Paul and Judy Champoux owned and operated Champoux Vineyard from 1996 to 2014. Their love for grape growing, and each other, started in the 1980s when both worked for Chateau Ste. Michelle. With Paul on the vineyard-management side and Judy in accounting and payroll, they developed the skills needed for their next chapter, owning their own vineyard. In 1996, they purchased a 130-acre section of vines from Mercer Ranch near Prosser and spent the next several years transforming the property into a thriving vineyard. They researched irrigation, soils, and key nutrients, and worked closely with partner wineries to help produce award-winning wines from the oldest vines in the renowned Horse Heaven Hills American Viticultural Area (AVA). "If you ask any serious Washington winemaker where the state’s greatest old-vine cabernet is located, Champoux is the first vineyard they will name" (Gregutt, 88).
Paul Champoux was born in 1949 in Yakima, the youngest of six siblings, and grew up on a hop farm near Toppenish. He picked up the finer points of hops when he was old enough to work on the 100-acre property. Today , his nephews are the third generation to raise hops on that very same ranch.
Champoux attended St. Joseph Grade School and Marquette High School. He played football, basketball, and baseball, and eventually earned a baseball scholarship to Seattle University. But he had a difficult time determining what he wanted to study. After two years, he left school and went to work for his sister and brother-in-law growing potatoes on a farm near the Columbia River. Working in row crops with family satisfied Paul until 1979, when a new opportunity presented itself. A winery called Chateau Ste. Michelle was hiring for a large vineyard project near Paterson, and Paul believed he had the skills from hops and potatoes to take on a new venture.
Chateau Ste. Michelle had planted its first grapes in the area in 1978. It hired Champoux as its vineyard manager in February 1979. He spent five years planting almost 2,200 acres of grapes, which would later be known as Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and Columbia Crest. He was in charge of planting grapes under center-pivot irrigation, which at that time wasn’t the most common method for planting grapes. But it was easier and cheaper to plant to the existing irrigation system, which happened to be center-pivot from previous farming operations, and it created a healthy challenge. "So they just told me what variety to plant where. Then I had to figure out how to get it done," he recalled (Heath interview). He didn’t have to do the job alone, however; he had the help of more than 200 people with the installation and care of the vines. He quickly learned it was "critical to be able to work with people to get the job done" (Heath interview).
Judy was born in 1951 in La Grande, Oregon. She was the oldest of three, and much like Paul, grew up on a small family-owned property. She helped with any and all chores including tending to horses, milking cows, making hay, and even learning to drive the tractor by age 12. She attended grade school and high school in nearby Union, Oregon, before attending Eastern Orgon University in La Grande, where she studied accounting. "I’m kind of a numbers girl,” she said (Heath interview).
She quickly landed an accounting job at a construction company and moved north to Hermiston, Oregon, near the Columbia River. After a few years, she was looking to move on and became intrigued by a farming job across the river in Washington. Chateau Ste. Michelle had been looking for an accountant for the farming side of its growing business in Paterson. Judy was hired in 1980 and was soon asked to take over vineyard payroll, since they had just lost their main payroll person. Once she started doing payroll, she spent a lot of time with the various managers, ensuring that every detail of payroll was correct for all 300-plus employees. She worked especially close with Paul Champoux. "She did my payroll. So we kind of hit it off," he said (Heath interview). They married in September 1982, just before the fall harvest. That same year, Columbia Crest opened its new winery and visitor center in Paterson – the first winery in what would become the Horse Heaven Hills AVA in 2005. Paul continued working for Chateau Ste. Michelle until 1986, and Judy until 1987.
In 1989, Paul was looking for a new job when he stumbled across one working row crops at nearby Mercer Ranch, a 6,600-acre farm producing mainly corn, carrots, potatoes, and some fruits – including a small section of Cabernet Sauvignon planted in 1972. By the 1980s, more Cabernet was added, along with Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, and Lemberger vines.
