The following article was written by Ryan Messer. Read previous articles by Messer here.
Iconic. It is the first word that comes to mind when I think of DuBrul Vineyard. Some vineyards produce a single high quality variety, but few can succeed with multiple. However, wines made from the six grape varietals grown by DuBrul have received awards or distinction from nearly every outlet possible, from local to regional to national.
Located in the heart of the Yakima Valley appellation, DuBrul Vineyards is the work and passion of Dr. Hugh Shiels, an orthopedic surgeon by trade, and his wife, Kathy. The Shiels owned a home in rural Sunnyside, Washington, where they grew concord grapes and asparagus they had planted in 1977. They enjoyed drinking wine and eventually developed a passion for it. Taking the farming knowledge they had, they decided to explore the idea of growing their own wine grapes to make wine as good as they were drinking, or perhaps even better.
In 1991, after researching available land in the area, the family purchased a plot of land five miles from their home. The land was an apple orchard and also had four acres of Riesling planted in 1983. With the assistance of Dr. Wade Wolfe, who was intimately involved in the Shiels’ love and consumption of wine, the Shiels dug and studied the soil, determining what would grow best on each piece of land and how to manage it.
The soil varies from rocky with high calcium carbonate levels to alluvial with layers of volcanic ash, most recently from Mt. St. Helens in 1980. Regardless of location in the vineyard, the soil is very low vigor.
In 1992, after removing the trees and much testing, the Shiels planted their first Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay vines. Wolfe’s expertise – he has a Ph.D. in plant genetics, a Ph.D. thesis on grape genetics, and years of viticulture and enology work with numerous wineries in Washington – proved invaluable in helping select the proper placement for each variety, taking soil, temperature and water into account for each. The direction of the vines were also discussed to be laid out in such a way that cool air washes through the vineyard without being trapped, helping prevent winter freezing.
After planting 45 acres of vineyard, the Shiels reserved 21 acres for greenbelt, wildlife management and pest control. It helps protect from wind erosion and reduces the reliance on pesticide spray of most any kind. Among the control is woods rose and yellow currant. They flank the vineyards offering a different food source to birds and insects as opposed to the berries on the vine and also provide a home for some insects to keep other pests away.
With a sloping terrace on three sides of the vineyard, proper water management is vital or the soil of the lowest vines could become saturated. Vineyard manager Larry Dolan, who has been with DuBrul since the beginning, now has each block under intense micromanagement. Drip lines irrigate in segments, even within a given block providing only what each individual vine needs to survive and produce to DuBrul standards.
One aspect of the management that intrigued me most is the vineyard team. Aside from the tractor driver, only women work in the vineyards. From February through November, they prune, thin and harvest the vines because Shiels believes they are “more nurturing and with a more delicate hand than any man can provide.” And like Dolan, some have been with the vineyard for two decades.
Dr. Shiels mused that DuBrul sees its winemakers less and less frequently every year. That’s because after nearly 20 years of selling to various wineries, they are trusted to provide as close to desired numbers (brix, pH and total acidity) for the fruit as possible. The wineries know what to expect, which is a testament to what the vineyard team has accomplished since the first harvest.
Dr. Shiels also believes the family has a great opportunity to truly represent the fruit they grow that now includes Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc and Syrah. They launched Côte Bonneville winery with their signature Bordeaux blend, Côte Bonneville DuBrul Vineyard Red Wine, in 2001. Stan Clarke, who had been an integral part of the vineyard team since 1996, was the first winemaker until his passing in 2007. The Shiels’ daughter, Kerry, has been the winemaker since 2009 after receiving her Masters in Viticulture and Enology from U.C. Davis and working for winery powerhouses Joseph Phelps and Robert Mondavi, among others.
Taking all of the above into account, it is still remarkable that the team has been able to harvest six world-class quality varietals – something that would not only be impossible in many parts of Europe; it might even be illegal. Developing similar subtleties and nuances of premium Bordeaux, Burgundy, Northern Rhone and German wines in one location takes extreme dedication, maybe a miracle.
All the while, the Shiels family remains humble and appreciative for every accolade they, and the winemakers they sell to, receive. While on a vineyard tour in August, Dr. Shiels told a story about a trip Kerry took to Europe. He was almost overcome with emotion as he described her walking into a café in Barbaresco and seeing an empty bottle of Côte Bonneville on a shelf. When asked why it was perched there, the owner replied he had been told it was one of the world’s finest representations of a Bordeaux blend, and he agreed.
Today, you can find DuBrul fruit producing beautiful bottles from Owen Roe, Woodward Canyon, Rasa Vineyards and nearly a dozen others in the state making them a truly iconic vineyard.
Picture of Shiels family and bottle shot courtesy of Côte Bonneville.
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Editor’s Note: The uniqueness of DuBrul Vineyard displays itself distinctly in the resulting wines. Regardless of the producer, DuBrul is marked by the soft feel of its tannins that belie their underlying structure. The result is wines that seduce with sophistication and restraint rather than overwhelming with sheer power. Reviews below, as always, by Sean P. Sullivan.
Côte Bonneville Chardonnay DuBrul Vineyard Yakima Valley 2010 $50
(Exceptional) Lightly aromatic with spice, coconut and other tropical fruit along with whiffs of stone fruit. It’s full bodied, rich and textured with a creamy rich feel and a long, lingering finish. 100% Chardonnay. Aged 17 months in French oak (57% new) with full malolactic fermentation. 14.1% alcohol. 162 cases produced.
Côte Bonneville Estate Bottled Syrah DuBrul Vineyard Yakima Valley 2010 $75
(Exceptional) Draws you into the glass with a complex medley of mineral, cherry, blue fruit, earth, herbs, and dusty chocolate. The palate is textured and restrained in feel with sultry fruit flavors. A delicious bottle that speaks distinctly of this vineyard. 100% Syrah. Aged 20 months in tw year old French oak. 14.7% alcohol. 150 cases produced.
Côte Bonneville Carriage House Red Wine DuBrul Vineyard Yakima Valley 2008 $50
(Exceptional) Aromatically it brings high toned floral notes, chukar cherries, olive, anise, and moist soil after a warm summer rain. The palate shows impeccable elegance and restraint with silky tannins and lithe fruit flavors. Lingers for a long finish. 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 23% Merlot, and 12% Cabernet Franc. Aged 20 months in French oak (64% new). 14.7% alcohol. 686 cases produced.
The great awakening for me and DuBrul Vineyard was a 2005 Willis Hall DuBrul Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. It was so unlike anything I had had before from Washington. I wish I had more of that wine but unfortunately it's long gone now.
Nice profile, Sean. Iconic vineyard indeed, but more importantly, a lovely family.