The winery owners' goal is to make
the very best hand-crafted Bordeaux-styled red and white wines in Washington.
In his first three years, Chris Upchurch has already received 11 scores of 90 or above from Robert Parker, The Wine Spectator, and Steven Tanzer. A feat never matched by another Washington winery.
Robert Parker has also listed DeLille Cellars as one of only three Washington State red wines that garnered *****(outstanding) in his latest buyers guide.
The 1992 Chaleur Estate is the only Washington State wine to ever receive a Certificate of Excellence from the Institute of the Masters of Wine.
And just recently his '94 Chaleur Estate has received a 96 and "Top 100 List" from the Wine Enthusiast and the BTI (Beverage Testing Institute).
DeLille makes only five wines--a mere 3,100 cases annually. All are aged in expensive 100-percent-new French oak barrels. (Used oak, Upchurch explains, is like a tea bag on its second cup.)
D2, a red made from the Chaleur blend but with more Merlot, is softer; its name comes from the main wine road, the Route du Vin, running through the Médoc in Bordeaux. Harrison Hill is a red from the Harrison Hill Vineyards, a mix of Cabernet sauvignon, Merlot, and Cab Franc. Doyenne is a Syrah, made in very small quantities.
By Christina Kelly
Avalon Staff Writer
When Charles Lill came to North America in the 1950s from Europe, he had $20 in his pocket, a new wife, and burgeoning hopes of a new life in a country willing to take him.
A descendant of Huguenots who fled persecution in France during the 17th Century, Lill also fled the Nazi expansion into Eastern Europe and a growing Communist movement in his home of Kaden, in what is now the Czech Republic.
The affable Lill now heads up one of Washington state's most successful boutique wineries, DeLille Cellars, producing small quantities of seductive Bordeaux blends and a highly-rate white wine. As Lill figures it, his life has come full circle, after learning he is a descendant of winemakers and brewmasters dating back 400 years ago.
"When I came to America, I started with nothing," said Lill, now 75-years-old. "Whatever I have today, I owe it to America. I was displaced, but this country took me and gave me a chance for the American dream."
Charles Lill and Jay Soloff
A colorful, sprightly man with soft white hair and ruddy cheeks, Lill smiles and shakes his head in almost disbelief with his success in America. It came with hard work, and a history of rebuilding lives after world misfortunes removed the belongings of those efforts.
For centuries, Lill's family amassed wealth, only to have it stripped away during war and conflict. Each time property and assets were stolen or confiscated, the Lill family would start again. After his release from a labor camp at the end of World War II, Lill vowed he would build again.
To support himself and his growing family, Lill sold insurance, starting in Vancouver, Canada, and then transferring to Tacoma, WA. His wife Lori recalls that her husband was gone nightly, trying to sell one more insurance policy.
Although he was a successful businessman for more than 40 years, it wasn't until Lill's retirement in the early 1990s that he was asked to invest in a winery. His son Greg, winemaker Chris Upchurch and wine broker Jay Soloff approached Charles with a proposal to make handcrafted, old-world style red and white wines on the 10-acre family farmed owned by Charles and Lori Lill.
"Virtually all the conversations between Greg, Chris and myself centered on wine," said Jay Soloff, DeLille Cellars partner and marketing director. "Chris had 18 years making wine in the home and I was a wine broker for 16 years. When the wine bug bit Greg Lill hard, the idea of a winery continued to be a discussion."
An unexpected surprise confronted the Lill family when they learned that the U.S. would not tax money from the sale of family property in Germany, originally taken during WWII.
"We were able to retrieve our property without tax ramifications," Lill said. "The money came almost free and could be used in the U.S."
Lill agreed to be a financial partner for DeLille Cellars, using the windfall cash from selling overseas property. He also agreed to build a traditional "chai" styled winery on the family farm in Woodinville. The chateau allows for winemaking methods as in the finest chateaux of Bordeaux, including open top fermenters and an underground barrel cellar.
Initially, David Lake, Master of Wine at Columbia Winery, set up tastings for the DeLille partners, to develop a Bordeaux-style blend and experiment, primarily with Merlot.
