Extreme Viticulture: Up the Mountain to WeatherEye


As you might imagine, over many decades of writing about wine I’ve visited thousands of vineyards on four different continents. But about a week ago I was escorted up and down and around the steep, rocky terrain of the most unlikely, challenging and uniquely beautiful vineyard I’ve ever seen. And it is just an hour’s drive from my home. It’s called WeatherEye.

I first became interested in this project when WeatherEye winemaker Todd Alexander poured me wines from the first release a couple of years ago. Since then I’ve had WeatherEye wines from other producers as well, notably Liminal, Kevin White and Devium. The more I tasted, the more I wanted to see the place that was generating such remarkable wines.

The vineyard crosses the top of Red Mountain, starting above the Force Majeure vineyard and climbing from 950 to 1410 feet of elevation. After reaching the top of Red Mountain it continues down the steep north face, overlooking the Yakima river and the Hanford Reach. That part is out of the Red Mountain AVA, which is why some WeatherEye wines bear the Columbia Valley appellation.

I rode around the site with vineyard manager Ryan Johnson and his assistant Fergus. Ryan has almost 25 years of experience managing Red Mountain vineyards (previously Ciel du Cheval and Force Majeure). Once hired to plot out WeatherEye, he spent the better part of his first year just walking the 360 acres to map and fully understand the aspects, soils, and wind patterns. His deep knowledge of the AVA was a good start, but the terrain at WeatherEye is utterly unique. In the end, he confides, he made his best guesses at matching clone and variety to trellising technique for each specific location.

As of this spring WeatherEye has 37 planted acres of 13 different Rhône, Bordeaux, and Spanish varieties spread across 70 separate and distinct blocks. It’s farmed, says Johnson, as a collection of “micro-blocks” – each designed and managed in terms of planting density and trellising to match the soil, topography, wind and sun exposure of the site. There are seven different vine training systems and 15 different vine spacings being tried, and more on the way. Two thirds of the vines are head-trained, typically to either a single stake (en echalas) or pruned to an open ‘bush vine’ architecture – traditional techniques from the Rhône Valley. Vine densities range from 300 plants per acre to over 4,000 per acre in the meter-by-meter blocks.

“We started with a really interesting piece of property and a belief that we could try and make something great,” says vineyard owner Cam Myhrvold. He began purchasing this wild, undeveloped land in 20 years ago. There was no way to know how – or even if – it would work as vineyard, or if the resulting fruit could ever justify the herculean labor and massive costs of the project. It wasn’t until 15 years later that the first grapes were harvested and the first wines were produced.

None of these blocks was easy to plant. Some of them are on amazingly steep terrain – the steepest I’ve ever seen outside of Italy’s Cinque Terre or the Rhine in Germany. In some sections the soil has significant amounts of fractured basalt. In every section the vines must be hand tended and harvested. Most of the blocks are quite small, low yielding, and micro-matched to the terrain.

Something like a dozen different winemakers have been able to obtain WeatherEye grapes (there’s a waiting list for more). I reached out to several to ask what in their view makes the wines from this site stand out. Devyani Gupta, who is the winemaker and viticulturist at Valdemar Estates, sent this thoughtful reply.

DG:  “From a winemaking perspective, the ‘extreme viticulture’ of WeatherEye does translate into the wines; in my opinion, there are 4 main factors that shape the wines from WeatherEye, and it can vary from block to block depending on these variables:

  1. Interplanting head-trained vines with the native sage brush (which then gives a slight, cooling, wild herbal tone to the wines); in many cases the native flora comes in contact with the clusters
  2. Vine training method and planting – for example the density of the en echalas trained vines
  3. The wind at the top of Red Mountain
  4. Aspect of each block (in some cases the aspect shifts within the block creating a ‘blend’ of characteristics)

“We have worked with stake-trained Grenache noir and found it to be the most concentrated and delightfully chewy Grenache I have worked with so far in Washington. As of 2023, we have been fortunate to work with a Syrah block at the top of the vineyard where the aspect tilts north-facing. We very much enjoyed the concentration of color and flavor from the high-density planting, but also the balance of sugar/acid ripening being an excellent fit for our style. We were able to harvest with ~13.6% alcohol potential, but with the same (if not more) concentration and vibrancy as lower down the mountain, and a higher titratable acidity. Furthermore, this block has more sparse native vegetation compared to some of the other blocks, and it shows in the wine having less of this “sage-y” character compared to the other blocks of Syrah. A key takeaway being that each carefully plotted block is distinct as the scale slides on each of these 4 factors.”

