Located at the west end of the Horse Heaven Hills near Kennewick, Wash., Alderdale Vineyard supplies grapes to many of the state’s wineries — but mainly to Ste. Michelle.
“Horse Heaven Hills is a unique growing area for raising wines, especially Cabernet. This is why St. Michelle wines have such a good name,” said Al Fountain, Alderdale’s owner.
Ste. Michelle utilizes grapes from many locations, but has been focusing on the Horse Heavens area.
“They are currently building a large crush facility called Long Rifle, in Alderdale, that will only be crushing Cabernet,” he said.
Alderdale Vineyard also raises grapes for Gallo, Constellation and at least 15 other wineries, and grows 18 varieties.
“I will be adding two new varieties over the next few years,” Fountain said.
Raising good wine grapes is more complicated than it looks.
“I don’t know if I am the best at it, but I hire the best people I can find, and we have a very good team,” he said, adding that several years ago he produced 8% of all the Cabernet grown in the state of Washington.
The climate and growing area are ideal for Cabernet.
“Only one American wine has been rated number one in the world by Wine Spectator magazine, and that was a Ste. Michelle wine raised about 4 miles from my farm,” said Fountain.
In 2009 he heard that St. Michelle was offering contracts.
“I called the grower relations department, and set an appointment to look at my farm. The person in charge of that came out to take a look at it. After touring my 3,000 acres in the Horse Heaven Hills I told them I’d like to plant about 40 acres, and they wanted me to plant 300 acres. This farm I bought 31 years ago was perfect for growing grapes,” Fountain says.
St. Michelle liked what they saw and kept asking him to grow more. He now has 1,500 acres of grapes along with 1,000 acres of alfalfa and Timothy hay.
“I also raise Grenache, and after buying another vineyard beside mine I have some of the oldest Grenache in Washington. Paul Bianci won number one wine in Washington with my Grenache,” he said. “I also raise Sauv Blanc for St. Michelle. I planted the largest block of petit Syrah in Washington in 2005.”
The California and Washington wine industries have overplanted and some farms are tearing out their vineyards and planting other crops, he said.
“Ste. Michelle is canceling contracts as the wine industry has slowed down, but no one has canceled any of my contracts. The focus is now on quality rather than quantity. The high-quality wines continue to increase sales but the lower end is struggling,” he said.
Grape vines don’t produce their best quality fruit until their 25th year and later.
“A friend of mine saw some vines in Australia that were planted in 1830. Wine grapes can last a long time,” he explained.
“I do not bottle any wine; I just produce the grapes. To plant the vines today the cheapest you can do it will cost about $35,000 per acre — about $15,000 for the ground with water rights and about $20,000 to plant it — and you wait three years for first production,” he said. “If you also want to get into the wine business — to make and bottle the wine — it costs even more, to set up your crush facilities, do the marketing, etc. I chose just to grow the grapes.”
When you walk into Safeway there’s usually a whole aisle devoted to wines — of many brands and qualities. Will the customer pick your bottle out of maybe 1,000 different bottles?
“Just getting shelf space is an accomplishment. Marketing is the key, and the label is very important, but purchasing quality grapes from the farmer is the first step to building a strong label,” he said.