Ken Hart knows his grapes. Rick Trumbull knows his dirt. In 2006, the two longtime friends bonded over an interest in sustainable farming, and partnered to create Walla Walla’s Tulpen Cellars—Tulpen is German for tulips—with the goal of creating affordably priced wines that would highlight grapes from some of the state’s best sites, naturally. Together, they are pioneering dry farming (with little or no irrigation) of wine grapes in Washington, an approach predicated on the belief that vines that have to reach for water deep in the soil develop better fruit.
As a vineyard manager for more than a decade, Hart has walked the rows and tended grapes in the vineyards of top Washington wineries, such as the àMaurice estate vineyard, Abeja’s Heather Hill, Dunham Cellars’ Lewis Vineyard, Walla Walla Vintners’ Tokar Vineyard and others. Rick Trumbull has been a big influence in Washington’s turn toward sustainable farming. A former fertilizer salesman, Trumbull changed his thinking about farming when he attended a convention that focused on ways to lower the use of chemicals and build soil health naturally. He and his son, Travis, developed Sustainable Soil Solutions, the first company in Washington to make compost and “compost tea,” which is made when compost is added to water and sprayed on the vineyard for easier distribution. Trumbull then began consulting with viticulturists to grow grapes as free from chemicals as possible.
As a result of their combined experiences, the two have their pick of some primo fruit. Currently, Trumbull and Hart are working with fruit from two dry-farmed sites: Yellowbird Vineyard, next to Walla Walla Vintners, and Tulpen’s Upper Mill Valley site, both east of Walla Walla. Their wines—a range of whites and reds from Tempranillo to Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon—are balanced and food-friendly, meaning aromatic and full of flavor, yet not overripe or too high in alcohol.
Hart and Trumbull continue to experiment with other sustainable farming practices. They are leading the way in fostering more responsible use of natural resources and stewardship of the land, working to convert more vineyards to the low-impact and sustainable viticultural practices. The dry-farming (or nearly dry) approach is fairly new in Washington, with just a few vineyards focusing on it, partially because most of the Columbia Valley is so dry. In other winegrowing regions, such as California, France, Italy and Oregon, there are many dry-farmed sites because those areas are less arid.
Indeed, Trumbull and Hart’s wines show where winegrowing in Washington is heading. But the ultimate goal of their attention in the vineyard is to make great wines that reflect the particular aromas, flavors, tannins and acidity of fruit grown well on a particular patch of land—and working to make that place better.
Tulpen Cellars 2009 Merlot, Columbia Valley, $34
A Merlot-based, Bordeaux-style blend of Merlot (75.9 percent), Cabernet Franc (15.8 percent), Cabernet Sauvignon (5.1 percent) and Malbec (3.2 percent), this is a balanced and voluptuous example of how good a Washington Merlot can be, with bright red and black cherry, and subtle sweet spice, along with moderate tannins and a long soft finish. Pairs with: Roasted porchetta stuffed with pork sausage and herbs.
Tulpen Cellars 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, Walla Walla Valley, $38
Their first 100 percent Cab, this wine was sourced from three Walla Walla vineyards: Tokar, Heather Hill and Yellowbird. Pairs with: Beef short ribs slow-cooked with rosemary.
Tulpen Cellars 2010 Tempranillo, Yellow Bird Vineyard, Walla Walla Valley, $38
This Tempranillo is 100 percent dry-farmed from this vineyard in the Mill Creek area of Walla Walla Valley. With soft cherry and spice aromas, this wine shows big blackberry and forest-floor earthiness. Pairs with: Grilled chicken with smoked paprika and olives.
Tulpen Cellars 2008 Sangiovese, Columbia Valley, $24
A lovely, floral and dusty Sangiovese with bright red raspberry fruit, and aromas of fennel, orange peel and soft tannins on the finish. Pairs with: Lamb stewed in tomatoes and grilled fennel. (Very limited availability.)
Read more about “green” winemaking in Shannon Borg’s new book, The Green Vine: A Guide to West Coast Sustainable, Organic, and Biodynamic Wines, available at Amazon.com.