PG:  Given its inaccessible terrain this is not a vineyard you can visit without a guide and an appointment. You can taste the wines by visiting the Atelier Freewater. And by all means I urge you to get on the mailing list while it’s still open. Joining the list provides access to an allocation of current and future releases.


WeatherEye 2022 Estate Roussanne

This is pure varietal, the third vintage for these young vines, and each year  brings more concentration, layering of fruit flavors, texture and depth. Wildflowers, citrus, lemon zest, spice and sandalwood contribute to the overall palate. The flavors continue to develop through a long finish, with clover and bee pollen and lemon drop adding their notes to the orchestra. Fermented in 30% new French oak, the rest a mix of amphora and neutral oak, this next spent 10 months in barrel and amphora before moving to stainless steel. It’s impossible to overstate the wealth of flavor and expressive ebullience of this wine. It was at its peak after 24 hours, and on the third day it was still showing new accents and an impossibly long finish. I have never had a better Roussanne. 62 cases; 14.7%; $85 (Columbia Valley) 98/100

WeatherEye 2022 Estate Marsanne

The blend includes 14% Roussanne, filling out the mid-palate and amping up the floral aromas and feral notes from wild yeasts. The concentrated mid-palate is stacked with citrus, candied pineapple and dried apricot. There’s an appealing dusty character to the mouthfeel, and as it breathes the wine adds a seam of toasted  cashews, caramel and toffee to the flavors. All these WeatherEye whites respond beautifully to breathing time, and expand and explore new flavor territory after being open for up to a full day. Please give them that chance and by all means don’t overchill them. 84 cases; 14.8%; $85 (Columbia Valley) 96/100

WeatherEye 2022 L’atomique Estate White Wine

A murky straw/gold, this blend mixes 36% Viognier, 32% Roussanne, 22% Grenache Blanc, 7% Clairette and 3% Marsanne – different from 2021, with much more Grenache Blanc. The grapes were de-stemmed, whole-berry-fermented on skins for three weeks; all free-run, then given 10 months in neutral 600 liter demi-muid, and five more months in stainless steel. This is a splendid wine, deep and packed with flowers, fruits, spices and herbs. There is so much detail in this young wine that picking out specifics is not worth trying – just soak your palate in the magnificent whole. From the first sniff to the last sip this is memorable, innovative and absolutely thrilling. 72 cases; 15.2%; $85 (Columbia Valley) 96/100

WeatherEye 2021 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon

This new vintage blends the Cabernet Sauvignon with 5% Merlot and 3% Cabernet Franc. Fermented in stainless steel and concrete, it then spent 22 months in three quarters new French oak barriques. It’s packed with cassis and blackberry fruit, with nice accents of baking spices, cinnamon, sandalwood and more. The tannins are lightly grainy, fully ripened and bring a sense of roasted, slightly charred highlights. There’s a sweetness to the fruit than takes some of the edge off the astringent tannins. This will reward aggressive aeration/decanting. 145 cases; 15%; $150 (Red Mountain) 94/100

WeatherEye 2021 The Raven’s Share

This Bordeaux style blend from the Red Mountain AVA side of the vineyard is 36% Cabernet Franc, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon and 29% Merlot. The grapes were fermented in stainless steel and concrete, then spent 22 months in 60% new French oak barriques. I search in vain for a comparison; among the thousands of Washington state Bordeaux blends I’ve tasted, this hits different highlights and sets a different standard. The breadth and depth of flavor are impressive, and the layering of fruits, spices and delicate savory notes keeps the palate lively and changing by the second. The three varieties contribute equally, with none dominant. Brambly berries, thistle, wild herbs, rocky soil and a hint of baking spices are all in play, but this is the sort of wine that can’t be pinned down. It’s in constant motion, teasing and tantalizing, dense and juicy. Will it age? For sure. But right now it’s sensational. I’m hoping the Raven isn’t saying we’ll “Nevermore!” see another this good. 88 cases; 14.8%; $150 (Red Mountain) 98/100 

WeatherEye 2021 Estate Grenache

All Grenache, all estate, 30% whole cluster fermentation in concrete, than 18 months in large format neutral French oak. That’s the recipe for this powerful, fruity wine. Dive into a dense weave of blueberries, blackberries, loganberries, black cherries and more. Light accents of blood orange keep the acids lively. The tannins are firm and ripe, and pleasantly savory highlights abound as the wine trails down through the finish. If you love big, bold Grenache but not the funky stuff in some high profile examples, this is the wine for you. 169 cases; 15%; $85 (Red Mountain) 96/100

