Winemaker Keith Kenison never dreamed 14 Hands would hit the top 10 list of U.S. premium wines.
But less than a decade after Ste. Michelle Wine Estates introduced the brand at restaurants, the approachable, fruity wines have won over the taste buds of wine novices and connoisseurs.
It has become popular enough and -- as Washington's third-largest wine brand -- big enough to earn its own winery at the foot of the Horse Heaven Hills.
On Thursday, about 150 members of the wine industry raised glasses of 14 Hands' "The Reserve" wines to toast the brand's new Prosser home.
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"May our paths cross often, and on those occasions may it be to enjoy a glass of 14 Hands wine," Kenison said before the clinking began.
Ted Baseler, Ste. Michelle's president and CEO, said the brand, first launched in 2005, is breaking metrics they had never even heard of.
14 Hands has become the fastest growing of the top 25 U.S. premium wine brands, Baseler said. Its wines have scored high, including 90 and 93, on the 100-point scale used by wine aficionados.
"They are truly world-class wines," Baseler said.
The wine is being poured worldwide, representing Washington in other countries, he said. It's also the official wine of the Kentucky Derby.
14 Hands sold 1.4 million cases last year, and Jeriann LeBlanc, the winery's guest service manager, expects they will exceed that this year.
The brand's success has caused Baseler to wish -- perhaps jokingly, perhaps not -- for more grapes. That seems to be the limit for 14 Hands, he said.
The brand's popularity has eliminated any downtime between vintages. They are barely getting the last of the wine out from a previous vintage before the new wine grape crop comes in during August and September, Kenison said.
The wines are made at the new winery and Columbia Crest Winery in Paterson.
Kenison's goal is to make a fresh, vibrant wine that is approachable and can be easily paired with meals.
"We want to be a part of everyday life for folks who enjoy a glass of wine," he said.
Kenison guides the fruit into expressing itself in the wines with as few manipulations as possible, he said.
Grapes for the premium "The Reserve" wines only come from the Horse Heaven Hills, Kenison said. It's created in smaller amounts by dedicated winemaking staff.
14 Hands' other wines are made using grapes from the Horse Heaven Hills and other areas in the state. Ste. Michelle does want to source more of the grapes for 14 Hands from the Horse Heaven Hills in the future, Baseler said.
"The Reserve" wines also are barrel-fermented or barrel-aged longer than other 14 Hands wines, Kenison said. They are a bit more complex but still stay true to the fruit.
Other 14 Hands wines still spend some time in barrels, but they are neutral barrels, which have been used before, and so give the wines a softer oak taste, Kenison said.
Kenison's personal favorite is the soon-to-be-released "The Reserve" Sauvignon Blanc, but Baseler said he is fond of "The Reserve" Cabernet Sauvignon.
Most popular, though, is the 14 Hands "Hot to Trot" blends, perhaps because of the fun factor in its name, Baseler said.
The name 14 Hands comes from the short wild mustangs -- only 14 hands tall -- that used to roam the Horse Heaven Hills. The wines, like the horses, are "exuberant and powerful," Baseler said.
The extensively remodeled winery, which was once home to the Snoqualmie brand, also pays homage to the horses. Metal horses run through a fountain near the entrance to the new tasting room, and the colorful horses from the brand's label adorn the winery's exterior wall.
Orange barn doors on the tasting room portion of the winery feature a white outline of a 14-hand-tall horse, hands included.
Overall the new facility has a rustic feel, with barn wood mixing with the aroma of wine.
Two panels made of wood from local barns are the beginnings of a mini museum to the old, nostalgic wood barns that are falling apart, Baseler said. Plaques with photos of the barn and short stories about the farming families are part of the panels.
The new tasting room opened to the public in February, without much fanfare.
More fanfare is planned Saturday, when 14 Hands holds its public grand opening celebration with about 170 guests. It's completely sold out, with a waiting list.
The secret was already out, with many local residents and visitors checking out the new home for 14 Hands, especially in the last week, LeBlanc said.
"People love it," she said. "They think it's really comfortable."
Sometime in May, the winery plans to start offering small plates of food that complement 14 Hands wines, she said. VIP tasting events of premium wines in a specially designed cool room also will be offered.
More than 200 people already have signed up for the wine club, less than three months after it started. Members will get the first pick of "The Reserve" wines when they are released, LeBlanc said.
Even then, the wines will be offered exclusively at the winery, and not at other retail locations.
"The Reserve" wines, priced at $30 a bottle, are selling better than the $12 wines, she said. The "Hot to Trot" white blend and red blend are $10 a bottle.
The winery, at 660 Frontier Road in Prosser, is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
-- Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; email@example.com