One usually thinks of fir trees, not grape vines, growing in Lewis County. But nestled among the forests and farm lots of the Chehalis River Valley are six wineries. The vintners experiment with different grapes and aging techniques to produce familiar wines like Chardonnay and Merlot and ones you’ve never heard of, like Tulapa and Dave’s Rajin’ Red.
The wineries will pour on the hospitality for a tour next weekend.
It’s the third time the wineries have teamed up for a tour to tout their vintages.
“A lot of people on the west side of the mountains didn’t know there were wineries in Lewis County,” said Gary Fox, owner of Birchfield Winery in Onalaska.
Most of the wineries have started up in the past decade, and aren’t big enough to garner space on the shelves of liquor and grocery stores.
But the local wines are well worth uncorking a bottle, said Rhett Mills, owner of Widgeon Hill Winery.
The tour is “to let people know there are local alternatives for wine in the area,” Mills said. “You don’t have to go to Yakima or Wapato or Woodinville to find really nice wines.”
Mills is the sole employee at Widgeon Hill, which his late father, Joel, started in 1996. The winery sits on a wooded ridge east of Centralia, about a 10-minute drive from I-5.
Joel Mills and a friend, Virgil Fox, started out making wine as a hobby, Rhett Mills said. Their passion grew into a business. Fox eventually started his own winery, Birchfield, which his son Gary manages. Widgeon Hill also passed from father to son.
Temperatures in Lewis County are too cool to grow traditional wine grapes. “We just don’t have enough heat units to ripen the big varietals,” such as Cabernet, Merlot and Chardonnay. So every fall, Mills drives over to the Yakima Valley several times and hauls back loads of grapes.
Though plenty of vintners grow grapes in the valleys west of Portland, “I want to stick with wine from grapes grown in Washington,” Mills said.
His plastic and stainless steel vessels fill the bottom level of a winery building outside his house.
“I have a couple friends come up and help me with the manual labor” of getting all the crushed grapes in vessels.
Mills ages his red wines in oak barrels made in California, France and Hungary for 16 to 22 months.
“Every once in a while I take a little splash to make sure the flavor is all right,” he said, dipping a glass beaker into a hole in the barrel. He was pleased with a 2006 Cabernet that has been aging in a barrel since last October. “It looks nice and dark,” Mills said. “There’s lots of color.”
That good for this point in the process, but “it’s going to be in there at least another year,” Mills said.
Along with learning about fermentation rates and where to buy barrels, a winemaker needs to cultivate his nose to detect all those subtleties of aroma and bouquet.
“I’m still working on the palate,” Mills said. “You try to get your palate to get a little bit better.”
Mills doesn’t put his Chardonnay in barrels, so it won’t have an oak-y taste. “It’s really light and crisp,” Mills said.
That’s more like European Chardonnays, a legacy from his father. “He was sick and tired of everybody trying to make Kendall Jackson Chardonnay,” a widely distributed brand that’s aged in oak barrels, Mills said.
Ah, the life of the country winemaker.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Mills acknowledged. “It’s a lot of work,” too. “It gets to be a little much.”
And though winemaking is profitable, it’s not enough to live on. “Everybody else who owns a (nearby) winery has a first job, the bill-paying job,” said Mills, a real estate appraiser. “We just do this for enjoyment and for a hobby, basically.”
Mills used to turn out 500 to 600 cases of wine per year, but these days he has time to produce less than half that.
The work isn’t finished when the wine is bottled, Mills said. A federal agency must approve wine labels, making sure health warning type is large enough. “There are so many minute little details on the label they have to go over.”
Mills produces Chenin blanc, Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Syrah and two varieties of Merlot. There’s also a red blend you won’t find anywhere else — Tunupa.
Widgeon Hill bottle prices range from $12 to $16.
Mills sells to wine shops such as Oly’s Wine Cellar in Centralia, and restaurants including the Longview Country Club.
And even when there isn’t an official tour, people show up at the tasting room one floor above the Widgeon Hill production room full of barrels and bins.
Word about Chehalis Valley wineries must be spreading.
“We’re kind of out here in the middle of nowhere,” Mills said. “It’s kind of amazing.”
Chehalis Valley Wine Tour
Five wineries (well, one calls itself a “whinery”) in the Lewis County area will share samples during the Chehalis Valley Wine Tour. Hours are noon-8 p.m. Saturday, May 2 and noon-6 p.m. Sunday, May 3.
Cost is $15 per person for both days, payable at any of the wineries.
The closest one to Cowlitz County is Weatherwax Cellars at 300 Brim Road, Onalaska. Take Highway 12 east from I-5 for 7.5 miles, then turn right onto Brim Road and go one mile.
For a map of all the wineries and more information, see www.scattercreekwinery.com
731 SW 21st St., Chehalis WA 98532, 360-623-1106, www.heymannwhinery.com
Heymann has been producing wine since 2004, and focuses on berry wines. They started out with the “h” in their name as a joke, but it stuck.
Scatter Creek Winery
3442 180th Ave SW, Tenino, WA 98589, 360-273-8793, www.scattercreekwinery.com
Scatter Creek, which opened in 2005, produces reds, whites and sweet dessert wines. The wines include Valley de Bon Blanco, a Gevurtraminer, and Dave’s Rajin’ Red, a blend.
Widgeon Hill Winery
121 Widgeon Hill Road, Chehalis WA 98532, 360-748-0432, www.widgeonhill.com
140 Eschaton Road, Onalaska, WA 98570, 360-978-6254, www.wellswinery.com
The newest winery in the region, Wells started up in 2006. It specializes in wines made from Northwest-grown fruit and berries.
921-B Middle Fork Road, Onalaska, WA 98570, 360-520-2138
Birchfield specializes in red wines such as Cabernet and Merlot, though it’s come out with a new white, Viognier.
300 Brim Road, Onalaska, WA 98570, 360-280-8572
Established in 2004, Weatherwax uses Yakima Valley grapes for its varietals.