Fielding Hills Winery
Mike Wade is a Winemaking Wizard
by Tami Parr
Superheroes possess innate transcendent powers: otherworldly strength, the power to fly, or another super-ability, equally amazing. Mere mortals must acquire their powers after long study, experience and hard work. Mike Wade's considerable winemaking prowess is of the latter sort - a nascent talent that emerged over time. But once discovered and nurtured, Wade's gifts have produced consistently outstanding, award winning red wines. Wine lovers everywhere have since fallen under the spell of the superb wines produced with Wade's winemaking wizardry.
Few people know they want to become a winemaker at an early age, and Mike Wade is no exception. The Wenatchee, Washington native didn't even plan to return to his hometown after graduating with a business degree from the University of Washington. After a brief stint at Boeing ("way too corporate") and in a restaurant management training program, his dad lured him back home to a job at Columbia Packing Co., the family fruit packing business. Mike accepted that job in 1979, and, as he puts it, he's "been working for Dad ever since." He currently lives on orchard property in East Wenatchee with wife Karen, who's originally from Yakima, and their three daughters.
Like many people during the 1990s, Mike and Karen Wade began to develop an interest in wine. They enthusiastically pursued their newfound hobby, taking wine tours and exploring a variety of wines at dinners and tastings with friends. "I developed a real taste for red wine during that time," Mike recalls. Particularly formative was a trip to Walla Walla Vintners. "They were at a scale where I could just visually get my arms around the idea of winemaking, and I started thinking - this is something I could really do."
Apples to Grapes
Back in 1990s, Washington's Wahluke Slope was still years from AVA status and only just beginning to develop a reputation as world-class vineyard land. By chance the Wades happened to have orchard property in the area, so when Mike Wade began to investigate the idea of making wine more seriously Mattawa, Washington was a logical place to start.
During the same period, large wineries began offering Washington apple growers contracts to take out apple trees and replant the acreage with grapes. Wade followed this trend, entering into a verbal agreement with one winery to replant Red Delicious orchards with grape vines. When that agreement went sour, Wade was left with acres of grapes. He sold that crop elsewhere, but even today, the grapes for Fielding Hills wines come from Wade's Riverbend Vineyards, former orchard property.
While Wade essentially lucked into one of the most coveted grape growing regions in Washington, he's well aware of what makes the region so good. "You get that direct sun that comes up very early in the morning, and it's prolonged until quite late in the evening. So on those summer days, the grapes are really loving it." Experts will emphasize the importance of degree days (the Mattawa area has among highest accumulations of degree days in Washington state), glacial deposits and so on; Wade also likes to ponder whether the soil may have acquired any benefit from the apple trees which grew in the same soil prior to the grape vines. "We've not tasted or smelled any hints of apple yet, butÉ," he laughs.
Road to Success
Mike Wade is essentially a self-taught genius, though he'll readily acknowledge receiving a lot of help in the early years. "I ended up just buying winemaking books at first and poring through those. I experimented with making wine in glass carboys. That was pretty much a disaster - I poured most of that out," he says. "I used to call Charlie Hoppes quite a lot, sometimes in a panic mode. He was always very gracious." Things improved considerably when he purchased rudimentary equipment, including oak barrels from Kiona. "We made the first two vintages (the '00 and '01) using a tiny little 110 plug-in crusher/stemmer and a wooden basket press," he recalls, shaking his head in disbelief.
Even though he's since acquired better equipment and developed a consistently successful approach, Wade remains fascinated by the magic that turns grapes into wine. In the midst of doing punch downs recently, he found himself contemplating what makes wine develop the way it does. "I often wonder about the process that's evolved. If I punched down differently (because that's been very consistent over the years) would that make a difference - that and the hundreds of tiny little steps that are involved in winemaking." Still, whether it's winemaking or viticulture, at his core Mike Wade is a pragmatist loath to introduce drama into the equation. "If it's not broke, don't fix it," he says - and it's hard to argue with his achievements.
Ratings, Ratings, Ratings
"I don't believe I have ever given sich rave reviews to an entre lineup of wines from a young winery"
- Paul Gregutt, Seattle Times, 2005
Karen laughs now when she recalls a day in 2002 when she heard some unexpected news. "The phone rang one day and it was Mike. He says - Honey, I did something I didn't tell you about." After Karen recovered, Mike explained. Fielding Hills' first year's crush (in 2000) was bottled in the spring of 2002. Once the first bottles were in hand, Mike had been seized with the idea of sending samples to Wine Spectator. "The only person that knew besides me was the UPS driver," he says with a twinkle in his eye.
Wine Spectator ended up giving the Fielding Hills 2000 Cabernet a 91 and called the winery "a new name to watch in Washington" - spectacular for a first bottling from a brand new winery. Word spread quickly. Two months after the Wades released that first bottling, Karen received another phone call - this time from an enthusiastic supporter. "I started laughing and said - who is this? - thinking that somebody was playing a joke. But it was a man from Nebraska who'd heard about the Wine Spectator score and wanted to buy our wine. I was totally blown away!" Subsequent ratings from Wine Spectator and other authorities both local and national show that the 91 was no fluke - Fielding Hills wines have consistently reflected the promise of that first endorsement.
Mike Wade and winery dog Willie
Success has, not surprisingly, led Mike Wade to ask himself - where do I go from here? In the short term, plans are in the works for a new winery building (the Wades make wine on the property where they live), though that's currently tied up in bureaucratic red tape. That space would allow Fielding Hills some literal breathing room in which Mike envisions some conservative expansion. "I'm hoping to grow to about a 2500 case facility eventually," he says.
