To make great wine, you must know great wine. That’s been the mantra of DeLille Cellars winemaker Chris Upchurch during in his long career. He accomplished that mission by traveling to the world’s most famous Grand Cru vineyards, beginning when he was on the retail side.
“I learn something new every time I go to a vineyard,” said Upchurch during an interview in the winery in Woodinville, where maps of Bordeaux, Burgundy and Alsace fill the walls.
Upchurch’s well-traveled father instilled a love of wine, often bringing back bottles from his globe-trotting business trips.
“At that time, most people drank vodka or gin cocktails, wine was pretty exotic,” Upchurch said, recalling his upbringing in New Jersey.
That early introduction served him well when he worked in the restaurant business while going to college in Boulder, Colo. “The manager asked if anybody knew anything about wine, and I said I knew Beaujalois. He put me in charge of writing the wine list,” he said.
Upchurch migrated to retail in the 1970s, when he was able to visit vineyards in Europe. During that time, he made his first garaista wines, a Merlot, a Cab, Gewurztraminer and Zinfandel. He’d take those wines around to seasoned pros for feedback. Some of those connections he made while sales manager for Larry’s Market proved very important.
“David Lake became a real mentor to me,” he said, referring to the late winemaker who guided Columbia Winery for many years. “David always stressed the importance of spending as much time as possible in the vineyard.”
Lake was at the fateful meeting during which the winery’s potential partners – Jay Soloff, Greg and Charles Lill, as well as Upchurch -- discussed the logistics of launching DeLille. “I’ll never forget it. We had just six months before harvest to get everything together and we talked about waiting until the following year. Charles said no, we had to go for it. I loved him for that,” Upchurch said.
Lake helped the new winery source fruit, introducing Upchurch to Harrison Hills vineyard, one of the oldest sites in the state, and an essential part of DeLille’s lineup. “He took me out there in 1992. At the time, all the fruit was being sold to Columbia Crest and they didn’t do anything special with it. I went to Allen Shoup and asked if they’d be willing to let us have it. He checked with his growers and agreed to it.”
DeLille was the first Washington state winery to do a Bordeaux blend, straight out of the gates with the 1992 vintage. “At that time, everybody thought you needed to have a varietal name on the label,” Upchurch said.
Dazzling scores early on created a buzz for the wines and DeLille Cellars developed a cult like following before that term was coined. Upchurch has been called an artist and a rock star, but he said he considers himself more of a craftsman.
“An artist friend said that craftsman are all about finding and working with great material and tools, while materials and tools aren’t important to artists,” Upchurch said.
He is also passionate about building enthusiastic winemaking teams: “I’ve had a lot of guys work for me over the years, guys who’ve gone on to start their own wineries. The team that’s working with me now is great. They are so excited about being here. If they weren’t, then they really don’t belong here. They want to do everything.”
Upchurch said he’s willing to get out of the way much of the time – “I don’t scrub out tanks or clean barrels any more” -- but there’s two areas where he’s the undisputed boss. “I do the blending trials and I call harvest,” he said.
Well, maybe there’s a consensus on the harvest question in his own sustainably farmed estate vineyard on Red Mountain, where legendary grower Dick Boushey is vineyard manager. Upchurch calls this venture with his wife, Theodora, – named with his late father in mind -- his “retirement project”, though he has no plans to retire any time soon.
“Red Mountain is such a special place,” he said. “I’ve traveled all over the world and it truly is home to Grand Cru vineyards. The potential there was created during the last ice age and it’s up to winemakers to fully realize that potential, to live up to what Mother Nature gave us a long time ago.”
Along with the ideal arc of the sun on the southwest-facing slopes and the unique soil, Upchurch said Red Mountain also stands apart from many growing regions because of its natural borders that delineate the area.
“You’ve got the Yakima River, the Yakima Valley and Red Mountain,” he said. “There’s no place else in the world like this.”
While he conceded he hasn’t spent a lot of time on the tractor in the vineyards, he has been a leader in clonal research, planting field trials over the years. “We’ve had very good luck with Cabernet Sauvignon, clone 2, out of Oakville, the clone developed by Inglenook.”
When he’s not working, Upchurch said he still loves to travel, and often finds himself back in those famous vineyards. The big difference is that these days, the French wine growers want to talk to him about vineyards in Washington state.