Ne plus ultra

Washington's DeLille makes wines par excellence on a par with France's finest.

FIRST-TIME VISITORS to Bordeaux are often disappointed at their first glimpse of a "chⴥau." Unlike the sun-bleached fortresses of the Rh�or the fairy-tale castles of the Loire, chⴥaux in Bordeaux lack glamour: They may feature a carriage sweep and a token tower or two, but most are basically working farmhouses, headquarters of a family—or, these days, an international luxury-goods conglomerate—dedicated to the business of making wine.

In America, of course, the word itself lends class, so much so that when a pioneering marketeer sought to lend gravitas and credibility to Washington state's first big new commercial winery since Prohibition, the name he came up with for it was "Chⴥau Ste. Michelle." Not far from the sprawling Ste. Michelle facility, however, on a gentle hill with a fine view across the rapidly suburbanizing Sammamish floodplain, stands a true chⴥau in everything but name: a family-scale operation devoted not just to creating fine wine but to fostering the lifestyle that has grown up over the centuries in the regions of Europe—in France, along the Rhine, in Italy's Savoy and Tuscany—where cultivation of the vine is taken most seriously.

When DeLille Cellars crushed its first grapes 10 harvests ago, American wines were defined almost entirely by the variety of grape used in their making—chardonnay, merlot, s魩llon, etc. We're so used to it, we forget it's not done this way in most of the rest of the world, where the name of the region, the village, the specific plot of land where the grapes are grown count as much or more, where the signature on the label of a particular winemaker, bottler, or shipper can double the price of the wine inside the bottle.

The brainchild of Greg Lill, Jay Soloff, and Chris Upchurch, DeLille turned European common practice into shrewd business plan. Instead of "cabernets" or "sauvignon blancs," DeLille would produce "reds" and "whites"—blends, in fact, designed (like those of the great Bordelais chⴥaux) to achieve a balance from harvest to varying harvest between strength and finesse, body and freshness—something very difficult to achieve using just one grape variety.

With its first released wines, DeLille went directly to the head of the class, earning 90-plus ratings from America's most influential wine critic, Robert Parker. Parker has remained the winery's biggest fan, referring in his Wine Advocate newsletter to "the Chⴥau Lafite of Washington state." A writer in Food and Wine carried that accolade even further, setting DeLille's flagship Chaleur Estate red on a par with Bordeaux's ne plus ultra wines Lafite, Latour, and Mouton-Rothschild.

HOW VERY SATISFYING for DeLille winemaker Chris Upchurch; from the beginning, it has been his goal to emulate and challenge just these wines, the ones widely considered the greatest—and usually the most expensive—in the world since the middle of the 19th century. And Upchurch has one advantage over the wine world's top dogs: By tradition and law, they must make their wines from grapes grown in their own fields, whereas he can range the whole of eastern Washington in search of grapes that meet his criteria. He has taken full advantage of the freedom, developing relationships with growers in several communities willing to listen to suggestions about pruning, culling, and harvesting for best results.

But there's something a little unsatisfying, incomplete, about making a great Bordeaux-style wine if you don't have a Bordeaux-style chⴥau to make it in; so over the years the DeLille partners have turned their pressing and cellaring facility near Woodinville into a pretty good all-American version of a French country estate, complete with partridge run, duck pond, and sheepfold. In a way, "Chⴥau DeLille" preceded, even gave rise to, today's winery. The land on which it stands belongs to developer Charles Lill, father of partner Greg, and Lill p貥's interest in finding an economically viable way of preserving the family property from the onrush of urbanization led him to finance the project.

A descendant of Huguenots who fled persecution in France during the 17th century, Lill experienced displacement himself, first as a young man during the Nazi expansion into Eastern Europe, then under the forced socializations of the Communist hegemony. The notion of a chⴥau—not as architecture but as the terrain where a family is rooted—must have appeal to him as much as the possibility of profit.

Thanks to the public relations and marketing skills of Lill Jr. and Soloff, as well as Upchurch's winemaking chops, DeLille does make a profit, despite its relatively small output of just a few wines: primarily top-of-the-line Chaleur Estate red (running around $55 a bottle); D2, a "second wine" retailing for about $20 less but actually preferred by some to its big brother; and, $10 less expensive again, Chaleur Blanc, a sauvignon blanc-s魩llon blend very reminiscent of white Bordeaux.

What's more, the company plans to keep output small, focusing on maintaining and enhancing the reputation it's already earned. But things continue to evolve behind the scenes. Last year the firm invested for the first time in a vineyard of its own. The vines being planted now won't bear for several years; but time is no object. For Chⴥau DeLille, there's all the time in the world.

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