The Horse Heaven Hills has become one of the largest wine growing areas in Washington state. Rising up above the Columbia River and extending north toward the Yakima River Valley the Horse Heaven Hills is windswept, dry, strangely beautiful, and very, very, very remote.
It is as unlikely a place, to the untrained eye for planting vineyards, as you might find but in 1972 Walter Clore approached Don and Linda Mercer and convinced them that it would a perfect place to grow wine. The Mercer family had farmed land in the area since the 1930s, mostly dry land wheat, onions and carrots. In 1972 they planted Cabernet Sauvignon in what was then known as Block One and today is rather famously called Champoux Vineyard and pioneered the AVA.
The acreage in the Horse Heaven Hills has grown substantially, and while Cabernet is what it has become most known for, the variety of plantings is notable. Chateau Ste. Michelle has invested heavily in the region in both its Columbia Crest label as well as it's own CSM brand, and its reserve wine-making facilities at Canoe Ridge.
In 1991 Chateau Ste. Michelle planted their Canoe Ridge Vineyard. Spanning 559 acres the vineyard is planted with a large variety of wine grapes including Riesling, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet. Since it's inception, the Canoe Ridge vineyard has been overseen by one woman, Mimi Nye.
There are many talented farmers making their marks on the Washington wine industry, in some cases, wine growers like Dick Boushey, Horse Heaven's own Paul Champoux or Jim Holmes of Ciel du Cheval are as well known as some of the state's most prominent wine makers. In many instances though, some of the very hardest work being done in the industry goes unnoticed. Mimi is one of those talents, and while you may never see her name on a bottle (you can actually) her talent and enthusiasm is a vital part of the equation for Chateau Ste Michelle.
"We broke this vineyard out of sagebrush in 91, so these are my babies." Says Mimi, who appears every bit as warm and welcoming as a familiar family member the minute you meet her. She walks me through the Canoe Ridge Vineyard rows of Chardonnay. Canoe Ridge sits along the Columbia River, really, with a strong arm you could get a rock to the water, and it's thanks to that river's climate modulating influence that world class wine grapes can be grown here, in what is frankly the desert. Canoe Ridge is alarmingly sandy in places, like dunes almost, not the kind of place you'd expect anything to be growing.
Mimi started with Chateau Ste Michelle thirty three years ago. She started with no vineyard experience whatsoever, but rather studied horticulture at WSU and was growing potatoes mostly, when CSM bought her farm. Then in 1991 she was told by someone at Chateau Ste Michelle that the Canoe Ridge project, the one she was charged with cultivating was "going to be a world class vineyard." And as dubious as she was then, she's convinced today. She's also a big part of the site's success.
Mimi's familiarity with each block and her depth of knowledge come from her experience to be sure but that experience is also balanced with a real curiosity about the work that's being done nearby by CSM's red wine maker Raymon Mckee. As we walk though the Chardonnay blocks Mimi teaches me what she's learned from the winemakers, and her experience. We practice tasting the fruit for ripeness. We pluck off a few grapes and squish them in our mouths. "We're looking for a balance between acid and sugar, chew the skins, are they crunchy, or squishy? Are you tasting green apple, or peach?" We spit out the seeds looking for brown seeds, a sign of ripeness, over green. Mimi's interest in what winemakers are looking for hasn't seen her make any of her own yet. (Though she does have her own Mimi bottling of Chardonnay.) She has made jam from some of the wine grapes but has yet to see any scores from Wine Spectator for those.
For Raymon Mckee a colleague like Mimi is a valuable asset to his work and reputation of Canoe Ridge. "It's very special to work with Mimi, because she knows intricate and minute details about the Vineyard, through decades of different seasons and growing conditions. Mimi has dedicated herself to Canoe Ridge Estate for more than 24 years, and the vines (and resulting wines) have gotten better each year because of her attention and passion."
"We continually find the small ways to make the wines better. For example, one of our top blocks of Merlot has an area with gravel and an area with deeper sand, running perpendicular to the rows. This results in some variability in ripening. Mimi lets me pick out the block at two different times, to get the riper gravel bar section a week or so before the deeper sandy section of the row. This has made the wine just a smidge better than if we picked out the row altogether. I could not make the wine as good as it wants to be (as great as it can be), without her input, experience and help.”