Vintner carves out niche with The Benches

FINLEY -- When Allen Shoup still was head of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates more than a decade ago, he came upon a vineyard southeast of Finley unlike any he had seen, perhaps unlike any other in the world.

It was 1997, and Wallula Vineyards was just being planted by the Den Hoed family about three miles south of the Wallula Gap.

"I had a hard time even catching my breath, it was so exciting," Shoup said as he gazed nearly 600 feet down toward the mile-wide Columbia River. "On the spot, I told them this would be a Ste. Michelle vineyard, and we signed a very long-term contract for all the grapes."

Three years later, Shoup retired as CEO of Washington's largest wine company -- but he wasn't leaving the wine industry, and he always had Wallula Vineyards on his mind.

In 2003, Shoup created Long Shadows Vintners in Walla Walla, a collaboration of wineries that brought in famous winemakers from throughout the world to craft wine made with Washington grapes. Today, he and winemaker Gilles Niault work with eight winemakers from around the globe to craft seven wines.

In 2008, Shoup put together an investment group called Premier Vineyard Estates to purchase 80 percent of Wallula Vineyards from the Den Hoeds. Brothers Bill and Andy Den Hoed and their father, Andres, still manage the site, along with vineyards they own in the Yakima Valley. They also own the Pacific Rim Winemakers facility in West Richland and since have launched their own winery, called Den Hoed.

Since purchasing it, Shoup has renamed the vineyard The Benches to better reflect the geology of the unusual site. In fact, the vineyard is on 27 benches of land from the Columbia River to the top of the vineyard, at 1,450 feet elevation. The land is a strong reminder of the ice age floods that swept through this region some 15,000 years ago and carved the terraces out of the basalt cliffs.

Today, Shoup sells grapes to his former company, with 60 percent of the fruit grown here going to Ste. Michelle.

"It's part of business," he said with a quick smile. "It's a very small community. You don't want to burn bridges in this business because you'll probably bump into the bridge you burned on the way back."

The vineyard is not open to the public, not that anybody would ever happen to wander upon it, as it's in one of the most remote areas of the Horse Heaven Hills viticultural area. Shoup would love to put a winemaking facility here, but he knows a tasting room would rarely ever be visited. And he has a few other ideas for how to share the unprecedented view the land offers, though they are years away.

While most of the upper levels of The Benches are planted, the Den Hoeds have reached the Columbia River and are excited to start putting more vines in the ground.

"We have several hundred acres down there that will raise some of the best cab in the Pacific Northwest," said Andy Den Hoed as he peeked over a cliff toward the Columbia River. He plans to plant different clones of cabernet sauvignon that he thinks will compare favorably with any in the world.

The Den Hoeds purchased the land from Easterday Farms because they were looking to diversify their wine grape operation, which began in the late 1970s.

"We were looking for the perfect site for wine grapes," Den Hoed said. "I took one look and thought, 'This is going to be awesome!' I guess it was partly the adventure in us and partly that this was going to produce some great grapes."

Today, the vineyard has 750 acres of wine grapes planted, with perhaps that many more acres available, in addition to surrounding land the Den Hoeds and Shoup have purchased and plan to develop.

Niault, a native of France who is in his 17th vintage as a Washington winemaker, works closely with grapes from The Benches, though he also uses fruit from 14 other vineyards throughout the vast Columbia Valley. He loves The Benches for a number of reasons.

"This is an incredible site," he gushed on a sunny afternoon. "This site always is one of the latest to get frosted because of the Columbia River."

The constant breeze also reduces the chance of mildew in the fruit.

"As a winemaker, I want my grapes healthy when they come to the winery."

And finally, the stunning vista is an added bonus.

"When I come to The Benches and look at the view, I am happy. That is important for the winemaker too!" he added with a laugh.

Wines of Long Shadows Vintners

Long Shadows makes several wines, each of which is considered a separate winery with separate ownership. CEO Allen Shoup put together an international collaboration unprecedented in the world of wine. Gilles Niçault is the resident winemaker.

-- Poets Leap is a riesling made with Armin Diel of Germany’s famed Schlossgut Diel.

-- Sequel is a syrah made with John Duval, who gained global fame when he made the iconic Penfolds Grange in Australia.

-- Pirouette is a Bordeaux-style red blend made with Philippe Melka of California, and Agustin Huneeus of California and Chile.

-- Feather is a cabernet sauvignon made with Randy Dunn, one of Napa Valley’s highest-ranking winemakers.

-- Pedestal is a merlot-based blend made with Michel Rolland of Bordeaux, one of the world’s most influential winemaking consultants.

-- Saggi is a blend of sangiovese, cabernet sauvignon and syrah made with Anbrogio and Giovanni Folonari of Italy.

-- Chester-Kidder is a red blend made with Shoup, who named the wine after his grandparents.

-- Nine Hats is a less expensive red blend that uses wine that doesn’t fit into the other labels.

* Andy Perdue is editor of Wine Press Northwest, a quarterly wine magazine owned by the Herald. For more information, go to www.winepressnw.com.