Paul Champoux has been up to his elbows in grapevines since 1979, yet when he talks about his lifelong vocation, he sounds like a fresh-faced kid.
“I just love taking care of the vineyard, battling Mother Nature, watching the seasons change,” said the man whose grapes go into some of Washington state’s most highly regarded wines. “I’ve been at it so long, I know a lot of the vines by heart.”
The son of a farmer – his father grew hops near Toppenish – Champoux went to work for Ste. Michelle in 1979, helping to plant 2,200 acres over seven years, a massive project in those early days.
“It was quite a project. We kind of learned on the go,” he said.
One of his missions was to install trellis systems that work with center pivot irrigation. “We’re talking about a quarter mile long irrigation pipe set in a circle, designed so you could push a button and efficiently irrigate 120 acres. Then, drip irrigation was still a novelty.
Wade Wolfe and Walter Clore were Champoux’s earliest mentors: “They taught me how to grow grapes. In the beginning, I didn’t know much about the different varieties, where to plant them and how and when to water them. They were very generous in sharing their knowledge.”
Dr. Clore was especially helpful, one of the many reasons he’s referred to as the father of the Washington state wine industry. “He was a soft-spoken, an intellectual and a scientist, but he could speak in layman’s terms. He was a great teacher. The basics he passed along to me are something I still use everyday.”
After the vineyards near Patterson were planted, Champoux was presented with the opportunity to manage a vineyard then known as Mercer Ranch. Located in the Horse Heaven Hills, even then, it was a go-to grape supplier to Chris Camarda at Andrew Will, Rick Small at Woodward Canyon, Quilceda Creek’s Alex Golitzen (whose 100-point wines were made with Champoux fruit). After managing it for years, Champoux leased the land between 1992 and 1996 and then purchased it that year, bringing on early those winemakers as partners. Powers Winery got on board with the now-185-acre vineyard later. also sells to additional vintners, who clamor for the distinctive fruit. “I’m in a spot that you dream about, where wineries come to me,” said Champoux, who served on the board of the Grape Growers Association between 2000 and 2009, chairing the organization for two years beginning in 2006. “I just keep doing the best I can, never resting on laurels, always thinking that I can do better next year.”
That hard-charging, can-do spirit was a huge help when Champoux was stricken in July 2009 with West Nile Virus, paralyzing his arms and legs. “I was bedridden for about six months, and am now in a wheelchair but these days I’m able to get on my four-wheeler. One leg is still pretty weak, but it doesn’t define me at all. A lot of healing is attitude and there was never any doubt that I would battle back from it.”
Champoux shares credit for his success throughout his career with his wife, Judy, who does everything from keeping books to running the tractor, and also his longtime foreman, Hipolito Vargas, who has been working with him for 27 years. “I’ve got some of his kids working for me now, too,” Champoux said. “He’s not just an employee, he’s a friend.”
Bolstered by his tight crew and nearly ideal growing conditions (“we have a lot of south slope-facing vineyards, plenty of sun and wind, which is an enemy of mildew and bunch rot”), Champoux is sitting pretty. But that doesn’t mean he’ll ever stop learning and fine-tuning.
“We were so young and innocent in the beginning. We learned a lot quickly about growing grapes that make world-class wine. It’s been a privilege to be part of that,” he said.