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Vineyard Focus:
Red Mountain's Klipsun Vineyard
by Sarah Powell, Foris Winery
First published August, 2001
Reprinted with permission

No one knows why the bluff marking the eastern edge of the Yakima Valley and situated above the Yakima River, just miles from the confluence of the Columbia and Yakima Rivers is named Red Mountain. It is NOT because the soils are red. One speculation is that as the bluff ’s shallow-rooted native bunchgrass dries up early in the spring, the hill looks red compared to the other brown hills as the sun shines down upon it. Over the last twenty years, however, winemakers familiar with the grapes grown here have their own reason for the mountain’s name: the red wine grapes grown here are of uncommon and unique spectacular quality.

Red Mountain was a barren hill, until 1972 when Kiona Vineyards pioneered planting wine grapes on the slope. They were alone until the early 1980’s when a few more daring individuals chose to cultivate this barren and very exposed bluff. At the time, the Washington wine industry was very young, and the majority of sites planted to wine grapes were small parcels of large farm operations, with ample irrigation water, easily and cheaply accessed from irrigation districts. To plant on Red Mountain required digging very deep wells, which run on quite expensive electric bills. The exposure, soils and natural conditions of the bluff presented its own farming challenges, as well. These early pioneers were producing naturally low-tonnage grapes and low-vigor vines during an era when the majority of growers and wineries alike were interested in high production, and few wineries recognized or were willing to pay for high quality fruit.

 






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Wines made from Klipsun Grapes

 

 

David and Trisha Gelles were two of these renaissance grape growers in the early 80’s, establishing Klipsun Vineyard on the warmer western slope of Red Mountain. David, a metallurgical engineer and Trisha, an avid English wine aficionado, raised on the great wines of Bordeaux share a love of agriculture and great wine. From the beginning they have worked closely with and entrusted the stewardship of their land to the careful management of Fred Artz, "Mr. Red Mountain", as I like to refer to him. Fred’s intuitive, thoughtful and dedicated attention to detail has allowed Klipsun to both grow to 120 acres, and lead the way on Red Mountain to understanding the quality potential of this microclimate.

I first had the opportunity to work with Klipsun grapes in 1989, when I worked for another winery in Washington State. It was obvious to me then, that the viticultural decisions and expertise at this vineyard were light years ahead of the majority of the rest of the state. The vineyard proved to be one of the earliest ripening sites in the entire state, exhibiting remarkable consistency and full, early ripening, despite vintage variation. The wines produced from these red grapes had equally remarkable intense color, depth, aromatics, flavors, and sheer power. Huge wines from consistently huge grapes.

The uniqueness of Red Mountain’s fruit is indelibly linked to its "terroir", the unique set of natural circumstances: aspect, soil and microclimate. Red Mountain is a DRY and very EXPOSED area. It receives about three fewer inches of rain (six instead of nine) than the neighboring Horseheaven Hills to the south or the Rattlesnake Hills to the north.While most of the winds in the region prevail from the Southwest, the gap in the Rattlesnakes which opens up onto Red Mountain provides winds also from the north. This gap also provides Red Mountain with unusual northern cold air which renders nights colder here than the valley floor, preserving natural acidity and bright berry flavors, and perhaps triggering earlier ripening. The soils are sandy, almost like a very fine-grained beach, requiring precise irrigation management.

Exposure to dry heat and wind combined with Fred Artz’s vineyard management creates naturally stressed, loose clustered vines with small, intense berries of tremendous power and structure. The wines produced are for people who like their reds "BIG" and, hopefully, for people who like to lay their wine down to age. A few winters ago, after the devastating January 1996 freeze which damaged many of Klipsun’s vines and dramatically reduced their crop for that year, I visited Fred and his chihuahua, Chisto, on a cold, sunny day.

"What makes this spot unique?" I asked him.

Always aware of both the big and little picture, the thoughtful Fred began his account with the migratory pattern of Sand Cranes. He described how they arrive at Red Mountain in the fall, but do not land. Instead, the birds take advantage of the site’s unusual thermal and wind patterns to slowly spiral higher and higher until they catch a current and shoot southward over the Horseheavens.

 

 

 
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