Still, growth brings other potential changes. What's currently an operation essentially run by the Wades themselves, with friends pitching in during crush and bottling, could easily transform into something else entirely. "The whole dynamics would change then. You'd have to have full time help; you'd have to rely a lot more on a distributor network for sales," says Wade, who seems simultaneously intrigued and reticent about the idea.
One thing you won't find Wade thinking much about these days is making white wine - at least not in the near term. Although he knows people like whites, and he sees their potential for supplementing cash flow, he's just not that big of a fan. "So far, the approach has been making wines in the style (reds) that I enjoy." Many others are enjoying his red wines as well, though given their quality it would be interesting to see what Wade could do with a Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc.
Mike Wade doesn't try to imitate a particular wine style, though the wines of Walla Walla Vintners, where he first realized that winemaking could be possible for him, are one touchstone. His preferences run to younger, more robust wines. "I like wines with more fruit, with that big mouth feel," he says. Typically modest, he'll attribute his winemaking success to the land and the grapes, not to his own ability. His honest, unpretentious approach and adventurous mind are surely integral to his winemaking achievements.
Fielding Hills bottling about 450 cases annually during their first few years. They've since increased production to more than 800, evenly distributed between the Cabernet, Syrah, Merlot and Riverbed Red with slightly fewer - around 100 - cases of the Cabernet Franc. "The Cab Franc is a specialty thing. We have less than an acre and a half of the Cab Franc so that's going to be the upper limit there," says Mike.
Fielding Hills Wine Tasting Notes - New Releases
Fielding Hills Cabernet Franc 05 $29.95/$26.95
The 2005 Cabernet Franc is a real standout even in Fielding's finest vintage yet. Completely ripe, black black color, showing myriad fruit flavors and hints of mineral and garrigue-like dried herbs in nose and on palate. Characteristic Cabernet Franc hints of pencil lead.
Scents are complex, incorporating slate, pencil lead, restrained red and black fruit with lots of mineral notes. Flavors are totally ripe sweet black fruit highlighted by white pepper and tremendously appealing desert herbs/garrigue. Plum, black cherry, black raspberry, sage, marjoram, field dust, white pepper, and licorice. The finish of this wine is smooth, enhancing the complexity of the wine by providing contrast - the liltingly refreshing acidity is balanced against the lush richness of ripe fruit.
From the winery: "Lovely cherry and sandalwood notes framed in with modest toasty chocolate. The fine tannins guide the finish. This is a friendly wine with wonderful finesse."
Fielding Hills Cabernet Sauvignon 05 $37.95/$34.16
Darkly opaque ruby color, restrained nose, and flavors extraordinaire. This is essence of Cabernet. Cabernet can show a multiplicity of robust and delicate qualities, -- this Cab is a good example. Fruit flavors range from black and red cherry to pomegranate, currant, plum, nectarine, and raspberry jam. Intricate suggestions of slate, licorice, tar, white pepper, and herbs linger on a long finish. annins are positively velvetty, with just the right level of acidity to allow for cellaring and serving with food.
From the winery: "Richly layered with cherry, cassis, spice and shaded with bitter chocolate and cedar box. An elegant and seamless tannin structure weaves the flavors into a harmonious whole that glides across the palate."
Fielding Hills Merlot 05 $35.95/$32.36
Unusually lively Merlot, a great food wine, yet rich and full bodied. Scents are of barrel spice and black cherry fruit, sweet pie cherry, red raspberry and a hint of pie spice. Different than most Merlots- sweet red plum, pie cherry, and rasrpberry dominate the fruit flavors. The finish shows soft barrel toast and white pepper. Tannins are soft, in balance with a bright acidity held in check by a luxuriant intensity.
From the winery: "A gorgeous dried potpourri nose leads the way to flavors of cranberry, flowers and milk chocolate on the palate. The bright acidity keeps these flavors dancing along to the finish. An agile merlot that will compliment a wide variety of food pairings."
Fielding Hills Riverbend Red 05 $31.95/$28.75
Yumm yumm- huge black cherry and toasted coffee bean nose with succulent hints of bittersweet chocolate, black cherry, black cherry and plum. Flavors are simply delicious - sweet lush red and black fruit with just a hint of fresh tobacco, toasted coffee bean, and a hearty dollop of spicy white pepper. Finish is very long, with black cherry, white pepper and spice restating themselves. Tannins are smooth and beautifully integrated, with acidity adding just the right amount of freshness and juiciness.
From the winery: "Loads of cherry, boysenberry and black plum are backed by suave sweet tobacco notes. The texture is slightly chewy with a tannic grip. It all plays through nicely on the long, lingering finish.
Fielding Hills Syrah Wahluke Slope 05 $39.95/$35.96
There are any dimensions to this exceptional Syrah. The nose is so lovely, predominated by toasted coca bean, espresso bean, smoke, and lush buttery black cherry. Flavors are of black cherry and black currant intertwined with smoke, soft barrel toast, minerals, white pepper, and layers and layers of fruit. The finish lingers - it's a complex, multi-dimensional Syrah from start to finish. Tannins are seamless, acidity is lively but not intrusive.
From the winery: "Supple and heady with dark berry, violet, bacon and cinnamon aromas and flavors. These are backed by pepper and clove notes as you head toward the long finish. The tannins are well integrated and are a great foundation for the opulent flavors."
The 2004 vintage of this wine received Wine Spectator 93 points; Wine Enthusiast 94 points