Chris Upchurch is winemaker and part owner of DeLille Cellars, where his specialization in Bordeaux grape varietals prompted wine guru Robert Parker to dub Delille the “Lafite Rothschild of Washington State.” Parker’s not the only one who’s impressed. At Delille, Chris produced one of Washington State’s premier cult wines, Delille is the only winery in the world to be listed two years in a row in the top 100 wines of the world by Wine Enthusiast and Wine Spectator magazines and its wines have received incredibly high ratings over the last 20 years. More recently, Chris founded Upchurch Vineyard, which has already been recognized by Wine Advocate and has garnered high scores and serious praise for its Cabernet Sauvignons. Chris is the real deal, and I was lucky to catch up with him for a chat on the life of a winemaker.
Q: When I think about the life of a winemaker, I think about romance and working in the great outdoors and fine dinners and alcohol. Sounds great.
A: Well yeah, sure, it is great. I am not a wealthy man, but I get to live like one. I have had meals in some of the finest restaurants in the world, I have gotten to travel quite a bit and I know some of the greatest winemakers around the world. But it is a lot of hard work. When we are covered in must or knee-deep in yeast we all like to joke about the “romance” of being a winemaker. But the reality is I am not an artist or a rock star or a farmer, I am a craftsman. A craftsman makes a product and has to rely on his resources.
Q: What does a typical day look like for you?
A: There are no typical days. Some days you are bottling, some days you are harvesting, or public speaking or spending days in the lab. It’s never the same.
Q: Other than the weather, what causes you the most stress?
A: Nothing gives me too much stress. I eat well, I sleep well and I have a great wife and a good dog, so I can’t complain. The most challenging thing is all of the young guys under me. They are really talented and they push me. One of the winemakers who works for me came from Duke and another from Cornell and they are smart guys. When they ask me a question they expect me to be able to answer it.
Q: That actually is a great lead in to my next question. What advice would you give all of those aspiring winemakers out there?
A: They don’t have a shot unless they are really passionate about what they are doing. They need to do a gut check and say “Am I going to be happy if I am doing this for the rest of my life?” If not, they will just be plugging away and might as well be making chairs or something. You really need to have the passion for the craft and if you do, you will succeed sooner or later.
Q: So what is the best way to break into the business?
A: Go to school to understand the fundamentals and then intern. Most people intern for a year or so at a winery and then they can show what kind of passion they really have. And once they prove what they’ve got, then they can land a job as an assistant winemaker.
Q: I have heard a joke that if you want to make a small fortune in wine you should start out with a large fortune. Is that true?
A: Oh yeah. Everybody gets into wine for the lifestyle, not because they think they are going to make a lot of money. Many people who get into wine start out with money—this is what you do after you have made your zillion dollars. Shoestringing it is tough. You end up doing everything yourself and quality suffers for it.
A: They are tied together. Upchurch is a small project. I own the vineyard and 75 percent of what we grow goes to DeLille. There is one little corner that is different than the rest of the fruit, and that is what I use for Upchurch. Upchurch is a small project done over time. Right now, we are at 700 cases and hopefully it’s a generational thing. My daughter is doing the books.
Q: Would you rather grow your own grapes and have all of the control or get your grapes from the best producers all over the state?
A: We do both and there is a reason for it. When you start out you might think the best thing would be to find a great site and grow your own. But the truth is that when you do that, your first wine is from three-year-old vines and that can be an issue. We chose to buy from some of the producers that have some of the oldest vines in the state, which allowed us to put our best foot forward. And as we progressed, we could start buying vineyards and incorporate young vines into our wines. And as they mature, they can go into some of our better wines. So there are advantages to not starting with your own vines.
I’ll give you an example. Justin (Baldwin) out in Paso Robles (California) is a really rich guy who built his own winery, planted his own grapes, brought in French winemakers, built a cave and just spent tons of dough. And his first wines made us wonder where all of his money had gone because the wines were OK, but not super. About 10 years later, his wines were getting every kind of award and his wines were fabulous. It was just a matter of vines. Now, he had enough money that he could suffer through 10 years of working with his own vineyards. And now he is really happy. But not all of us have that kind of money.
Next week: How cloning changed wine for the better.
Thanks to Kristina Mueller Eberhard for the photos.