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Hugh Shiels: The Vineyard Master
DuBrul Vineyard & Côte Bonneville
Hugh and Kathy Shiels came to grow wine grapes from a different angle from most others in eastern Washington. Typically, longtime cherry and apple growers planted grapes to extend their options. But Hugh, an orthopedic surgeon, and Kathy, a physical therapist, tuned to grapes because they didn't want to keep growing hay. That's what was on the farm attached to their home outside Sunnyside, within the Yakima Valley AVA.
Their first vineyard, the one around their home, produced only Concords for juice. It wasn't until 1991 that they started with wine grapes. They bought a 64-acre apple orchard on a hillside a couple of miles away and names the vineyard DuBrul, Hugh's mother's family name.
Today, DuBrul is the source of outstanding Chardonnays, as well as Merlots and Cabernets that routinely rate in the 93 to 95 point range. The best-known wines are made by Owen Roe or bottled by the Shielses themselves in their small estate winery, Côte Bonneville.
They first suspected they had something special when the Chardonnay and Merlot grapes they had planted were unfazed by a hard freeze that devastated surrounding vineyards in 1996. But they knew it for sure when Owen Roe winemaker David O'Reilly called them in 1999 about the first wines he had made from the vineyard. "Can I get on your roster?" he asked. "People taste these wines, and they want to know where I got [the grapes]."
That kind of recognition was new for the Shielses. In the early years their grapes disappeared into blends at Chateau Ste. Michelle, which had exclusive rights. "It was the only game in town where the checks would actually cash," shrugs Kathy. "We planted what they wanted-Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet and Merlot. Then they told us they were going to end the contract in three years."
Other growers and friends in the industry shared their research in how to fine-tune DuBrul for high-end wine. The Shielses inveted in a new drip irrigation system and changed the canopy management. Hogue started buying the Riesling. Seven Hills and Woodward Canyon wanted the Merlot and the Chardonnay. DuBrul now sells to 16 wineries, with Owen Roe currently the most prominent.
"Both the Merlot and the Cabernet get full, ripe flavors, and they also have great minerality, great acidity," says O'Reilly. "The Chardonnay, too. The Riesling up at the top has parameters that match the best in the world. It's really a special place."
O'Reilly thinks it's the rocky hillsides that make the difference. "It's all in the soil, the lack of vigor from that soil type," he says. "The flavors really have vibrancy and color that's rare to see."
O'Reilly also likes the pride and the passion that the Shiels family displays."If you don't respect what they're doing, Hugh will kick you out of the vineyard," he laughs. "I love that because I want to be part of that."
Starting with the 2002 vintage, the Shielses selected a portion of the vineyard to make their own Côte Bonneville wines. Averaging 93 points over the decade, the Côte Bonneville Cabernet Sauvignons, Syrahs and Chardonnays feel complex and aristocratic, with earthy, meaty nuances to the rich, focused reds, Clearly, the terroir speaks eloquently.
Article written by Harvey Steiman for Wine Spectator December 15, 2010 issue.