By Paul Vigna
Chris Upchurch is at a point in his life where the temptation is to look back, at more than 26 years as a winemaker and partner at Washington state powerhouse DeLille Cellars, at stints as a wine merchant and culinary school and as a chef in restaurant kitchens, at trips to hundreds of wineries and vineyards and dining rooms around the globe.
“I’ve spent my adult lifetime discovering what is so unique about out here,” he said during a wide-ranging interview. “You know, it’s been wonderful for me.”
Still, the New Jersey native and Wine Industry Advisor pick for one of Wine’s Most Inspiring People 2018 has 18.5 acres on Red Mountain, overlooking the Yakima Valley, as his motivation to look ahead. He and wife Thea purchased the land more than 10 years ago, establishing Upchurch Vineyard for the future.
“My wife, she’s really the risk-taker,” Upchurch said. “She’s really the one that wanted me to start the Upchurch Vineyard. I’m sitting there going, you know, I’m at DeLille, and all this stuff. And she said, ‘You know, DeLille will never be generational.’ See, that’s the problem. I have too many partners at DeLille, so it will never be generational for me, and all this history and all these people that are generational; even Antinori has Col Solari up here in Washington State. He’s the 27th Antinori to make wine. How cool is that?”
Thea , Chris & Kelsey Upchurch
Three-plus hours east of the winery where Upchurch built his reputation, he calls this project a “back to the future kind of thing.” Back in the mid-1990s as DeLille was sinking its roots into the Washington wine industry, they were making 1,400 cases. Here, at Upchurch, he’s making 700 cases of what he calls “the finest wine I can make.” Sustainably farmed, certified by Salmon-Safe, an organization that protects urban watersheds, and a place where daughter Kelsey can make her mark.
“It’s basically for the next generation,” he said. “My daughter is already working for Upchurch Vineyard. She just got her business degree, so she wants to be a proprietor and run the business. You know, one of the distributors asked her, are you going to go to UC Davis and learn what your dad knows, and she said, ‘No, they work too hard. I just want to be owner.’” He laughed. “So she’s obviously smarter than I am and doing a great job.”
What Upchurch got from his father also set his career in motion, albeit the gift was much more wings than roots. His dad, he said, received his chemical engineering degree in fission from Columbia University in 1942 and was immediately sent to Los Alamos to join J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project, which developed the nuclear bomb. Later he would get his MBA and spend the rest of his career buying and selling uranium and plutonium for the Atomic Energy Commission and later for Exxon Nuclear.
“My dad traveled more than anyone I knew,” Upchurch said. “He was a million-miler before he was 35, and that’s when you had to take a plane and stop off in Iceland before you got to England. He really traveled a lot and he liked wine too, which was uncommon. Most dads back then drank either vodka or beer. But he was in Europe all the time, and in Australia, South America and so forth. He really liked wine, and he brought it home. I got early access to it, got the travel bug definitely from him, all the cool places he went to just really sunk in with me.”
While his dad provided the urge to fly, it was the father of Washington wines, David Lake, who might have had more influence on Upchurch’s current course than anyone else. The two met when Upchurch was a restaurant wine buyer in Seattle, and their friendship grew over time. Lake was the first U.S. winemaker to earn his Masters of Wine and is recognized, among other things, for making grapes such as Syrah a key part of a Washington industry that he joined in 1979.
And it wasn’t just Lake, Upchurch noted, adding he’s been fortunate enough to talk about blending trials with Paul Pontallier from Bordeaux’s Château Margaux and Jean-Louis Chave from his namesake house in northern Rhone, and then bring that wisdom back with him.
“Before me, some of the icons I learned from who were really founding fathers of the industry were just trying to find out what to plant where and how to do it, and, you know, they were just at the beginning of discovery” he said. “I always thought that my role in this thing was bring it up to the next level, bring kind of a global understanding of wine.”
Hanging their hat, as Upchurch terms it, on Bordeaux blends was the key to DeLille’s success at a time when California wineries were gaining distinction with them while Washington’s premium producers were immersed in making varietals. Said Dick Boushey, a longtime friend and associate of Upchurch and arguably Washington’s best grape grower, “I think in many ways Chris could take credit for one of Washington State’s biggest wine trends, the category of red wine blends, which is strong in the market today.”
Chris Upchurch and Dick Boushey
The Woodinville winery’s growth matched the rapid evolution of Washington’s industry, from around 200 wineries when it opened to more than 1,000 across the state today. “I think we are sexy right now for a number of reasons,” Upchurch said of the state’s industry. “I go back to the point of structure and ripeness. There aren’t many places in the world, there are some wines in the world, but there’s not too many places in the world that have that kind of combination.”
DeLille’s product line has expanded similarly, with Upchurch’s influences creating a portfolio that stretches through a number of Bordeaux and Rhone grapes and blends, one that has earned numerous high scores and accolades from a number of wine critics and publications. Even the White House has found an annual spot for its wines.
Said longtime critic David Schildknecht, formerly of the Wine Advocate and now with vinous.com: “I can’t say I know how he manages to do what he does, but I am in awe of his talent,” noting there are only three or four other Washington wineries “rendering wines at the quality level of DeLille and Upchurch, not to mention having done so for 25 years and with such a wide range of grapes and styles [taking account of the Doyenne label].”
Boushey said there are a couple things that have elevated Upchurch’s profile and impact on the Washington wine scene. One, he said, is his trained palate, created from his exposure to wines from around the world that “give him great reference points. “He knows where he wants to go with his wines and where they stand in the world of wine,” he said. Two, his thirst for wine knowledge, both in the present and past, complemented by what he has drawn from his vast experience in the vineyard. “He is especially good during harvest,” Boushey said. “Yes, he looks at numbers, but he is out tasting all the time to make picking decisions and he is decisive on when to pick, many winemakers are not.”
To Upchurch, the fun all these years has come from being what he calls a craftsman, making a product that people use, and the better the wine the more artisanship it requires. And for all the awards and accolades, he said, “you’ve got to realize you have two other vintages in your cellar that you’re working on, so that keeps you grounded a little bit and focused on the project ahead.
“People ask me about my goals, and I know it sounds a little hippyish, but I really don’t have a lot of goals because I’m just working the problem,” he added. “My goal is to do cool things. If I can do cool things, you know, then I’ll keep going.”
Kit Singh, Chris Upchurch, Jason Gorski (DeLille), Chris Peterson and Ross Mickel at 2015 legacy dinner: Washington Winemakers Tree Branches Out from Chris Upchurch Mentorship
Among those “cool things” is setting up Upchurch Vineyard for his bloodline to continue, who knows for how long. History, he told his employees at a recent dinner, has “told us that if you’re tied to the land and have a craft that’s tied to the land, you can outlive any tech company that’s only there until the next great thing happens.” He stopped and laughed. “Although [Bill] Gates has been pretty good at being the next great thing.”
Still, he said, Upchurch Vineyard will be that family wine from a single plot that can move the present into the future, “an artisan craft that could last forever if people have the right mindset.”