It wouldn’t take long for Champoux to be involved with the vineyard. Just after hiring him, management asked him to step in and help manage the grapes for a single year while they figured out if they were going to keep the old vines. Paul and Judy thought the vines could be saved, and so they asked for a deal: to lease the vineyard from the Mercers. "Maybe we should lease it and try to see if we can bring it back," Judy recalled (Heath interview). They knew the vines planted in 1972 had potential, even if the critically acclaimed AVA they were a part of, Horse Heaven Hills, wouldn’t be established for decades. The Champouxs started out with a short lease, and immediately knew they had something special. "After the first two years of all the hard work, we weren’t going to let it go then," said Judy (Heath interview). They leased again for two years, and started to see noticeable improvements in the grapes. "First we had to get a feel for it and see what we thought about it. And it was in rough shape and it was a couple years of really hard work but we could see the potential," she said (Heath interview).
After leasing for four years, they had the opportunity to purchase the vineyard outright, and jumped at the chance. In 1996, they joined with a small group of wineries, including Woodward Canyon, Quilceda Creek, Powers, and Andrew Will, and purchased the entire 135-acre vineyard. A few of the partner wineries had already been buying grapes from Mercer and had worked with Paul for a few years, so they were more than happy to become minority owners and wait for Paul to work his magic with the grapes.
Paul and Judy renamed the ranch Champoux Vineyard and set out to grow the best quality grapes they could. They had their work cut out for them, as the vines had been stressed, overgrown, and over-watered for several years. They set out to do the hard work as a team, with Judy often joining Paul in the vineyard or on the tractor. The Champouxs knew they had good soil, weather, and water, and that grape vines are resilient – it would be worth it to bring the vineyard back to life.
After the first few years of ownership, they decided that while the circular irrigation method was adequate, it was difficult and could probably be improved upon. It took quite a bit of planning and logistics on Paul’s part to start and stop center-pivot irrigation systems at just the right times, to ensure the vines were getting the amount they needed. They needed better control over the amounts of water used, and so Paul and Judy decided to switch to micro-sprinklers and drip irrigation to help deal with any and all possible weather conditions.
The late 1990s brought a huge change in irrigation practices for most of Washington’s wine grape growers. Published studies on grape vine irrigation by Dr. Walter Clore and Dr. Bob Wample from the Irrigation Branch Experiment Station (today known as the Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center, part of Washington State University), were making the rounds and intriguing both vineyard managers and winemakers alike. Some vineyards were hesitant to make the switch; they were worried about the upfront cost if the results didn’t pan out. But the Champouxs knew it had to happen if they wanted to keep chasing their dream. The couple undertook the big project of taking down the large circle-irrigation systems and adding both drip irrigation and micro-sprinklers to their entire acreage. The sprinklers were important, allowing Paul to water all of the soil, not just underneath where the root of the vine was. If the soil is more moist, the vine has a "bigger reservoir of moisture" and doesn’t run out of water as quickly, according to Paul (Heath interview). They learned that micro-sprinklers are also helpful during an early frost. "When you’ve got a frost coming, I can turn on my micro-sprinklers and the water’s 65 degrees, so it keeps it warm," Paul said (Heath interview).
The switch lessened the amount of water used. In Horse Heaven Hills, Champoux Vineyard was so close to the Columbia River that water conservation wasn’t necessarily at the top of their list. However, noting the water savings was important for other vineyards and AVAs with more restricted access to water sources.
Champoux also spent time learning how to use organic fertilizers instead of synthetic, and teaching himself about the terroir of the vineyard. He familiarized himself with the science of foliar nutrients and worked on fine-tuning what he might need to enhance in the area’s soil. He expanded his knowledge through people he worked with and by reading various articles and publications. He would create formulas made up of specific nutrients and test them to see how the vines responded. "The big key to our quality and the growth of our vineyard was his nutrient program," said Judy (Heath interview). It was important to Paul to be able to show different flavors or colors from the grapes, based on his process. He would use various nutrients to accentuate the vines and support the growing process. In order to respond to specific changes, he would use tissue analysis to better understand what stages the vine was in and what nutrients it needed. In some cases, it might be more beneficial to the grapes to not add anything at all. "I just learned what vine or what nutrients are critical for the process the vine is in," he said (Heath interview).
