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True Grit

Written by Kori S. Voorhees

Accustomed to dealing with the forces of nature, Paul Champoux is winning his battle with the West Nile virus with steely determination

PHOTO: Washington state grape growers Judy and Paul Champoux next to their hearty Cabernet Sauvignon vines planted in 1972.

Click here to preview the article from the Winter 2011 issue of Tasting Room magazine.

CHAMPOUX VINEYARDS is considered to be among the best Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards in Washington State.  And while it’s true that Mother Nature ultimately holds the cards in any agricultural game of chance, never underestimate the impact that people like Paul Champoux can have on his vineyard’s site, soil, and plants.

Champoux (pronounced “shampoo”) is a master viticulturist who has developed a philosophy of plant nutrition to help accentuate the flavors, color, and varietal character of the grapes at his Champoux Vineyards.

He has broken the growing season down into the “seasons of the vine” (which are initial growth, reproductive cycle, secondary growth/berry development, lag phase, and veraison/maturation).  During each of those different seasons, Champoux applies a different nutritional package of nutrients through the leaves to give the vine what it needs for the upcoming stage.

Winemaker Mike Januik of Januik Winery buys fruit from Champoux every year.  “People have this traditional idea of what terroir is, but in the case of Champoux Vineyards, I think that you can almost expand upon that and say that Paul Champoux in a certain way is part of the terroir.  It is the uniqueness of Paul’s skills in large part that makes Champoux what it is,” he says.

EARLY MERCER RANCH

Champoux Vineyards is owned by Paul and Judy Champoux along with four partner wineries, Andrew Will, Powers, Quilceda Creek, and Woodward Canyon.  Located in the Horse Heaven Hills AVA in south central Washington State, Champoux Vineyards was originally known as Mercer Ranch.  The first seven acres of Cabernet were planted by Don and Linda Mercer in 1972 at the request of Walter Clore, known as the “Father of the Washington wine industry,” who wanted to prove that wine grapes could be grown commercially in the state and fine wines could be made from them.

Paul Champoux became the manager for Mercer Ranch after learning the ropes as a vineyard manager for Ste. Michelle.  In fact, he helped plant over 2,000 acres near Paterson in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s and worked with great mentors including Dr. Clore, Dr. Wade Wolfe (now of Thurston Wolfe), and Clay Mackey (now of Chinook Wines).

Paul and Judy Champoux and their partner wineries bought the vineyard in 1996. Winemaker Rick Small of Woodward Canyon recalls, “I’ll never forget when I got the call.  I told Paul, ‘Yeah, we would definitely be interested in being a partner.’  Between us all, we got the money together and were able to purchase this incredible Cabernet place.”

WHERE CAB IS KING

Cabernet Sauvignon is definitely king at Champoux with nearly 60 percent of the 180-acre vineyard planted to the variety.  Winemakers rave over its dark black fruit aromas and flavors, silky tannins, structure, and ability to age well.

Champoux Vineyards has ten other grape varieties planted on 180 acres that include Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Merlot, Lemberger, Petit Verdot, Muscat Canelli, Chardonnay, Riesling, Orange Muscat, and Malbec.

In any given year, over 20 wineries purchase Champoux grapes, with about 16 steadily using its fruit year after year, including partners Andrew Will, Powers, Quilceda Creek, and Woodward Canyon, as well as Fidelitas, Januik, and Sineann.

The fruit is so prized and the vineyard so well respected that Champoux estimates that about 90 percent of the wines made using Champoux grapes are vineyard-designated.  “Even after all these years and seeing our name on many, many bottles, we still get excited.  It’s quite an honor for us,” says Judy Champoux.

WEST NILE VIRUS ATTACK

But on July 17, 2009, Paul Champoux was dealt the scare of his life. Three days prior, he felt flu-like symptoms and achy muscles and joints.  By the 17th, he could not move his arms or legs at all.

It took thirteen days before he was diagnosed with West Nile virus, the result of being bitten by an infected mosquito.  After being hospitalized for two months in serious condition, Paul returned home in early September about the time the 2009 harvest started.

Fortunately, Champoux has surrounded himself with good people, including vineyard manager Kevin Laurent and production foreman Hipolito Vargas, who kept the vineyard running smoothly in his absence.  Even though he could not physically help with harvest, Champoux was able to stay connected with his managers and winemakers via cell phone from his bed with his wife Judy holding the phone to his ear.

Rick Small describes the story, “Behind all of this incredible recovery that Paul has seen in the last year is his wife Judy. I can’t tell you how important she has been. She was his best friend, his best supporter, and his rally point.  The reason Paul is back the way he is right now, and back so motivated and encouraged and so enthused is to a huge point, because of Judy.  When we talk about Champoux Vineyards, we talk about it in terms of Paul but it really should be in terms of both of them because they are so much a team.”

With the same focus and determination that he learned playing college baseball at Seattle University and has applied to running his vineyard, Paul Champoux has battled back from this physical setback and is well on his way to a full recovery.

A healthy dose of humor has helped, too.  He wears a cap that reads “Damn Mosquitoes” on the front and “Fight the Bite” on the back.

Over a year later, use of his arms is back to about 90 percent and his legs back to about 75 percent. He looks forward to the day when he can walk the vineyard again and shoot hoops with his grandkids.

ENDLESS POSSIBILITIES

As passionate as Paul and Judy Champoux are about their vineyard, they are just as passionate about sharing it with others.  Unlike most vineyards that discourage visitors for fear they’ll get in the way, the couple opened Chateau Champoux in 2000, offering vineyard tours and wine tastings to the public.

“We wanted to get consumers out in the field so they can see what it takes to grow world-class grapes,” says Champoux.  “We bring them out in the vineyard and then bring them inside to taste wine from the block they were just in.  You can see their eyes light up.”  The tours have been suspended over the last year due to Paul’s prolonged recovery, however they hope to resume them in 2011.

Paul has been an integral part of making Champoux Vineyards the world-class vineyard that it is, and also an example to the national and international wine community of what is possible in Washington State.

As Mike Januik puts it, “If all of the grape growers in Washington even begin to approach what Paul Champoux does, we’d be a much better place as far as grape production and wine production goes. He really is somebody that you can look up to.”

Rick Small further speculates, “I still think that we haven’t made the best wines from there yet.”  Given its site, soil, plants, and the focus and strong determination of the people, the possibilities seem endless.