Harrison Hill. The place, not the wine or a person. This 5 and ½ acre plot of vineyard has more history than your grandparents, yet very, very few people have heard of it. Anyone and everyone who has driven on I-82 between Outlook and Sunnyside, well, they’ve seen it. So why hasn’t anyone reviewed the wine that comes from the grapes of Harrison Hill?
Turn the clock back just over a century when Sunnyside’s mayor was none other than a recent transplant, attorney William B. Bridgman. Mr. Bridgman, an irrigation law expert, prospered as he assisted in writing the State’s first irrigation laws and reorganizing the Sunnyside Irrigation Canal project. Farming was in his upbringing, so he smartly invested his income in a couple of prime parcels in the southeast section of Snipes Mountain and Harrison Hill.
In 1914, he planted the following table wine grapes on Harrison Hill: Ribier, Flame Tokay, and Black Prince. The “Great War” had just begun. The Temperance movement was gathering momentum in what would become “The Noble Experiment.” And, curiously, the Sunnyside area was founded in the 1890s by followers of a religion that practiced “clean living.” By 1916, Washington State had enacted “dry” laws much stricter than the coming Eighteenth Amendment (and Volstead Act–they are not the same). One had to wonder what he was thinking by making such plantings.
To Mr. Bridgman’s credit, he had the foresight to understand human nature. Previous settlers to the region included Germans, Croatians, and Italians, as well as the French Canadian-descendants; all comfortably familiar with wine as a beverage at meal time. And, with pubic establishments such as saloons targeted for extinction, there was no shortage of home winemakers. Thus, Bridgman’s wine grapes commanded top dollar compared to his neighbor’s table grapes.
Fast forward to 1963. Mr. Bridgman had lost most of his fortune and chose to sell Harrison Hill to a brand new wine company called Associated Vintners. The gently-sloped south-to-southwest site with fortuitous air drainage was initially planted with UC-Davis-ordered vines of: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Grenache, White Riesling and Semillon. Later additions were: Delaware, Grenache, Pinot Noir, Seibel 10096, Seibel 13053, and Semillon. It is believed the Associated Vintners 1969 Cabernet Sauvignon bottling was entirely produced from Harrison Hill grapes, making this the first known commercial single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon in Washington.
Fast forward to the late 1970s. Associated Vintners was undergoing major expansion. In 1976, the winery produced 9000 gallons. In 1980, production totaled 25,000 gallons. Mother Nature threw a nasty curveball with a deep freeze in 1979, forcing the winery to search for new grape sources. A new winemaker in David Lake MW and a new management team came on board. The winery decided to sell its Harrison Hill vineyard to the Alfred Newhouse family, who also purchased Mr. Bridgman’s other property, Upland Vineyard on Snipes Mountain, in 1972.
Fast forward to the early 1990s. Chris Upchurch was given a tip from consulting winemaker, David Lake MW, that Chris should consider the historic Harrison Hill site, which was then under contract to Stimson Lane (parent corporation of Chateau Ste. Michelle). The Newhouse family sought, and was given permission by Allen Shoup, then Stimson Lane’s president. DeLille Cellars then replanted the site with Merlot and Cabernet Franc, saving only the original 1963 Cabernet Sauvignon vines, the 2nd oldest in the State. DeLille’s first Harrison Hill-designated wine was vinted in 1994, and is at its peak, according to DeLille Cellars’ “Aging Chart.”
Harrison Hill. The wine. Since 2003, the composition has been: 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, 9% Cabernet Franc, and 1% Ciel du Cheval Petit Verdot. Tasted at 50-60 degrees on the IR temp gun while grilling ribeye and Hempler’s Andouille sausage on a 70-degree day, the wine showed a sultry deep black cherry core with a soft nose of blackberries and cherries. Dense but fluid on the palate, flavors of thick, persistent cherries were followed by black and red licorice.
This is a deceptively soft wine from DeLille Cellars. While this wine will not “win” at so-called competitions and speed-tastings, drinking it with the knowledge of its origins will inspire deep inflections on the true origins of the Washington wine industry. Dr. Walter Clore is considered the “father of Washington wine,” but maybe, just maybe we can allow recognition to William B. Bridgman as the “grandfather of Washington wine.”
Alcohol: 14.7%. Yakima Valley Red Wine. Music pairing: “Harrison Hill” (typo) by Fats Domino. Rating: 90. Value: $35. This is WAwineman…uncorked, uneducated but not uncouth.
If you enjoyed this review and want to know more, I strongly recommend reading the finest book EVER on Washington wine, “The Wine Project,” authored by Ronald Irvine of Vashon Winery, and Walter J. Clore. You can still get an autographed book for under $20. A special thanks to Tim Blue for the recommendation.
On a curious note, Mike Sauer of Red Willow bought cuttings of cabernet from the caretaker of Harrison Hill back in 1973. Would be interesting to compare a Red Willow ‘old vines’ cabernet with this Harrison Hill wine.