Better with Age: Chinook Wines and Yakima AVA Turn 30

Kay Simon and Clay Mackey Chinook Wines
Clay Mackey and Kay Simon celebrate 30 years among the barrels with Chinook Wines

When Kay Simon and Clay Mackey first put down roots in Prosser in 1983, there were only about 40 wineries in the state, and the Yakima Valley had just been established as the state’s first American Viticultural Area (AVA). The inspirational couple behind Chinook Wines, Simon and Mackey went on to carve a niche for themselves by making approachable, affordable wines even as they helped shape the burgeoning industry around them. This year, as more than 750 wineries churn out award-winning vintages, Chinook and the Yakima Valley AVA celebrate their 30th anniversary.

From the beginning, theirs was a love affair, with wine. At age 9, Simon helped her parents crush grapes for a batch of homemade wine in northern California; Mackey helped out in his family’s Napa vineyard during college. Their paths crossed at Chateau Ste. Michelle in the late 1970s, when Mackey was that winery’s eastern Washington vineyard manager, and Simon was its red wine maker. In 1983, the couple moved to Prosser to start Chinook Wines on the site of a former cherry orchard. Their aim: to create food-friendly white, rosé and red wines that reflected the beauty and complexity of the fruit of the Yakima Valley.

True locavores of the vine, they began by sourcing Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and other fruit from some of their favorite vineyards within 15 miles of their Prosser winery. They now work closely with five main growers in the Yakima Valley AVA who provide fruit for their lineup of elegant wines: Bill denHoed of Desert Hills Vineyard, Colin Morrell of Lonesome Spring Ranch, Albert Don of Wyckoff Farms, Dick Boushey of Boushey Vineyard and Brenton Roy of Oasis Farms. In 1995, Simon and Mackey planted the most local of all their sources—a Cabernet Franc vineyard on the winery grounds, which would become their signature varietal red and rosé wines.

During the past three decades, both Simon and Mackey have played key roles in achieving many Washington wine industry milestones, including serving on the committee to form the Washington Wine Quality Alliance, which set standards back in 1999 that would guide the industry toward accolades and a solid reputation. The alliance, which ended three years ago, established a requirement that only 10 percent of a winery’s production could be labeled “Reserve,” so as to not flood the market with barrels of so-called “reserve” wines just to bump up the price.

For Simon and Mackey, true quality is in the people, the fruit and the terroir of the AVA they have grown—and grown to love.


Shannon's Picks

2011 Sauvignon Blanc ($17.99)

A crisp, aromatic Sauvignon Blanc, this wine is fermented at cool temperatures to retain the floral and citrus aromas and flavors, along with a fresh herbal note, making it a perfect wine for salads and light, fresh cheeses. Pairs with: Chèvre rolled in fresh thyme and hazelnuts on crostini at a picnic on freshly cut grass.

 

2010 Cabernet Franc ($22.99)

Some of the fruit for Chinook’s signature wine is grown just steps from the winery in Prosser. Handled gingerly to ensure low tannins, this wine is aged in neutral oak barrels rather than new ones, to retain the bright varietal character. With aromas of anise seed, ripe raspberries and stony minerality, along with a floral note, this pretty wine is a delight to experience. Pairs with: Seared lamb loin, with friends around a campfire.

 

2011 Chardonnay ($18.99)

A great example of what “old vines” can do, this Chardonnay comes from 1970s plantings from Desert Hills and Carter Farm vineyards, and shows green apple and rich tropical notes. Aging in lightly toasted oak barrels adds spiced pear and vanilla flavors to this versatile wine. Pairs with: Cold lemon-basil pesto pasta served on white linen.

 

2012 Cabernet Franc Rosé ($15.99)

Every year, the arrival of Chinook’s rosé is a much anticipated sign of spring. Always made from Cabernet Franc grapes, this is a great food wine, and although the new vintage was not available at press time, the past few have been delightfully aromatic, with aromas of anise and wet stone, cherry and roses. A truly lovely wine worth waiting for. Pairs with: Cold chicken leg eaten while standing in front of the open fridge.