WeatherEye 2021 Estate Syrah

Just 3% Graciano was blended in; the Syrah was fermented in concrete and aged in 60% new French large format oak. This is great Syrah, and set apart in style from other top tier examples from Walla Walla, Rocky Reach and other sites on the Mountain and in the Yakima Valley. A mix of dried straw, herbs, wildflowers, bee pollen and sandalwood elevate the wine and push the pure fruit into a bit of a supporting role. Blueberries are the dominant flavor, with juicy acids and the drying finish that often comes with concrete fermentation. More nuanced flavors trail out the finish:  licorice, black tea, espresso and tobacco. 214 cases; 14.9%; $85 (Red Mountain) 95/100

WeatherEye 2021 Estate Mourvèdre 

You can search high and low to find wines with such distinction at such prices. Given the youth of the vines it seems likely that the best is yet to come from this exceptional site. This pure varietal wine was fermented in stainless steel, 15% whole cluster, and aged 18 months in large format neutral wood. To showcase what is often a blending variety and have it fulfill all the obligations of a center stage, single vineyard, single variety wine is akin to magic. This is broad and expanded across the palate with flavors of sage and dried mushrooms and compost around black cherry fruit. Tannins are supportive, not aggressive, and the wine hangs on through a resonant finish. It’s a rare experience to taste a Washington Mourvèdre this good. 106 cases; 14.6%; $85 (Red Mountain) 95/100

WeatherEye 2021 Estate Tempranillo

Pure varietal, this is so dark it’s black in the center, thick with tannins and dense with black fruits, this is a blockbuster of a red wine. Fermented in stainless steel and concrete, then aged for almost two years in 50% new French oak, this is a steak lover’s wine. The match of fruit and tannin is spot on, and the wine lingers as the grainy tannins leave a drying trail of roasted coffee beans and dark chocolate. 145 cases; 15%; $85 (Red Mountain) 94/100

Catching Up – Highlights from recent tastings

Long Walk Vineyard

Long Walk Vineyard 2023 Rosé – Estate grown Cinsault, Grenache and Mourvèdre are in the blend. It’s got a tongue-tickling minerality, light citrus and strawberry fruit, and pleasing freshness. 391 cases; 12.7%; $23 (Rogue Valley) 90/100

Long Walk Vineyard 2022 Carignane – This variety may be unfamiliar to many wine drinkers, and a stretch for others, as it often makes light, even pale red wines at low alcohol. This new vintage drops the alcohol down below 13%, which is fine but definitely ups the acidity. Aromatically delightful, with floral and fruit in equal measure, this jumps into cranberries, strawberries and raspberries mid-palate, with a touch of spice from one quarter new French oak as it trails out the finish. 88 cases; 12.8%; $40 (Rogue Valley) 92/100

Long Walk Vineyard 2022 Field Notes Red – A southern Rhône blend of Grenache, Mourvèdre, Carignane and Syrah (50%), all vinified separately, this aromatic and immediately delicious wine should inspire other Rogue Valley producers to follow along the trail. Tangy, spicy, packed with berries and underscored with wet stone minerality, it’s refreshing, palate-cleansing and yet modest in alcohol so it doesn’t tire out the palate. 20% of the barrels were new, and a wisp of milk chocolate frames the finish. 232 cases; 13.1%; $30 (Rogue Valley) 92/100

Long Walk Vineyard 2022 Zinfandel – Consistent with past vintages, this is an elegant wine, balanced and offering tangled aromas of brambly berry, savory herb, citrus skin, hints of pine needles and clean earth. The flavors follow along the same lines, clear and clean with bright raspberry and red plum fruit at the core. The wine aged 11 months in one quarter new French oak barrels, apparently with very light toast. From start to finish this is a thoughtful, modulated, complete and interesting wine. 139 cases; 14.1%; $45 (Rogue Valley) 92/100

Ocelli Cellars

Ocelli 2022 White Grenache Noir – This is tasty stuff, lightly toasty, full-bodied and loaded with a pleasing mix of stone fruits. Pale gold, it’s not as rich as the alcohol might suggest, but packs plenty of details. Highlights include breakfast tea, lemon oil and lemon verbena, trailing out through a long, inviting finish. Sadly just one barrel was produced. 27 cases; 14.7%; $28 (Yakima Valley) 91/100

Ocelli 2020 Grenache – The winery produces two single vineyard Grenache bottlings; one from French Creek and one from Upland. This wine is a blend of both. It’s on the pale side, more like a dark rosé; aromatic with scents of violets. The fruit brings strawberries and raspberries front and center in a tasty mid-palate, then trails out with touches of sandalwood and cinnamon. 196 cases; 13%; $28 (Columbia Valley) 90/100

