Tapping Into Tapteil

It was cabernet that brought Larry Pearson to Red Mountain 33 years ago; though it’s still his touchstone, the vineyard is taking him in new directions.

STORY BY ANNE SAMPSON
PHOTOS BY NOAH FORBES

Red Mountain rises above the Yakima River just outside Benton City, a tiny burg along Interstate 82, 13 miles west of Richland. It is named for the rust-colored, native grasses covering its slopes, but today, large swaths of the mountainside are carpeted with vineyards. At only 4,040 acres, this is one of the smallest wine-growing regions in Washington, but it is one of the state’s most compelling. Since its designation in 2001 as an American Viticultural Area, Red Mountain has become almost synonymous with world-class cabernet sauvignon, supplying some of the state’s most premier wineries. Think Quilceda Creek and Fidelitas.

But think, also, of Tapteil Vineyard and Winery a tiny gem nestled on a shelf near the crest of the mountain, named with a word from the Yakima Sahpatian language meaning “narrow” and referencing a spot where the Yakima River squeezes through the valley. Larry Pearson first planted grapes here in 1985, just above Kiona, the mountain’s first vineyard, pioneered 10 years earlier by John Williams and Jim Holmes. Today, Tapteil is a grape star – Larry sells nearly 80 percent of his fruit to other wineries, including Cadence, Tamarack Cellars, and Long Shadows. But it’s also a wine star. He directs the remaining 20 percent of his grapes to the 1,100 cases he bottles annually at his own winery.

Tapteil’s production is small, and Larry and his wife Jane keep a low profile. Jane, who handles the marketing, sells their wines exclusively through the tasting room and wine club, so it is remarkable that Tapteil wines are frequent competitors in the Great Northwest Invitational Wine Competition, an annual event where entries must be nominated by a wine judge. Tapteil’s 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon took home a gold medal in the most recent judging.

I sat down with Larry and Jane in their tasting room on a picture-perfect October day, as the 2017 harvest was wrapping up. Inside, Jane’s original portraits of friends and wine enthusiasts line the walls. Outside, late-afternoon sun bounced through the leaves of trees shading the stone patio. A lush, green canopy of wine grapes carpeted the hill rolling away below us. The year had been marked by a couple of early heat waves, bolstered by long, cool periods, that kept the grapes on the vines for extended, flavor-building hang time — the kind of season that produces the world-class cabernet sauvignons that make Red Mountain famous.

But today, Larry is eager to talk about more current events. “There are a few new things happening in the vineyard,” he grins. Over the past six years, he has added Rhone varieties to the original estate — syrah, mourvedre, and grenache. But he’s most excited about the 40 acres of land he purchased in 2000 near the Yakima River, some 10 miles west of Red Mountain, in the Yakima Valley AVA. He and Jane plan to call it The Badlands.

“It is gorgeous land,” Larry says. “It had the most impressive, aged sage forest — the sage was almost 10 feet tall — with large basalt boulders that rolled off the steep escarpments and then dropped almost vertically down to the river. We were able to sculpt from that almost six acres of vineyard.” They planted more cabernet in 2016, and then, in 2017, added nearly an acre of aglianico, a deeply colored, highly acidic and tannic grape that he and Jane became fascinated with on a trip to Italy.

But it was cabernet that brought Larry to Red Mountain 33 years ago. He was deep into his career as an engineer at the time, and he brought the precision demanded by his day job to his pursuit of a second career. “I wanted to find a place to grow the very best cabernet,” he says. “So I did some research to get my head around what it takes — soil, day- and night-time temperatures, climate — all the things you need to grow the very best grapes.”

He found a parcel of land for sale at the top of mountain. The grass-covered hill offered everything he wanted – long, hot days, a gentle slope falling to the southwest, sandy loam soil. Air sweeping up the mountain helps protect tender plants from extreme winter freezes. (Tapteil is still free of the towering fans used by vintners at lower elevations to move cold air away from their vines.) And one more thing: The land had water.

He bought three and a half acres, and planted his first vines in 1985, expanding his acreage along the way. Today, Tapteil Vineyard’s 30 acres on Red Mountain is one of the hottest locations in the state, but the elevation helps mitigate the intense summer days by cooling the air every night, creating a long ripening season.

“There are some self-limiting factors here that stress the vines,” Larry says. Tapteil, like all of Red Mountain, is blanketed with several kinds of soil, including Hezel and Quincy, covering layers of sediment deposited some 50,000 years ago by glacial floods. When ice dams breached, allowing gigantic Lake Missoula to thunder across present-day Washington, torrents of water eddied around Red Mountain, leaving deep deposits of glacial sediment and gravel channels over a basalt floor. Later, winds blew loess and dune sands over the area. More recent events like volcanic eruptions added still more layers of ash and windblown soils.

The loess is generally deep enough to keep roots from reaching the water table, so Larry precisely controls soil moisture with drip irrigation, delivering water directly to the roots. Similarly, he pays close attention to nutrition. High pH in the soil can inhibit the plants’ ability to absorb nutrients. “A lot of years, you can let them self-regulate and stress themselves naturally, but pretty soon, the nutrition deficiency shows up, and they start getting erratic,” he says. He watches the grapes closely, supplementing with nutrients when they show stress.

In the winery, Larry favors a gentle, carefully directed winemaking method. The fruit is destemmed but not crushed, instead going straight to whole-berry fermentation. At near-total dryness, he moves the wines to barrel, where all but the riesling and rosé age for 18–22 months.

Throughout the process, he works toward a consistent vision. “I want them to be full-bodied, extracted wines, but also with a full palate,” he explains. “With whole-berry fermentation, I can use predominantly free-run juice. Everything ferments more uniformly, more softly. And you avoid exposure to the seeds, so it can help with tannin management. If you press, even lightly, you get more astringency, so I just stepped away from that.”

Tapteil fruit is dense and dark, with underlying tastes of cassis in the cabernet sauvignon and dark cherry in the merlot. The more mature vines produce a deeper, dusty sensation, traits that are surfacing in the younger Rhone varietals, as well.

“My favorite wine, I will have to say, is still cabernet, mostly because it provides such a complete palate,” Larry says. “But I’m also very much enamored with Rhone varietals. Grenache is my new darling. It has all that nice mouth feel, the texture, and all that flavor, but it’s on a much lighter spectrum.”

Cabernet is still his touchstone, but Larry is pleased with the new directions his vineyard is taking him. “We used to focus more on the Bordeaux, but now we’re doing more with the Rhone varietals like mourvedre and syrah. We’re at that age in the vineyard where it should predict a pretty good future.”

Larry smiles. “Now we just have to wait on the aglianico.”


Anne Sampson writes about wine and the people who create it, from her home in Richland. She also writes about food, travel, and culture around the Pacific Northwest.

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