Dirt's Role in Wine Making


Keeping Wine in the Family

Kerry Shiels, winemaker for Côte Bonneville, breaks down the latest wine trends coming out of Washington and her family-owned winery.

In my continual quest to learn about wine, I have had no choice but to understand dirt.

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Well, more than dirt.

The French call it the terroir, which sounds much prettier. The land where grapes are grown plays a large role in the wine-making process. The same grape grown in even subtly different locations will make wines that are somewhat different--even when treated the same way in the winery.

So: different land, different climate, different grape.

Thankfully, you don’t have to go to France to find diversity. We have plenty of it here at home.

And that’s exactly why wine production in Washington is booming. The arid climate, combined with the long daylight hours of the growing season, make eastern Washington prime for growing wine grapes.

Washington’s wine regions produce more wine grapes than any other state in the U.S. except for California. Wine grapes are now the fourth most important fruit crop in the state behind apples, cherries and pears. Production of wine grapes has increased to 156,000 tons in 2010 from 38,000 tons in 1990.

The climates of individual Washington wine regions differ dramatically, and that’s what Kerry Shiels, winemaker of Côte Bonneville wines at the DuBrul Vineyard in the Yakima Valley of Washington, is capitalizing on.

Shiels’ family started planting classic varietals in 1992 after tearing out the original orchard. “Our vineyard is a very unique site. We have poor soils, causing the vines to struggle. You want poor soils, not rich. Grapes are like people, when they have to struggle, they are more interesting,” says Shiels.

The DuBrul Vineyard has a lot of variation. “The south facing slope gets more heat and sun exposure, so we planted Cab there. Lower on the hill, it is slightly cooler, and Merlot does better,” says Shiels. The different terroir also produces Chardonnay, Syrah and Riesling.  While the wines are not cheap, they are award-winning, and just as varied as the land.

Shiels path to winemaker is equally diverse.  She left home to earn her engineering degree from Northwestern University worked for two years in Torino, Italy, for Fiat and then realized her place was back on the vineyard where she grew up. She went on to get Master’s degree in Viticulture and Enology from U.C. Davis, then assumed the winemaker title in August 2009.

So the bottom line is the land, or terroir, makes a huge difference to the wine.

The upshot is we fabulous terroir right here in the USA.

Cent ‘Anni.

Questions for Our Wine Pro

What is your death row wine?

Only one?! I would have to say either the 2008 Côte Bonneville Cabernet, or 2009 Late Harvest Riesling. My last wine should be a tribute to my family, and the vineyard that we have put so much into; 2008 was a great vintage, but the late harvest is still probably the best wine I’ve ever made.

What region produces the best wine?

One of the great things about wine is that not all wines taste the same! I love wines from all over the world, and seek them out for a unique sense of place. Washington wines have wonderful ripe fruits, balanced with great acidity, and there is amazing variety. These are all attributes that contribute to world class wines, and world class growing region.

What is the best wine and food pairing you’ve ever had?

Again, just one? I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of great food, great wine, and amazing pairings. In the Yakima Valley, a friend of mine grows butternut squash. Another grows cherries. It’s tough to top our Chardonnay with Megan’s squash soup, or Chelsea’s Cherries Jubilee paired with the Carriage House, especially when they are at the meal.

What will the U.S. wine industry look like in 10 years?

The U.S. wine industry is young. As it develops, we will learn more about the right varietals in the right sites. Research will provide more tools. Wine growers and winemakers will be better trained and have more experiences internationally. This all leads to higher quality in the bottle.

Worldwide, there is renewed focus on wine quality. This means better wines and more choice for consumers, a win win.

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