A Vineyard walk on Candy Ridge with Seth Kitzke

Candy Mountain as seen from Kitzke's Candy Ridge Vineyard

It was July 2019 and we were on summer whirlwind trip called #thescenicroute.  We had come from the beautiful Columbia Gorge region and were meeting Seth Kitzke at Candy Ridge Vineyard at Candy Mountain.

We pulled in and up to the Kitzke Cellars tasting room, on a Monday. Their tasting room is only typically open on the weekends, so we pulled up to a very confused looking gentleman.  This was Paul Kitzke, owner of the estate and winery and Seth’s dad.  Seth had evidently not mentioned us coming and Paul was surprised to see people at the tasting room so early, not to mention with camera and recording gear.  After a quick explanation, he warmed and looked to invite us in just as Seth pulled up. 

Seth’s tasting room for his own brand Upsidedown Wine is in Hood River, where we had just been, but he was coming from a meeting somewhere else this particular morning.  He had managed to squeeze us in to the middle of his day.

So where exactly are we?

Well, we are in the east end of the Yakima Valley in Eastern Washington. The area is near the Tri-Cities close to the city of Richland. Candy Mountain is just South East of Red Mountain the fairly famous Yakima Valley AVA that is winning high praise for it’s grapes and wine. 

Washington AVA Map Courtesy of Washington State, with Candy Mountain AVA
Washington AVA Map Courtesy of Washington State, with the area of the Proposed Candy Mountain AVA penciled in.

We started in the vineyard with Candy Mountain in the background.  The view is the same as the view on the sketch on their labels. The first thing I wanted to know about was the proposed AVA.

Candy Mountain AVA (Proposed)

You know we get into proposed AVAs, we’ve talked about the proposed AVAs in the Willamette Valley and I was really curious about the proposed Candy Mountain AVA.  When approved, it will be Washington’s smallest AVA at around 820 acres.  Seth told us it’s been submitted and approved on the Washington State side and now they are just waiting on the Federal stuff.  The application was “Accepted as Perfected” on January 24, 2017. As of the date of this piece, the time for public comment had closed and it was just waiting.  Likely it will be waiting a bit longer with everything slowing down right now.  It’s a little confusing.  I went to the TTB page and they are no longer listed on the “Pending approval” page, but they are also not listed on the “Established AVA” page.  So they are sitting in limbo in between.  As Seth put it “It’s sitting on someone’s desk somewhere in a stack waiting to get stamped.”

Details on the proposed AVA

The thing is, that this AVA which would be nested in the Yakima Valley AVA spills a little over the edge and they would need to expand the Yakima Valley AVA by 72 acres to adjust the overlap.  *Update! My understanding is that the adjustment to the Yakima Valley AVA is complete.

The AVA is on the the southwestern slopes of Candy Mountain.  Seth mentioned that the slopes here are south facing due to the the way the ridge and Mountain are oriented.  Red Mountain AVA with it’s much larger 4040 acres, wraps around Red Mountain with vineyards Southeast facing, south facing and wrapping around to some that are south west and west facing also. 

“…Candy Mountain doesn’t really have that option. It’s pretty much all directly south.  You might have a tiny bit of southeast and southwest..”

Seth Kitzke, July 2019

 Seth studied sustainability and tourism before getting into wine and like preserving ridge lines and views.  He mentions that a hiking group that used to do “hike, wine & dine” events bought up the land that goes up to the ridge so that the views won’t ever get obstructed with a bunch of houses.

Candy Ridge Vineyard

Kitzke Cellars on Candy Ridge in the Yakima Valley AVA
Kitzke Cellars on Candy Ridge in the Yakima Valley AVA

The Candy Ridge Vineyard is the Estate Vineyard for Kitzke Cellars.  They have another vineyard, the Dead Poplar Vineyard which is in the lower Yakima Valley directly across from (but not in) the Red Mountain AVA.

Here at the Candy Ridge Vineyard they are mostly growing Bordeaux varieties, Cab Franc, Cab Sav, Petit Verdot and then some Syrah in the back and some Sangiovese out front. 

“The sangio is kind of an anomaly here.  It’s all east facing all lyre style trained stuff, like a double cordon that comes up and splits, a lot more shade.”