Along with his nutrient program, Champoux attended a few seminars and kept up on research to further his knowledge of the soil at Champoux Vineyard. He also educated himself on different varietals, and how they would react to the terroir in the vineyard. Since that time, WSU has greatly expanded its range of classes available to not only grape-growers but anyone interested in growing just about anything in Washington. "We love those scientists," Paul said (Heath interview).
Improving the Grapes
Once the wineries saw the improvements at Champoux Vineyard, they couldn't get enough. They would tell Paul and Judy, "We want more, we want more" (Heath interview). Making changes in irrigation and supplements to the soil gave the grapes better, more intense flavor. It also became easier to determine which elements were affecting the grapes, and therefore the taste of the wine. "Every year they saw the improvement," added Judy (Heath interview). Soon the Champouxs had a growing business on their hands. Other wineries wanted to purchase their grapes as word started to get out about their vineyard.
Thankfully Judy was well-versed in keeping track of the financial side while Paul managed the vineyard. Paul had taken a business management course in college, which didn’t hurt either. As their business grew, they needed to hire more help and soon added two dozen employees to help them during the busiest times, like harvest. Other employees worked year-round, including their foreman Hipolito Vargas, who Paul regards as one of the most important people in the entire process. Vargas began working as the foreman with Paul at Chateau Ste. Michelle Vineyards. In 2023 he was awarded the Grower of the Year award at the WineVit conference, after dedicating 40 years of his life to Champoux Vineyards. At the ceremony, Vargas was "touted by his colleagues for his upbeat attitude and uncompromising quest for quality" (Courtney, "Longtime Horse Heaven Hills Supervisor"). "Our core group of people for 30 years or more, were like family and you can't put a big enough value on the workers, that's for sure," said Judy (Heath interview).
Although keeping track of the business side was essential, Paul and Judy knew that the real bottom line was about the grapes. "It's never been about the money," said Paul, "it was about doing good at what you do and improving what you're doing" (Heath interview). Their winery partners were more than happy to help them achieve their goals. They had no problem sharing any and all commentary regarding the grapes. And the Champouxs welcomed any response because it would only help them further improve the vineyard. "See there’s the best feedback ever is an honest winemaker. The winery is telling you what they think about the grapes or how, once it's crushed, what they're thinking about, the quality of it, how it’s turned out," Judy said (Heath interview). Because each winery was happy with its specific blocks of grapes, there was never any shuffling or switching of who was leasing what. If anything, the biggest problem the Champouxs had was turning away potential clients or letting them know they would be contacted as soon as something opened up – which in some cases could be years or even decades. "If someone had ... which hardly ever happened ... backed out for a year or couldn't take grapes, there was someone right there ready to take them," Judy said (Heath interview).
The Champouxs knew they were fortunate in their business but they didn’t want to push their luck. They rarely expanded the vineyard, even when growth opportunities were presented. They would stop and think about how much work went into the original acreage and they wanted to focus on that. Small acreage was added over the years, including the corners of the former center-pivot fields and a few other parcels here and there. Over the decades that they owned Champoux, their acreage expanded by only 55 total acres. Because of the effort going into the quality of the grapes, much of Champoux Vineyard was picked by hand – almost 90 percent according to Paul – which can often cost extra because of the labor involved. If a winery needed machine-picked grapes for a logistical reason, Paul was happy to accommodate. The wineries were happy to have a relationship where they could choose their method of grape picking and delivery.
Horse Heaven Hills
The Champouxs began to notice the Washington wine boom in the mid-1980s. To them, it was a bit of a slower boom. They already had their buyers and they didn’t really have a need to expand since they wanted to focus on quality. The biggest change to them was watching their neighbors switch fields over from row-cropping to grape vines. Some of these farmers were thinking they would take a chance and get involved by planting a little bit of grapes just to see how they did. They also saw expansion of existing vineyards, and wineries experimenting with new locations. In some cases, grape vines wouldn’t make it more than a few years if just a single factor was different from other areas. Often, temperatures would dip just a little too low or the soil didn’t have the precise conditions needed for grapes. The scary part of the investment is the 2-3 year wait before a harvest and crush can be completed, to be able to taste the results. On the flipside, Paul and Judy would also be impressed when a new vineyard or AVA would really take off in a location that no one had considered before.