"In the early stages, they were looking for
advice," said Lake. "I had a lot of respect for Chris Upchurch
as a winemaker, and he was interested in my help with the blending. For
me, it was nice to help make something a little different.
I was happy to help them on their way."
Lake said Charles Lill's presence with DeLille Cellars bridges the gap between Old World and New World winemaking styles.
"He's had a remarkable life," Lake said. "He is strongly motivated to make the most of his life in this country. I think he would have been a success at whatever he did. He has seen a lot of suffering and appreciates the opportunity given to him in the U.S."
DeLille Cellars began producing wine in 1992, sourcing grapes from Washington's finest vineyards, including Klipsen, Ciel du Cheval, Boushey, Portteus and Sagemoor Farms. The 800 square-foot farmhouse began its renovation in the mid-1990s, and by 1998, opened its 7,000 square-foot chateau for business on a hill overlooking Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia Winery.
The winery also started at the head of the pack with impressive wine ratings right out of the gate. Wine critic Robert Parker, of Wine Advocate, refers to DeLille as "the Chateau Lafite of Washington state." He rates the wine as outstanding.
Wine Spectator gave DeLille's 1999 Chaleur Estate, Cabernet blend 93 out of s. DeLille's 2000 Chaleur Estate Blanc rated 92 points from Wine Enthusiast Magazine and the scores keeping piling up.
As the winery expands, albeit slowly, the partners added their own 20 acres on Red Mountain, one of Washington's most talked about appellation. Soloff says the plan is to stay small and focus on quality, experimenting with clones. Currently the winery produces about 5,000 cases per year, producing five different blends-four reds and one white wine.
"We're blenders of grape varietals," Soloff said. "We're looking for full ripeness and full flavor at lower alcohol levels. We want our wines to match well with food and still stand alone."
As Charles scans the family farm and winery, he mentions how much the farm reminds him of his European home. The site is on a hill, complete with a duck pond, goats and animals his grandchildren can pet. He wants it to remain in the family. It is a legacy he plans to pass down to his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He wants the Lill name, and DeLille winery, to represent the hard work of his ancestors.
"I am not afraid to leave this earth," Charles said. "I have accomplished everything I wanted and I have something to leave to my children, and their children. And when I leave, I want my ashes buried here on the hill.
"The farm is a memory, a tribute to my
childhood. When I leave, they can pour a little wine over the site where
I am buried, so I can still taste what we produce. I will be very happy."
The Winemaker- Chris Upchurch
Bordeaux style wines are emerging from Washington State due in no small part to the winemaking techniques of Chris Upchurch, with his DeLille Cellars wines. Striving for something well beyond chemistry, Chris believes in hand-crafting his wines where "the whole is greater than the sum of the parts".
A self-confessed Francophile and a blender, Chris prefers not to dissect his wines with component descriptors. Instead he talks about his wines in terms of "complete wine". Here qualities like opulence, mouthfeel, balance and elegance are very much more important than chocolate, pear and coconuts!
Chris’ love for wine started in his youth, with extensive travel throughout the Grand Cru wine-growing regions of Europe and the west coast of the U.S. "I had to start off developing my palate," he reflected. "After all a winemaker cannot make great wine, without first defining in your own mind what a great wine tastes like."
After attending and graduation from the University of Colorado and the University of Washington, in 1976 Chris returned to Seattle, and began his career as a wine buyer. First he purchased wine for several of Seattle’s best known restaurants, and finally became a buyer for the upscale, Larry’s Markets Wine Stores. This experience allowed him to continue to develop his palate by tasting wines from around the world. Deep in his heart though, Chris knew he wanted to be involved in the production end of the wine industry.
This interest prompted Chris to start a successful grape-brokerage business, contracting grapes from Washington State and selling them to winemakers. He knew he was truly hooked once he started spending a lot of time in the vineyards. Now as a professional winemaker for eight years, he continues to spend a great proportion of his time in the vineyards in Yakima Valley.
Chris feels that his greatest challenges are ahead of him. "At DeLille Cellars we have lofty goals which can only be reached by time and dedication. Winemaking is a life long endeavor. No matter what awards you receive, you still have two new vintages back in your winery that you must work very hard on, to get the most out of the vintages."
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