Seth Kitzke, July 2019

Their neighbor Jim, is kind of the reason Seth’s parents started growing grapes.  He has Merlot that was planted in 1982 as well as some other varieties that they get some of.  Seth says that he is really the pioneer of Candy Mountain.

Cabernet Franc and Caliche soil

We walk into the vineyard and Seth points out Cab Franc that was planted in 2008.  

Cab Franc by the Lawn at Candy Ridge Vineyard
Cab Franc by the Lawn at Candy Ridge Vineyard

“We kinda added as the wines proved themselves. My parents started gobbling up a little more of the square footage of the area, planting more rows…basically the yard was big and they were like “hey let’s plant some more cab franc.””

Seth Kitzke, July 2019

The cons of caliche soil

Previously all the cab franc was east facing out front and the back was just Petit Verdot and Cab Sav.  But just because they had the space didn’t mean it would be easy.  The front is rocky with floating basalt in the loam.  In the back…well

“My dad called me a wuss, because I couldn’t dig the poles when we got up here.  The caliche layer is like calcium carbonate, a really hard layer, like natural cement.  He ended up bringing in our backhoe.  When we had the backhoe in here it broke 2 teeth off the metal bucket on the backhoe.  It shows you how hard this stuff really is.”

Seth Kitzke, July 2019
Caliche comparison at Kitzke Cellars
In the lower hand basalt, in the upper caliche. The caliche, while really hard, is so much lighter.

But there are also pros…

The caliche though, has is pluses.  The berries on the cab franc in the back are tiny little stressed berries, where as the ones in the front get a little more size on them.  Stress berries equal tasty wine typically.  The Cab franc in the back has more shatter and natural stress from the caliche layer.  But caliche is also porous.  They had a foot of snow as late as early March in 2019.  Where as with basalt the moisture would evaporate, the caliche layer locks the moisture in and holds it.  In early July when we were there it was the first time they had turned on the water this season. They were trying to get the canopies to shut down and focus on fruit.  You can see in the video that the canopies were kinda going a little crazy.

Petit Verdot and new training systems

We moved on to the Petit Verdot.  Seth was getting ready to implement a new training system. 

“So you can see we are leaving some of the suckers low this year.  This stuff is all around 20 years old and you are getting older and older wood on the cordon.  So to preserve the vineyard and make it healthier longer I’m going to slowly start switching to can pruning, lower that way there are less cuts, less possibility for disease, or at least that’s what they say.”

Seth Kitzke, July 2019

This system keeps fresh wood which encourages sap flow.  Vines produce less as they get older. Seth wants to keep these elderly vines as happy as he can.  At 20 years old they only do one color pass at veraison.  The vines tend to regulate themselves keeping to 3 to 3.5 tons per acre.  3 tons is Seth’s sweet spot for quality.

How to manage Syrah planted East/West

We walk back to the Syrah in the back.  This is trained differently.  When his parents first put these vines in they were not really thinking from a wine making standpoint.  This part of the vineyard is all trained east/west.  That sounds crazy to anyone who knows much about planting vineyards.  You typically run north/south to get the best of the sunlight.  Here with the east/west vines, you get sun on one side of the vine all day.  So, what do they do? 

“We’ll hang more fruit on the shady side, less on the sun side.”

Seth Kitzke, July 2019

Seth notes that in hot areas in Washington, syrah can get rich, ripe, jammy and high in alcohol.  He wants to taste the terroir, not just the fruit.  So they pick separately the sunny side and the shady side, with again, more fruit on the shady side.  This allows them to really keep the alcohol down.  We later tried a syrah in the tasting room that Seth said was picked at 23 brix and came out at 13.3% abv.  Still it was phenolically ripe with time to develop without the sugar spiking. Rather than pulling out this vineyard, they found a way to work with it that really works for them.

More to come!

Stick with us.  We spent a ton of time talking with Seth out in the front vineyard and then in the tasting room where we tasted through Kitzke wines and Upsidedown Wines and talked about all sorts of interesting stuff.  You can read about that here. One thing we spoke about was the Grenache that Seth was getting from the WeatherEye Vineyard up on Red Mountain.  More on that soon.

In the meantime, some links…

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