After meeting at Chateau Ste. Michelle in the early 1980s, Paul (b. 1949) and Judy (b. 1951) Champoux got married and embarked on the vineyard journey of a lifetime. They began by leasing the historic Mercer Ranch vineyard in the Columbia Valley and later purchased it outright with financial help from a few already-invested wineries. After changing the name to Champoux Vineyards, they worked to improve the soil, irrigation systems, and overall quality of the grapes. With input from their winery partners, they were able to produce some of the highest quality grapes in Washington. Wine Spectator has awarded several 100-point scores to wines that came almost exclusively from Champoux Vineyard fruit. Champoux Vineyard is located in the Horse Heaven Hills American Viticultural Area (AVA), which was certified in 2005, several years after many wineries had discovered its potential.
Working the Soil
From early childhood, Paul Champoux was comfortable working on farms and knew some of the hardware behind grape growing.
Paul Champoux: Yeah, I grew up on a hop farm and so I learned how to work in the vineyard, the hop vineyard, which is anchors and wires and posts. So that was the easy move over to wine grapes and trellis, wires, anchors. So that's how I kind of ... it was easy to get into it, because of my experience there. I grew up in the hop farm, it was a family hop ranch. We had about a hundred acres. And so I grew up learning how to work with dirt.
Champoux attended Seattle University on a baseball scholarship, and then went back to farming from 1972 to 1979. Meanwhile, Chateau Ste. Michelle planed vineyards in 1978 for a new winery in Paterson. Champoux hired on in February 1979. After switching from row crops to grape vines, he began to learn more about the wine industry. The new winery was called Columbia Crest.
PC: And there was, back in those days, we put ... grapes under center-pivot irrigation, which had never been done before. So that was a chore that we had to figure out what to do. Like I said, in the hop industry, I knew about trellis, wires, anchors, and that's what we were doing, putting in grapes. Under center-pivot irrigation, which was cheap because it was already there. So we planted grapes on our center pivot and had to figure out how to do that. So they just told me what variety to plant where. Then I had to figure out how to get it done. So I did that for seven years and then I moved on from there.
While working for Chateau Ste. Michelle, Paul met his future wife, Judy.
Judy Champoux: I was hired to do accounting on the farm side of Columbia Crest at Paterson. They have a farm side and a vineyard side. So I was doing accounting for the farm side, and ... they asked me to do the payroll because they had let go of their payroll clerk and they were in hurting for someone to do the payroll and it was 300 to 350 employees. And so I told him I'd do it for a while and that's how we met because I had to deal with him because details, I need details for payroll. So that's how we met.
Judy had grown up just across the river in Oregon and shared a similar upbringing to Paul’s. She was raised on a 10-acre farm. After attending college, she worked as an accountant until hearing about a job at Chateau Ste. Michelle. She and Paul married in 1982, and in 1989, Paul took a job at nearby Mercer Ranch, working row crops once again. However, it didn't take long before he became involved in the vineyard side of Mercer, as they were having some financial trouble keeping their vineyard going.
PC: Actually, I was looking for a job at the time, and when I came back to Mercer's, I came back to help them in their potato industry. That's what they grew. I knew about their grapes here, but I didn't really ... And then the industry was tough at that time, the mid-eighties. So that's why Mercer didn't want to deal with this 130 acres. So that's when I was working for them. And so I had all the experience with Ste. Michelle. So I took over managing it for them for a year.
JC: Because I've been, always been fascinated with grapes, with the vineyards, and of course, he spent all that time at Ste. Michelle. And so when we realized that they were going to rip this vineyard out and put it back into row crops, it was like, maybe we should give it a try. Maybe we should lease it and try to see if we can bring it back.
Their Own Vineyard
After leasing the property for four years, the Champouxs jumped at the chance to purchase the entire vineyard from Mercer. They partnered with a few wineries that had already been buying grapes from the vineyard to ensure full ownership. They renamed it Champoux Vineyard.
JC: 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. The potential was there, the grapes kept getting better, the flavors kept getting better, he was learning more and more. He was taking classes, building his skills. So when we realized that we could make it into a top producing vineyard, our thing was quality, not quantity.
PC: And I bought it with some winery partners, wineries that I had been dealing with for four or five years and have known them. Quilceda Creek, Woodward Canyon, Andrew Will Winery, Powers, they're solid in their business. So I went into business with them, with me being the majority owner, but them being involved in it so they get some of the improvement of these grapes. When I first got here, the vineyard was a little bit rundown, it hadn't been taken care of too much. So it took a couple years to get it back into shape and start making the fine wine ... with working with some of these fine winemakers with experience and were good at what they did.
The couple worked hard to improve the grape vines through trial and error and lots of research. Paul spent lots of time reading about foliar nutrients and other methods involving natural compost instead of synthetic fertilizers.