When Champoux Vineyard showed promise with its grapevines in the 1990s, growers and wineries started to show interest in the area. By the early 2000s, it was considered a valuable area for growing grapes, due to its warmer climate and many south-facing slopes. Horse Heaven Hills was officially declared an AVA in 2005. "Like many of Washington’s growing regions, the Horse Heaven Hills is located on an anticline of the Yakima fold belt, a series of wrinkles in the earth that create slopes ideal for grape growing," (washingtonwine.org). The Columbia River provides a moderating effect on the surrounding weather, while the high winds help keep the vines tough and free from mold and other problems.
Paul remembers before Chateau Ste. Michelle began planting in 1978, there were just a few acres of grapes in the entire area around Champoux. "The Horse Heaven Hills had its first vinifera plantings in 1972 at what is now Champoux Vineyard, and vineyard designated bottles, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon, from this site are some of Washington’s most coveted and expensive wines," (washingtonwine.org). Today  Horse Heaven Hills contains 17,082 acres of vineyards, with the primary varietals being Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Riesling, and Syrah.
Continuing the Legacy
One of their first partners (and majority owner today), Quilceda Creek, began sourcing grapes from Champoux Vineyard in 1986. After Paul made improvements to the soil and grapes, Quilceda Creek began to see the results. They achieved a perfect 100-point score from Wine Advocate for the first time in 2002. They received more 100-point scores in 2003, 2005, and 2007, using a majority of grapes from Champoux. "I was so happy for Quilceda Creek," said Judy, "It was awesome" (Heath interview).
Other well-known and awarded wineries such as Powers, Woodward Canyon, and Andrew Will have been working with Champoux since the 1990s. During that time, many wineries didn’t mention where their grapes came from, not necessarily on purpose but it just wasn’t the custom. In the late 1990s, it started to become more commonplace to list vineyards or AVAs on the bottle. Paul and Judy began to take notice when their vineyard was mentioned. In Washington, 85 percent of the grapes must be grown in that AVA for it to be listed on the bottle. Additionally, 95 percent of the grapes must be grown in that vineyard for the specific vineyard to be listed. So once Champoux Vineyard began appearing on bottles, Paul and Judy got excited. It meant that their name would be more visible, but more important, it meant that anyone tasting that wine would see that 95 percent of the grapes came from a high-quality vineyard.
Over the years, Paul and Judy have had additional wineries of all sizes discover the delicious grapes they produce. Wineries such as Buty, Januik, Sineann, OS, Soos Creek, Fidélitas, and Mosquito Fleet have purchased grapes from Champoux, knowing the quality they seek is already there. In some cases, wineries would have to wait until grapes from Champoux were available or released by another winery, making the wine all that more exciting. "We dealt with some of the top, most phenomenal winemakers in Washington and Oregon," said Judy. "Once you get going and you're dealing with people year to year and through the seasons, they become part of the family" (Heath interview). The Champouxs said they enjoyed working with clients of all sizes. They have had small wine clubs come from as far as Seattle, Idaho, California, and even Canada to buy some of their fruit, often returning year after year. Members from the wine clubs would sometimes stay for lunch and visit with Paul and Judy, talking about their shared passion for wine. Paul recalls one of these clubs filling lined garbage cans with crushed grapes because they had to transport them back themselves.
Although Paul and Judy never made wine on their own – believing it was a totally different skill set from theirs – they were more than happy to taste it. They truly enjoyed trying and comparing wines from Champoux to see what each winemaker had done with the grapes. After a desire to share these comparisons with the public, they opened a tasting room where wines were featured from each major winery purchasing from Champoux. "This is what always fascinated us," Judy said, "from the same grapes you can have four or five different winemakers have a different approach" (Heath interview).
