Horse Heaven Hills, A Washington Wine Region on the Rise

Horse Heavens Wallula Vineyard
Aerial view over Precept harvest at Wallula Vineyard, Horse Heaven Hills AVA, Washington. / Photo by: Andrea Johnson

Horse Heaven Hills is a region of unsurpassed physical beauty. It is also home to nearly a third of Washington State’s wine grape acreage. A large amount of production occurs in the appellation, which also boasts a rich agricultural history. Yet many barely know this viticultural outpost exists. Fewer have been there.

Cowboy Country

Eastern Washington, where almost all the state’s wine grapes are grown, is a desert where 30 or more miles might separate one far flung town from another.

Even by those standards, Horse Heaven Hills is remote.

“It’s in the middle of nowhere,” says Rob Mercer, president of Mercer Estate Winery, ICAN and Mercer Ranches. “It’s hard to get to. There’s not much up here but a few families and a few vineyards.”

That is not hyperbole. The closest town of any real size is 40 or more minutes away from most vineyards. The area doesn’t even have a gas station, stranding more than a few winemakers over the years.

When you crest the top of the Horse Heaven’s broad plateau, it’s immediately apparent why cowboy James Kinney proclaimed it “horse heaven” in 1857. Grasslands and agricultural crops stretch as far as the eye can see.

“It almost feels like you’re in Iowa or Kansas,” says Kate Michaud, winemaker at Double Canyon. “It’s just all wheat and grapes.”

The gleaming, mile-plus-wide Columbia River draws the appellation’s southern boundary. The whole region looks more like a set location for a Western than wine country.

“The ruggedness and the vast, wide-openness of the landscape is really hard to appreciate until you get here,” says Jeff Andrews, managing partner of Andrews Family Vineyards.

Horse Heaven Hills Champoux Vineyard and Old vine grapes Columbia Crest Winery
From left, Champoux Vineyards; Right, Old Vine grapes at Columbia Crest Winery. / Photo by: Andrea Johnson

A Long Agricultural History

Horse Heaven Hills’ history as an agricultural region is intertwined with two multigenerational farming families: the Mercers, who farm 2,000 acres of vineyards in the area, and the Andrews, who farm nearly 4,000 of the region’s roughly 17,000 acres under vine.

The Mercers came to the Horse Heavens in 1886, when Willis Mercer purchased land there to raise sheep. The Andrews family’s ancestors, George and Mabel Smith, moved to the area in 1940 to start a farm.

Neither family would have an easy time of it, given the remoteness and scant rainfall of six to nine inches annually. Things got considerably harder for the Smiths, however, when the federal government seized their farm to use as a firing range in 1941.

“They were given 48 hours to leave the property,” says Andrews, the Smiths’ grandson. Still, the Smiths persisted, ultimately breaking ground on an astonishing 100,000 acres of farmland.

Life got easier for the Mercers when irrigation arrived in 1968, leveraging the nearby Columbia River. Come 1972, Don Mercer, one of Willis’s grandchildren, and his wife, Linda, planted the area’s first vineyard, Mercer Ranch.

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Six years later, Chateau Ste. Michelle began establishing a largescale vineyard, hiring Paul Champoux to oversee planting. Today, Ste. Michelle has two of its three estate vineyards in the appellation, plus a sister winery, Columbia Crest, and it contracts the lion’s share of the appellation’s fruit.

“I really didn’t know a whole lot about grapes at that time, but I grew up in the hop industry, so I knew trellis wires and anchors in installation of perennial crops,” says Champoux.

He would help plant more than 2,000 acres and eventually buy Mercer Ranch with a small group of wineries. Rebranding it with his own name, Champoux would elevate quality in the region to stratospheric heights before semi-retiring in 2014.

The Andrews family entered the grape-growing business in 1980. “They grew all sorts of things,” says Andrews. “Corn, sugar beets at one point, mint. I mean, they tried everything.” Why not wine grapes?

