Clay Mackey says their Cabernet Franc vineyard survived the cold temperatures in late spring.

Clay Mackey says their Cabernet Franc vineyard survived the cold temperatures in late spring.

by Melissa Hansen

Clay Mackey and Kay Simon, the married partners of Chinook Wines, decided from the start that Yakima Valley would define their wines. They could have established a winery anywhere, but say they chose Yakima Valley and their Prosser location because of opportunity.

As her first job in Washington State’s wine industry, Simon worked for Chateau Ste. Michelle. She started in 1977, working on Ste. Michelle’s winemaking team at the newly renovated facility in Grandview.

At the same time, her husband, Mackey, worked on the viticulture side of Ste. Michelle as the company’s eastern Washington vineyard manager. His job took him to all parts of eastern Washington where wine grapes were being grown.

“We saw opportunity in Yakima Valley and Prosser,” said Mackey. “We liked the Prosser community, and with it being the county seat and home to Washington State University’s Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center, it has a diverse population.”

They purchased an old cherry farm near a freeway interchange and converted the home and buildings into a winery and tasting room. Cherry trees were eventually replaced with a small block of Cabernet Franc wine grapes.

The Chinook winery, enduring for 30 years through market cycles, industry expansion and recession, is as much a testimony to staying focused on crafting premium wines as it is in keeping together a successful marriage/business partnership.

Simon, with extensive winemaking experience, is Chinook’s winemaker, and she produces about 3,000 cases annually. Mackey, a trained viticulturist, takes care of their small estate vineyard, works closely with growers in sourcing grapes and scheduling harvest, and handles their direct wine sales, making weekly deliveries to retail accounts in Seattle.

These days, they have plenty of winery neighbors near the freeway interchange in Prosser. Hogue Cellars, Kestrel Wines, and Mercer Estate Wines are less than a mile away and Vintners Village, with its dozen or so wineries, is within a few miles.

But when they crushed grapes for their first vintage in 1983—the same year the Yakima ­Valley AVA was approved—there were only a handful of wineries in the region and about a dozen wine grape growers in Yakima Valley.

“Back then, you knew the growers personally, and growers often delivered grapes to the winery themselves,” said Simon, recalling her days at Ste. Michelle.

She rattled off names of early wine grape pioneers like Alfred Newhouse, Mike Miller, John Williams, Jim Holmes, Max Benitz, George Carter, Sid Morrison, Vernon Brown, Otis Harlan, Mike Sauer Mercer, and the den Hoed and Mercer families.

“I used to know the name of every grower, every ­winemaker, and every WSU researcher.”

As the state’s wine industry has grown, adding more wineries and growers, Simon said that it’s disheartening to not know everyone like she used to. “It’s frustrating because we did know everyone, and we feel like we still should or would like to, but it’s just impossible.”

Vineyard designations

From the start, their business plan for the winery included buying grapes. By purchasing grapes from different growers and locations within Yakima Valley, they can selectively harvest and schedule crush more ­efficiently and select the best grapes.

“I never subscribed to the notion that one vineyard would be the best location for all the different varieties you may want to grow,” said Mackey. “By sourcing from different areas, we can purchase grapes that best fit our wine styles.”

You won’t find names of vineyards on Chinook wines, but it’s not because they aren’t proud of their growers. Mackey explained that their wine style is to use blends to make their wines. “We like blending different vineyards together because that suits the style of wine we’re after. Even though we grow our own Cabernet Franc, our Cab Franc wine is a blend of four or five different vineyards, depending on the vintage, with each vineyard chosen for its individual character.”

Wineries often use vineyard designations to inform consumers and help define a sense of place for their wine. Wineries in Woodinville can’t grow their own fruit and may want to share their vineyard sources or the appellation to help define their wines.

On the other hand, it may not serve the marketing plan of wineries in Walla Walla that source grapes from a well-known Yakima Valley ­vineyard.

Naming the vineyard on the label can be tricky for wineries that don’t control the vineyard, said Mackey. If the business relationship with the designated vineyard goes sour, Mackey said years of work to build label recognition could be lost.

There can be trademark issues, and confusion if the same vineyard is called different names by different wineries. And sometimes, the vineyard name may be unappealing to be used a label.

However, on their Web site, they provide grower names and vineyard descriptions for grapes used in their wines.

Simon pointed out that Washington’s biggest wine producer only uses vineyard designation on a few of its wines, preferring to use the Columbia Valley AVA to define place.

Sense of place

Simon believes that one of Yakima Valley’s biggest strengths, in addition to its diversity of microclimates, is the ability to produce balanced fruit. “The grapes have good sugar-to-acid balance and that transfers to the wine,” she said.

Some have criticized the Yakima Valley for its past wine quality, but Mackey and Simon say that winemakers in the region are every bit as progressive and cutting edge as others, although not all winemakers adopt such practices.

“It’s not unique to Yakima Valley,” he said, adding that amateur winemaking and poor quality wines can be found in every appellation in every state.

Washington’s different appellations produce grapes with distinct characteristics and qualities, what Mackey describes as “stylistic differences.” Winemakers are drawn to find grapes that reflect the style of wines they are ­producing.

“We decided long ago that we wanted to be in Yakima Valley, live in Yakima Valley, and use Yakima Valley on our label,” he said. “We like the grapes that we source, and we like the growers we work with.

“A winery is defined by its place. Yakima Valley defines who we are, who we want to be, and is a part of everything we do.”