fruit. The Red Mountain Clone 2 tends to ripen week later than some other clones. Red Mountain Clone 2 is actually not a Washington clone and not a Davis clone but it is an old Oakville clone. I assume that it might have been an old Inglenook [winery] clone. This clone really grows well in Red Mountain and I am having a lot of success with it.
Ideally we want to have the yields smaller and last year, despite the heat of the year, we got two and a half tons per acre. We have higher density and tighter spacing in the vineyard. We also do a lot for even ripeness. That is something that plagues a lot of vineyards, working without even ripening. The idea behind this is that you always want to get the grapes ripe. Even 10 percent under-ripeness can come out in the wine. Even if the balance is 25 brix then the lower ripeness grapes can be problematic, getting the lower ripeness grapes up to a higher brix. If you can balance the ripeness, you have a great wine. I have noticed that Chateau Latour in Bordeaux does that perfectly well. If you walk through Chateau Latour’s vineyards it seems like they have even ripeness throughout. That means that they can pick at a lower sugar because everything is even. The even ripeness is important. When planting our vines, we have found that a diagonal orientation works best. We learned that as the sun travels at an arc, the high point is actually 130 degrees, and then you have the majority of the sun on the west side -- whereas if you tilt it to northeast about 10 degrees then you are really catching the top of the vine. It is great to go out to the vineyard and see that around 1:30 in the afternoon and see the shade of the vine right under the rows. That is cutting it right at the 130 degree mark. It is key to work towards having equal sun across the vineyard throughout the summer.
The Upchurch Vineyard is sustainable from the ground up and it is a lot easier to start with sustainable farming because you have everything working together from the beginning. From there we are just tweaking the wine to get it where we want. We have noticed that are getting the right floral character in the vineyard that we want. We have been able to create the Chateau Margaux-like floral aspect in our Cabernet wine. These nuances are perfect because we don’t want our Upchurch Vineyard Cabernet to be the same as the other wines. We like the blend that we have constructed in 2013, with the 9 percent Merlot. The Merlot balances the wine. You don’t always know and when you plant something that it will work out great but we are really happy with the result.
WWB: What is it like having your daughter working with you?-
CU: I love working with my daughter. That makes me feel really good that Upchurch Vineyards is a family winery. My daughter is just one of those girls that is so outgoing and sometimes that just drives me nuts. She was one of those people that would go knock on doors and talk to people when she was little. She has always been so good with people. She would go around and do all these things and she would even want to give the neighbors something. She would ask me to make doughnuts, so that she could would go around and give the neighbors the doughnuts and talk with them. She has always been a people person and she wouldn’t stop talking as a little girl. Whenever we were traveling we get off on airplane and everyone would be talking to her and they would say ‘bye’ to her, like they were all friends. We would go to a ballgame and everyone would talk with. We all have friends or people we know where everyone likes. She has the temperament where everyone likes her. It is a great thing and it is a natural born talent that I envy. I have had people work for me like that and it is just great working with them. I love working with her and that is really fantastic that she wants to be in the family business.