JC: The big key to our quality and the growth of our vineyard was his nutrient program. When he got into the nutrients, the foliar feed nutrients ... huge change. We noticed a huge change in the plants and then the quality of the grapes, and he fine-tuned that. And that's what really set our grapes apart was the nutrients.
PC: And accentuate the vine to do what it's supposed to do. Accentuate the flavors, the color. And I just learned what vine or what nutrients are critical for the process that the vine is in. Whether they're reproducing a blooming set or they start to grow or they start to ripen, each one of those different seasons of the vine, there's critical nutrients. It doesn't mean you have to put them on, but you need to know where they are. So that's why I took tissue analysis to help me decide what they were, so I could put on some nutrients to feed that process.
They also realized that they would need to change the irrigation system that had been put in by Mercer. At the time center-pivot irrigation was widely used for crops, including grapes, but it wasn’t the most efficient when watering grapevines. Paul had been making it work so far, but he and Judy knew there had to be an easier way. They removed the center-pivot system and installed both drip irrigation for the soils and micro-sprinklers for the vines. Once the quality of the vineyard was on a clear path to improvement, their winery partners were determined to stick around and help out in any way possible.
JC: 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. And over time, we all learned that three tons to the acre is going to be a much more intense grape than six tons to the acre or eight tons to the acre. The lower the tonnage, the higher the quality of the grape.
The Champouxs were in agreement that they wanted to continue to improve the vines as long as possible. Even when they had opportunities to expand the vineyard, they turned them down so they could focus on the quality of the original vines.
PC: One thing that pops in my mind is, the business at that time wasn't about making money. It was about making the best grapes and best wine that you could. It wasn't, "I'm doing this because I'm going to make it, a hundred thousand dollars." It was, "I want to again prove what I'm doing here." So that was part of it too so it wasn't ... Which is good. That helps an industry grow.
A key factor in the growth of Champoux Vineyard was the quality relationships they kept along the way. Paul and Judy put special emphasis on their vineyard workers and partners who purchased the grapes, and everyone in between. One of their oldest winery partners, Quilceda Creek, received its first 100-point score from Wine Advocate in 2002. Paul and Judy were thrilled to see their vineyard being represented by such high-quality wine. Once word about Champoux began to spread, they had no trouble keeping up their contracts. In fact, they had to start a waiting list for wineries that wanted to purchase their grapes.
In 2009, Paul was bitten by a mosquito and developed West Nile Virus. After spending several months in the hospital, he was able to return home but was almost completely paralyzed and needed a wheelchair to get around. During his recovery, the Champouxs grew even closer, learning to navigate their business with new challenges. By 2014, they made the decision to retire from working at Champoux Vineyard.
PC: And so I ran the vineyard for five years from a wheelchair. So it felt good. It was hard decision to do that because we love doing what we do, but it felt good. It feels good to retire and not have ... we still got responsibility, but not as much as we did have, you know? And I miss a lot, dealing with the wineries that I was dealing with, just dealing with fruit, talking vines and wine. That's missed, of course. But a good part of the retirement is, my wife and I get to retire and do things together more often.
After retiring, Paul and Judy sold their majority shares of the vineyard to Quilceda Creek, which continues the Champoux name and legacy today. Paul was awarded Grower of the Year twice, in 2006 and 2009, by Washington Wines and Washington Winegrowers, respectively. In 2018, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Washington Winegrowers.
PC: It was 130 acres when we bought it. Now it's about 185 acres, 189 acres now. We've had corners and edges and changed varieties. And so it's been a lifelong enjoyment of doing what we're doing, you know, of growing grapes, and paying attention to what it takes to make that vine, do what it's supposed to do, and grow the grapes with the best flavors that it can. So anyway, I mean we've really enjoyed it. Judy, when we first bought this place, Judy, she was on a tractor out working and helping with whatever. She's the accountant and the financial wizard of what we have here.
Today , Paul and Judy still live at Champoux Vineyard with a five-acre vineyard to call their own. Because they live in the center of Champoux Vineyard, they haven’t completely retired. They stay connected to the industry through lifelong friends and partners, and enjoy continuing to learn about grapevines. Paul enjoys looking back at how far the industry knowledge has come since he first began.
PC: Major learning from WSU, who has been phenomenal helping develop this, the industry till now. They have taught us so much by what they have learned. And then all the seminars that you go to, you just learn about your specific site and how to deal with that specific site. Compared to my soils here and the Yakima Valley soil is completely different, water, completely different. So they've taught ... the industry in the learning process, you've learned how to deal with your site specific and then how to be site specific to that particular variety.
When asked about their favorite parts of owning and operating a vineyard, they agreed that it's as simple as being hands-on. After Paul became paralyzed, he learned to use a four wheeler to get around the vineyard instead of a pickup truck, which brought him even closer to the vines.
JC: When I was out in the field, I liked 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.
PC: And me now, that's what I do now is get on the four wheeler. 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, but I enjoy it immensely.
More: Ariana Heath's biography of Paul and Judy Champoux