A Goldilocks Zone for Viticulture

Given the area’s remoteness and vastness—the appellation is 570,000 total acres in size—Horse Heaven Hills seems an unlikely place for a major viticultural region. But its broad, south-facing benches and slopes soak up the desert sun, allowing grapes to ripen without overripening.

“It’s hot out here, but it’s not overwhelmingly hot,” says Andrews. The area also has remarkably consistent soils of windblown sand and silt.

“There are regions in the wine world where you can go from this side of the road to that side of the road and go from gravel to clay,” says Kevin Corliss, vice president of vineyards at Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. “In the Horse Heaven Hills, you have very uniform soils over thousands and thousands of acres.”

The soils are also well-drained, ideal for irrigated viticulture.

“Our sites have even soil profiles with little slope that allow us to distribute water extremely evenly,” says Paul Golitzin, president and director of winemaking at Quilceda Creek, which has sourced 90% of its fruit from the Horse Heaven Hills since 2002. “This gives us incredible control and even vigor in all our vineyard blocks.”

The area also has persistent wind—so much so that there is a wind farm across the river. In addition to making vines struggle, the wind and proximity of the Columbia River reduce the risk of frosts and freezes, the Achilles’ heel of Washington viticulture. The result is a long, warm growing season, with cool nights that lock in acidity—and not just for wine grapes.

“Our cool temperatures at night keep that crispness and brightness in the fruit,” says Mercer. “You can see it in everything from apples to wine to carrots.”

Horse Heaven Hills Ste. Michelle's Canoe Ridge Estate
Ste. Michelle’s Canoe Ridge Estate, Horse Heaven Hills / Photo by Andrea Johnson

Cabernet Country

In terms of wine, Cabernet Sauvignon is unquestionably the star. “At their best, they have a highly aromatic perfume with a generous range of black and blue fruits that are rich and powerful in flavor, yet maintain a sense of grace and finesse,” says Golitzin.

“They have this amazing combination of density, intensity and richness and elegance,” agrees Ray McKee, winemaker at Trothe.

Any discussion of red wines quickly leads to the appellation’s distinctive tannins.

“I get a consistent dusty cocoa profile,” says Michaud. “It’s not actually the quantity of tannins. It’s the shape of them or how they read, like a cocoa-covered almond.”

“They have a fluffy texture,” says Juan Muñoz-Oca, chief winemaker at Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. “The tannins are evident, but they’re soft and silky. It’s a common thread through all of the red wines we grow in the Horse Heaven Hills, whether it’s a $100-plus bottle or an $11.99, everyday wine.” While Cabernet takes center stage, elevations range from 300–1,800 feet above sea level, allowing a wide range of varieties to succeed. “We make some of our best Cabernet in the Horse Heavens, but at the same time we make some of our best Riesling,” says Muñoz-Oca.

Horse Heaven Hills Merce Estates
Mercer Estates, Horse Heaven Hills, Washington. / Photo by: Andrea Johnson

A Region on the Rise

While the Horse Heaven Hills has proven itself as a grape-growing region many times over in the past 50 years, the area’s recognition remains stubbornly behind its output. Most fruit goes to larger producers that often use it in Columbia Valley-labeled wines. Additionally, the appellation only has five wineries, two of which are not open to the public. There are also no amenities.

“There’s nowhere to hang out,” says Morgan Lee, co-owner and winemaker at Two Vintners. “There’s nowhere to eat. There’s nowhere to get gas. Good luck with [cell] reception. If the grapes and the people farming them weren’t worth it, there’s just no way.”

Despite its top-quality fruit, many of the state’s smaller producers do not source grapes from the appellation.

“We’re very remote,” says Mercer, whose family also started an eponymous winery in 2005. “I think that’s kind of kept a lot of folks away.”

In the last decade, however, some wineries have started sourcing grapes from the Horse Heavens, including several high-end projects.

