Celilo Vineyard Sold
Corliss Estates buys Esteemed Gorge site
By Stuart Watson
More grapes, more grape juice and more wine.
That’s about the only change Northwest winemakers — and consumers — can expect after the July sale of the much-celebrated Celilo Vineyard on Underwood Mountain, just north of Hood River on the Washington side of the Columbia River.
Nicole Backus, communications manager for the Columbia Gorge Winegrowers Association, confirmed the purchase in early July by Walla Walla-based Corliss Estates. Owners Michael and Laurie Corliss produce wine under their own name, and the Tranche Cellars brand.
“We believe the site is ideal for grapegrowing,” said Laurie. “We’ve always thought it was the best place in Washington to grow great Chardonnay; we always wanted that vineyard so we could make estate Chardonnay.”
For a decade, Michael has had his eye on Celilo — he has been sourcing Celilo grapes since 2001 — which now accompanies the couple’s vineyards in the Walla Walla, Yakima and Red Mountain AVAs.
“Having estate wines is important to our label,” Laurie said. “It gives us the opportunity to select the best fruit for our wineries.”
The company currently releases about 2,000 cases under the Corliss label, and about 4,000 cases under the Tranche brand — Laurie says the Celilo acquisition will help boost the latter.
Laurie credits Celilo as a significant factor in “one of the most special wines we make.” Backus agrees with the site’s fine reputation in the lower Columbia region. “It’s not the oldest, but it’s certainly the most well-known,” she said.
Longtime vineyard manager Rick Ensminger says he intends to remain involved, directly or in a consulting role, for the short term. He will work with Todd Harrington, vineyard manager for all Corliss properties. Corliss will eventually hire someone to assume on-site vineyard management, while Harrington shuttles between operations in and around Walla Walla.
Ensminger arrived at Celilo shortly after Seattle surgeon William McAndrew bought the property and planted its first vines in 1972. He was in the right place at the right time. First hired to manage the property’s orchards, Ensminger took over both the vineyard and orchard in January 1976.
The property encompasses two blocks, one at a higher elevation of about 80 acres, and a second block at lower elevation of just over 50 acres. Of the 80-acre block, 30 are planted in grapes and the rest in pears. Those trees will remain. Corliss plans to remove older pear trees from the lower property and convert those 20-plus acres to vines.
Rumors of a pending sale started circulating in Gorge wine circles toward the end of 2014. Speculation had Corliss partnering with Charles Smith Wines. Laurie Corliss confirmed that Smith was also interested, but there was no partnership.
The vineyard is focused on white varietals: Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, Gruner Veltliner, Pinot Noir, Muller-Thurgau and Lemberger. There’s also some Merlot.
Some of the grapes go to Columbia Gorge wineries, but good quantities ship to other notable Northwest labels. Savvy sippers can also find Celilo juice in wines from Woodward Canyon, Ken Wright Cellars, Abeja, Savage Grace, Gorman Winery and Ross Andrew Winery.
Other producers want a piece of the action, which explains the vineyard expansion. It wasn’t always that way.
“A lot of people thought we were crazy for getting into it up here,” Ensminger recalled.
He says the soil is remarkably deep volcanic ash, sloped perfectly to catch the southern sun, with enough rainfall to allow dry-land farming.
“We just happened to hit the right clone (Wente) in the right spot,” Ensminger said.
“Years and years ago, with that Chardonnay, we knew that it would be special for us, he said. “I’d go to a winery and say, ‘I’ll give you a couple of tons … and see what you think.’ Now, we have waiting lists.”
Existing customers should have no concerns, he says.
“There shouldn’t be any changes in the near future,” Ensminger says. “Corliss wants to honor the contracts we have and deal with the people we’ve been dealing with since the 1980s.”
Backus says sale of the Celilo suggests that the unique growing conditions of Columbia Gorge land have vaulted the region onto the radar of other Washington wineries.
“From a Washington perspective, this is the only region that has a cool-climate growing region,” Backus says.
Even though Celilo generally plays to the cool side, the super-warm summer of 2015 accelerated ripening and harvest. As he spoke about his 41 years at Celilo, and what the future holds, Ensminger in late August was already well into picking grapes and pears.
This is my 40th harvest. Last year was early,” Ensminger said. “This year breaks the record.”
A veteran Northwest newspaper and magazine reporter and editor, Stu Watson owns Watsonx2 Communications in Hood River.