In 2003, Paul and Judy built a house at Champoux, near the center of the property. One of the first additions was a wine cellar to assist in bottle aging their phenomenal wine collection. Around the same time, they planted a five-acre plot of grapes of their choosing, known as Lady Hawk. Much of the grapes go to Maryhill Winery, just down the road, and Andrew Januik, who makes a Lady Hawk wine. Sineann, in Oregon, also purchases grapes from Lady Hawk Vineyard; they have partnered with Champoux Vineyard since the beginning in 1989.
After Champoux began making a name for itself, Paul had enough time to join some local organizations and share his knowledge. He joined the board of directors at the Wine Growers Association from 2001 to 2009. Additionally he was part of the Washington Wine Industry Foundation beginning in 2001 and continues to work with them today. He was the chairman of the Horse Heaven Hills Wine Growers from their inaugural year in 2007 to 2021. He is especially proud of being part of an organization that promotes both the Horse Heaven Hills AVA and also offers two scholarships each year to further wine and vineyard knowledge among students. Paul was awarded Grower of the Year by the Auction of Washington Wines in 2006, and received a similar award from Washington Winegrowers in 2009.
In July 2009, Paul was bitten by a mosquito, quickly fell ill, and became paralyzed within two weeks. After an airlift to Portland’s Oregon Health and Science University, the diagnosis was West Nile Virus. He was transferred to a medical center in Richland but was hospitalized until September of that year. By their 27th wedding anniversary Paul was able to come home and Judy was right there by his side. She had set up a hospital bed and ensured that he would be able to communicate with the vineyards however possible. Paul couldn’t lift a telephone, so Judy held the receiver next to him so he could talk with his employees and winemakers.
Together, Paul and Judy never missed a harvest. Paul was able to graduate to a wheelchair and began visiting his vineyards again on a four wheeler. He found that he was able to keep a better eye on the vines than when he would travel by pickup truck.
In 2014, Paul and Judy decided it was time to retire from working the vineyards. They had new goals of taking vacations, visiting grandchildren, and tasting wine from new and different locations. They sold their shares of Champoux Vineyard, though the name will stay. They continue to live in their home on the property and manage their five acres of grapes planted alongside their house. Today , Quilceda Creek is the majority owner of the 190-acre vineyard, containing eight varietals of red grapes. The last of the white varietals had to be pulled due to disease and low popularity, which is part of the process according to Paul Golitzin of Quilceda Creek. Most vines are doing their best work between 15 and 50 years of age, so it's not uncommon to have to pull some out that were planted in 1972.
Before retiring, Paul Champoux began to further his personal interests into a grape varietal with the same name as his high school: Marquette. A hardy, winter grape that ripens early, it is mainly grown in colder regions such as Minnesota. Paul’s interest in the Marquette varietal continued into retirement. He and Judy enjoy tasting Marquette wines from across the country and have even had their own Marquette wine made for fun.
Judy has kept articles, awards, and other mementos from their years in the vineyard industry. She meticulously documented their slow rise to fame and all of her and Paul’s hard work at Champoux. Judy recalls her favorite parts of working at Champoux. "I like shoot thinning and cluster thinning, personally. And sometimes running along on the four wheeler looking for bugs or just checking things out for mildew, seeing if anything was leaking, alerting the guys to any broken pipes or leaks or, I mean, just being out there and actually checking things out. That's fun. That's always been fun," she said (Heath interview).
In 2018, Paul was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Washington Winegrowers. "They surprised me with that," he said, "I go, 'Well, I'm not done yet!'" (Heath interview). As of 2024, he still enjoys going out and observing the vineyard, to see how the vines are reacting to what mother nature is throwing at them. "I still get on the four wheeler and go look at the vines, go look at the fruit. I'll go look and see are they growing or whatever stage they're in. It's about the vines, being out in it – I enjoy it immensely" (Heath interview).
More: Ariana Heath's interview with Paul and Judy Champoux