Ocelli 2020 French Creek Vineyard Grenache – Among the three wines tasted this is the most concentrated, with focused cherry fruit and a whiff of pastry. Done in a clean, drink now style, it spent 20 months in neutral French oak prior to bottling, and was released last October. 98 cases; 13.3%; $38 (Yakima Valley) 90/100

Ocelli 2020 Upland Vineyard Grenache – Subtle, elegant and light, this will appeal to those who favor nuance over power. Lightly layered with citrus, orange, strawberry, pie crust and white pepper, it’s best enjoyed lightly chilled. 75 cases; 13.8%; $38 (Snipes Mountain) 91/100

Events & Tastings Coming Up

Oregon AAPI Food & Wine Fest

Celebrating the rich culinary heritage of the AAPI community, this event returns for its second year. It will take place at Stoller Family Estate the weekend of May 18-19. A tribute to the diverse contributions of AAPI Chefs and Winemakers within the Willamette Valley, it’s a chance for attendees to experience the unique flavors and stories behind the wines and dishes.

Event founder and Executive Director Lois Cho explains that “currently there are 12 known AAPI wineries out of the 1,000+ wineries in Oregon. We’re excited to have representation from nine of them this year at the Fest. This event and our dinners in Portland are really a way to bring together the rich food and wine industry we have to offer here in Oregon, highlighting AAPI vineyards and restaurants.”

Sauvage 2024

This exploration of Oregon Sauvignon Blanc (a wine I dearly love) includes a tasting at the Durant Olive Mill and a moderated panel discussion on the history of the grape. Scheduled for May 18th, there will be two tasting sessions after the panel discussion. Separate tickets are required for each event. A dozen wineries will pour their wines, paired with light apps.

Salon de Vin

This will be held the evening of May 18th at Amaterra Winery. Now in its third year, it benefits a trio of youth and family-oriented non-profits. A dozen wineries will be pouring their best, including such cult-worthy names as 00 (Double Zero), Antica Terra, Bledsoe|McDaniels, Force Majeure and Holocene.

The Centennial of Biodynamics

The Demeter Biodynamic Certified wineries of Oregon will share their wines at a pair of events commemorating the centennial of Rudolf Steiner’s Agriculture Lectures, which began a voyage of discovery called Biodynamics. There are two separate wine tasting events in the works – one on June 6th for the trade and media, the other June 8th open to the public. As of this post participating wineries are Analemma, Art + Science, Brick House, Brooks, Cooper Mountain, Cowhorn, Domaine Willamette, Johan, King Estate, Montinore, Soter, Troon, Upper Five and Winderlea.

Vintage Lake Chelan

Celebrating a 15th anniversary for Lake Chelan winemakers, this Grand Tasting takes place on May 30th, with wines from Vin du Lac and other wineries in the AVA. Washington Wine Commission Marketing Director David Flaherty will lead a winemaker panel discussion. Tickets are $45.

Winemakers and Wine Marketers:  I have been meaning to clarify my current wine tasting process. I do not taste wines for review anywhere except at home under very tightly controlled conditions. I do not do barrel tastings. I do not attend big trade tastings. On occasion I schedule winery visits in order to walk the vineyard, learn more about your approach to winemaking, talk trade. I can then bring home wines to taste and review. I am also open to having winemakers visit me in Waitsburg at a mutually convenient time. I open no more than a half dozen wines at a time and almost always retaste them repeatedly over 48 – 72 hours. I use specific stemware and eliminate all distractions – no smells, no food, no music, just me and the wines. It is the best way I know to give young wines a good chance to show their very best.

Paul Gregutt
Paul Gregutt
Paul Gregutt has been covering the wines and wineries of the Pacific Northwest since the mid-1980s. From 2002 to 2012 he wrote a weekly wine column for the Seattle Times and authored two critically-acclaimed editions of ‘Washington Wines & Wineries – The Essential Guide’ (UC Berkeley Press). He served as the Northwest editor for Wine Enthusiast magazine from 1998 until 2022. Early on he was an original staff member of both the Seattle Weekly and KZAM-FM. He lives with his wife Karen and his rescue dog Cookie in Waitsburg (pop. 1204), a farm community about 20 miles NE of Walla Walla. When not tasting and writing about wine he writes songs, plays guitar and sings in his band the DavePaul5 (davepaul5.com) Follow his writing at PaulG on Wine, paulgregutt.substack.com, and in the Waitsburg Times.



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