Back in those early days, long before Klipsun became known as one of the most prestigious vineyards in Washington State, Patricia Gelles often wondered what she’d gotten herself into. “Oh, I thought that all the time,” she said.
The public relations executive moved to the Tri-Cities in 1974 with her husband, David. While working at Westinghouse, he became friends with Jim Holmes and John Williams, also engineers and the original groundbreakers in growing grapes on Red Mountain.
“We helped them plant the first vineyards, with John on the tractor,we walked behind him, sticking vines in the soil,” Gelles said.
Years later, Holmes and Williams called with news that neighboring land was for sale. “It took us a while to get there. At first, we were going to lease it from the Kennewick Irrigation District, which had acquired the property during the Depression, but we eventually bought it,” she said.
The plan was – and remains to this day – to plant only varietals the couple loved to drink: Sauvignon blanc and Semillon as well as Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot and Nebbiolo went in later, followed by some Malbec and, perhaps there will be some Petit Verdot in the future, but no Cabernet franc.
But before vines went in, there was a well to be dug. It went deep, more than 600 feet, into the Priest Rapids aquifer. Gelles consulted with Clay Mackey in the beginning about where to plant on the 160-acre spread. Once the vines went in, the reality of the second stage of the operation struck: “I realized I had to go and sell these grapes,” Gelles said.
Well, she didn’t have to work too hard. “Rob Griffin came calling in 1987,” she said of the former winemaker for Hogue Cellars and stalwart at his own Barnard Griffin since the mid-1980s. “And then there was Casey McLellan from Seven Hills in 1991. It snowballed from there.”
Those two veteran winemakers, along with Quilceda Creek’s Alex Golitzen was among Klipsun’s first fans and have been a steady customer since the beginning, with Casey being one of the first vintners to make a Klipsun Vineyard designated wine.
“I had just come back from attending Davis and tasted a barrel sample of the Klipsun Cabernet,” McClellan recalled. “It really stood out. It was powerful, had great structure and a bit of dustiness in the nose. It reminded me of the great Rutherford Bench Cabs.”
In the nearly three decades since the vineyard was first planted, there have been changes: vines that were struggling have been ripped out and replaced with different clones, the couple acquired another 40 acres and hired a vineyard manager, Julia Kock. And they’ve had a commitment to sustainability long before that became a trendy term.
“We haven’t used herbicide in 25 years,” Gelles said. They’ve also kept a cover crop in between rows to keep the dust down and have always used drip irrigation, so they can control the amount of water the plant receives. “We don’t believe in stressing a vine,” Gelles said. “If you stress a vine too much and then have a bad winter, it can die.”
Gelles, a former Washington Wine Commissioner, loves to travel, for business and for kicks. When talking about her vineyards in far-flung places, she sometimes faces the challenge of overcoming the stereotype image of the Evergreen State. “Many people think it rains all the time,” she said.
She paints a portrait of Klipsun Vineyards for those who have never been: “It’s high desert, where we get just six inches of rain a year.” Within the vineyard, there are variations in soil makeup, but Klipsun enjoys the dramatic shift in temperature during the summer months, when the hot days turn into cool nights.
“That’s where you get the great acids developing,” she said.
Gelles would love for more wine tourists to visit Red Mountain and the wineries in and around the Tri-Cities to get a first-hand view of what makes the place so special.
“A lot of people blast through here on their way to Walla Walla,” she said. “I heard somebody say recently that we’re like the Sonoma to Walla Walla’s Napa. People like John Bookwalter have done a wonderful job developing venues people want to visit, offering food and music. We just need more of that.”