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One of the latter is Trothe, launched by the Andrews family in 2021. “In my mind, the Horse Heaven Hills is one of the most overlooked and underrated wine regions,” says Andrews. “We’re trying to do our part to change that.”

Meanwhile, Quilceda Creek has doubled down on Horse Heaven Hills. The winery recently purchased additional acreage at Champoux Vineyard, the principal component of its heralded Columbia Valley Cabernet. It also established another site, Mach One, giving the winery three vineyards in the appellation.

“We continue to see it as the ideal region not only in Washington state but in the West Coast in general to create the perfect Cabernet Sauvignon,” says Golitzin.

An enormous amount of viticulture already takes place in the Horse Heavens, but there is also plenty of room for growth. “Along the Patterson ridgeline, there’s thousands of acres of virgin ground,” notes Muñoz-Oca.

While the Horse Heavens have long been hidden in eastern Washington’s vast expanse, there is no doubt the appellation will inevitably achieve greater recognition. Just as certain, it will remain farm country rather than evolve into a wine tourism hub. Its remoteness ensures that.

“We’re just waiting for Hilton to put in a hotel,” jokes Mercer. “It’s going to be a long time before there’s much activity in terms of tours and tastings. It’s a beautiful area, but there’s just a few of us lonely farmers out here.”

Horse Heaven Hills Wines to Try

Quilceda Creek 2018 Palengat Cabernet Sauvignon; $200, Cellar Selection. The Horse Heaven Hills is holy ground for Cabernet Sauvignon in Washington. Aromas of dark cherry, raspberry, incense and wood spice lead to creamy, sneaky rich, layered fruit flavors…SEE SCORE AND FULL REVIEW

Passing Time 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon; $85, Cellar Selection. Discovery Vineyard (55%) takes the lead on this wine, followed by Champoux (25%) and…SEE SCORE AND FULL REVIEW

Avennia 2019 Champoux Vineyard Cabernet Franc; $50, Cellar Selection This is 100% varietal, all from this esteemed site. The variety immediately announces itself, with notes of whole green pepper, fresh herbs…SEE SCORE AND FULL REVIEW

Two Vintners 2019 Some Days Are Diamonds Discovery Vineyard Syrah; $50, Cellar Selection The aromas offer notes of roasted coffee bean, Satsuma orange, plum and sage,…SEE SCORE AND FULL REVIEW

Andrew Januik 2019 Lady Hawk Cabernet Sauvignon; $50, Editors’ Choice Coming from a vineyard managed by esteemed grower Paul Champoux, this wine boasts aromas offering notes of cocoa, dark chocolate, scorched earth,…SEE SCORE AND FULL REVIEW

Chateau Ste. Michelle 2019 Horse Heaven Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc; $15, Best Buy The aromas are effusive, with notes of lemon zest, fresh herbs and wet stone…SEE SCORE AND FULL REVIEW

King Cab 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon; $20, Editors’ Choice Fruit for this wine comes from high-density plantings at McNary Vineyard. The aromas are reserved, with notes of coffee, dried and fresh herbs and chocolateSEE SCORE AND FULL REVIEW

Canoe Ridge 2018 The Explorer Cabernet Sauvignon; $23, Editors’ Choice The aromas offer notes of toasty barrel spice, bittersweet chocolate, licorice and…SEE SCORE AND FULL REVIEW

Double Canyon 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon; $25. This producer always delivers varietal- and appellation-revealing Cabernet. This wine displays notes of clove, vanilla, dark chocolate, cherry and…SEE SCORE AND FULL REVIEW

H3 2019 Red Blend; $14, Best Buy A blend of Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, this starts out reductive, which blows off with time. Behind that are notes of blue fruit, chocolate…SEE SCORE AND FULL REVIEW

This article originally appeared in the April 2022 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

Published on April 11, 2022
Topics: Wine and Ratings